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Delightfully local in Paris

August 9, 2009 - The Boston Globe - Travel

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On a no-frills budget? Drop the tourist routine and savor the City of Light’s simpler luxuries

Je suis le dauphin de la place Dauphine
Et la place Blanche a mauvais’ mine
Les camions sont pleins de lait
Les balayeurs sont pleins d’balais
Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille

I am the dauphin of Place Dauphine
And Place Blanche looks a little rough
The trucks are full of milk
The sweepers are full of brushes
It’s five a.m. — Paris is waking

PARIS—Jacques Dutronc’s classic and controversial 1967 song “Il est cinq heures Paris s’éveille’’ is a set of snapshots of Paris between night and day - everything from the Eiffel Tower’s chilly feet to bakers making loaves called “bâtards’’ - a thousand quirky details that define the singer’s city.

Tighter times are a perfect moment to shift away from the glamour and well-worn paths and more toward the individual events that define the City of Light for its inhabitants.

I seek advice from Geneviève Brame, a friend I met years ago at a signing for her book “Chez Vous en France,’’ a guide for people looking to set up camp here for the long haul.

Forgetting I’m in France, I expect practicality, but instead get sociology and philosophy.

“There’s a shift happening. People are moving from conspicuous consumption to simply taking advantage of the city,’’ Brame says. “Paris is good for luxury and simplicity. You can sit on a beautiful terrace with a bottle of champagne or sit on the canal with some good bread and good cheese.’’

Parisians are heading toward what she calls “slow food’’ tourism. “The idea isn’t to go from one museum to another but to take a slow walk and enjoy it as a living city.’’

How, for example, would a tourist figure this out? “By going to the town hall,’’ she says.

Brame recommends stopping by the “mairie,’’ or town hall, of each arrondissement to see what’s happening - the front desk tends to be littered with fliers for local happenings. There are concerts, poetry readings, guided tours - and most are free.

I press her for a specific favorite and she shrugs. “Paris has its special rhythm - it takes its time. I love waking up early and having breakfast on the Seine.’’

Like a picnic?

“Oh, non! You must have your café on a terrace and you must be where the sun will be.’’

That said, the idea of Paris on the cheap seems inherently depressing - like missing out on the best stuff. Being frugal is doable but it requires preparation, an open mind, and a willingness to trade the bling for a different kind of authenticity.

“You have to detach yourself from the glitzy image of Paris and move away from tourist attractions where you’re a captive audience,’’ says guidebook writer Anna Brooke, who has penned everything from “MTV France’’ to the upcoming “Paris Free & Dirt Cheap’’ for Frommer’s.

“As far as capital cities go, Paris is very livable - it’s not just about business,’’ says Brooke, “and even in the center you can find neighborhoods that cater to the locals.’’

Brooke rifles through her bag and - mark of a good guidebook writer - pulls out a handful of restaurant business cards she has discovered on her wanderings. She finds one for the appropriately-named Le Bistrot in the ninth arrondissement. “It looks like nothing at all, but you can get wines for 2.50 euros [$3.50] per glass and lunch for nine euros [$13],’’ she says. “You’ve got no frills but local flavor.’’

This reminds me of one of my favorite lunch spots, Le Temps des Cerises, where, for $19, Yves and Michelle serve an ever-improving lunch menu in a picturesque bistro a stone’s throw from the Marais and the Bastille - and I would never have found it without walking past it. Want a perfect little dose of Paris? Go here.

Put simply, eating French - even in France - isn’t cheap. Dinner entrees at places I would recommend rarely dip below $14-$17. Lower than that and the bottom drops out almost every time. Factor this into your budget and the rewards can be great.

For fancier fare on a budget, moving up often means moving out of the center. The restaurants Parisians are talking about and going to in droves are the ones where they can eat well without - as they might say - costing the skin from their rear ends.

The gastro bistro trend of young, talented, and often classically-trained chefs who have set up in the city’s outer arrondissements and offer stellar meals at value-conscious prices shows no signs of abating. A prix-fixe dinner at somewhere north of $45 plus wine is a good chunk of change but also an incredible value for what you get.

Some favorites? Belleville’s L’Escargot serves my favorite duck confît in town - crunchy on the outside, melting inside, and served with a tower of truffle oil-infused mashed potatoes and a salad with a zingy vinaigrette to cut through it all. Farther east, in the gastronomic heaven known as the 11th arrondissement, try Au Vieux Chêne where chef Stéphane Chevassus consistently blows me away, particularly with vegetables like butter-braised cabbage and pumpkin velouté.

One new dining trend is that some favorites are moving into the city center, following the lead of gastro-bistro godfather Yves Camdeborde, whose $71 prix fixe at Le Comptoir should be on everyone’s list (think deep stews crowned with wonderfully un-mushy veggies and an organic pink sparkling Bugey Cerdon wine that will remove doubts that this sort of thing can be done well). Most notably Sylvain Sendra has moved from Le Temps au Temps on the rue Paul Bert in the 11th (where he wowed me with barely-marinated mackerel) to Itinéraires in the 5th, and American Daniel Rose is in the process of moving Spring (lamb three ways, pears belle Helene) from the 9th to a spot near the Louvre.

These places are literally (and often obscurely) all over the map - seek them out before you come and, most importantly, reserve way ahead.

The other major dining trend? Picnics. Dismissed with an ultra-Parisian pff! up until a few years ago, dining in the city’s parks and on the banks of its canals and river is now in. Find a market, grab some cheese, charcuterie, bread, and wine and you’re in business.

Picnics are also a perfect excuse to go to the market and get something more than a fruit cup, but knowing which stands are the best values isn’t easy.

“Capital cities cost a fortune and your eye naturally falls on the prettiest and most expensive things first,’’ says Sandy McKeen, who runs La Bergerie du Mesnil farm in Normandy and sells his products at Parisian market stands three days a week. “It’s not easy to find the bargains.’’

There are, however, ways to shop smart. “Come early in the morning and compare prices,’’ he says. “If you come later when the market is crowded, you’ll be here forever.’’

Also bear in mind that despite the utility of going to a supermarket, it’s not necessarily cheaper. It’s common to find plastic bags of supermarket industrial cheese at the same price as their artisan equivalent at the cheesemonger.

Eventually, you’ll need to sleep and again, getting out of the center helps get you into the best rooms for the buck. Design fans will flip for the Philippe Starck-designed Mama Shelter, a modern oasis that proudly sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the residential 20th arrondissement. Specials start at $122 a night and the city’s bar/restaurant of the moment is on the ground floor. There’s also Hotel Amour just off the beautiful Rue des Martyrs in the ninth, with its artist-designed rooms, playfully erotic motifs, and prices that - starting at around $142 along with ever-changing special offers - can be as soft as the pillows.

If you’re looking for something more classic and central, try the Aviatic on the Rue Vaugirard, which not only has prices starting at $170 for a double, but also throws in amenities like a free “apéro,’’ or aperitif, a few days a week.

Regardless, don’t be afraid to bargain. “If there’s not a discount on the particular date you’re looking for, you should ask for one,’’ says Brooke, who worked in hotel PR in a former life. “It’s always worth asking if they can do better.’’

It’s also worth looking into renting or exchanging an apartment, particularly for longer stays. Some apartments rent by the night - you can swing a studio for under a hundred bucks, less if you stay longer - and get as big and fancy as you want. Sites like, craigslist,, and can involve a leap of faith (make sure you check the scam warnings, vet the listing, and, if possible, talk to the owner), but the rewards can be great - particularly the economy and relaxation of having your own kitchen and dining room.

Following Brame’s advice, I wake early the morning after I meet her, find a cafe seat in the sun, and watch the city come to life around me. It’s been years since I’ve slowed down to watch, and as the city wakes, I see it with new eyes. There’s the relaxed talk of people still oblivious to the city’s rush; the perfect, flaky croissant; and the city at my feet.

This is the city I love.

If You Go

Where to stay
Mama Shelter

Hotel Amour

105 rue de Vaugirard

Where to picnic
The quays and bridges of Paris offer unbelievable city views. The Champs de Mars offers a front-row seat to the Eiffel Tower. The canals give a glimpse of residential life.

Where to find Sandy McKeen
Marché Président Wilson
Metro: Alma-Marceau, Iéna
Wednesday and Saturday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where to eat
Le Temps des Cerises
Lunch only. Entrees $14-$21 and a prix-fixe at $19.

Dinner only. Main dishes from $17-$28.

Au Vieux Chêne
Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Lunch prix-fixe for $19; entrees (lunch and dinner) $28-$34.

Prix fixe only, lunch $37-$51, dinner $51.

Le Comptoir du Relais
Reserve way ahead or show up early and eat on the heated terrace. Lunch and dinner $14-$43. In September, the $71 knock-your-socks-off prix-fixe menu resumes.

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