Dining Alone in Paris
“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.” -Epicurus
The day is over, the evening begins, and you find yourself alone and without plans. The need for sustenance lurks just beyond the horizon. What to do? Go home, to your hotel room, and order room service. Or discretely smuggle in some clandestine takeaway. Eat it in front of your laptop or the television, maybe curled up on the bed with a book. Go to a bar that serves snacks and, amid the television and noisy crowd, feel as much a part of the group as anybody else. Pull out your tablet and on the internet navigate to one of the growing number of sites that can connect you with other people for dining companionship.
In New York, the temptation of takeaway is sometimes embarrassingly hard to resist. In much of Spain, find a good bar or two with tapas, and your evening plans are made. In Italy, wander the streets until you find a lively looking place, and basta! you are no longer dining alone.
But in Paris, it is a bit more complicated.
Many of the room service options are either unappealing or surprisingly nonexistant. Or breathtakingly expensive if not being reimbursed by a generous client. For takeaway, apart from sidewalk crêpes and "Turkish" Doner kebab (both to be avoided when possible) there are not a lot of other choices. The once ubiquitous traiteur is become harder to find (pushed out by competition from fast food) and even Hediard has recently turned the savory counter over to all-desserts. If you don't speak French, the web-generated meet-up might be more than you feel up to after a long day. Parisians, in the right circumstances, can be very friendly despite our reputation. Still, we value our privacy. If you go to a formal restaurant and dine alone, you will most likely be exactly that; alone. In most places, dining is much quieter than in London or New York, so you need to be comfortable with that.
(A long list of specific restaurants we recommend for each category the strategies discussed here outline will be posted soon obviously we recommend these places even if you are NOT dining alone).
Strategies for having a successful solo dining experience
Sometimes, dining while letting your mind wander is ideal. No reading, or conversation. But how to remain relaxed and engaged, without being bored or lonely? Let the restaurant itself entertain you. Restaurants with open kitchens and counter-seating with a view seem tailor-made for the solo diner. And if that doesn't appeal to you, there's been a lot more good Japanese or Japanese-French fusion Izakaya (Tapas-like) style places opening recently. (Of the Sushi-conveyer type place there are none that can be suggested with anything more than a lukewarm recommendation).
An open kitchen. This one at Bocuse's EST in Lyon
The city of lights has been famous for the easiest answer to the solo dining conundrum for a very, very long time. Can Can, anyone? And the Moulin Rouge is by no means your only choice There are still quite a number of entertainment curiosities that serve dinner and can amuse the solitary guest. From almost family-friendly to better-not-use-a-corporate-card racier options, particularly NSFW if your company looks through the itemized billing on your card.
Other than that, it comes down to: Either damn Epicurus and embrace dining alone, or find an option that makes you feel less so. There are some good possibilities for both.
If you don't want to feel alone in the vast wastes of a formal dining room
Lose yourself in the bustle of one of the large classic brasseries of Paris. In the anonymity of the crowd you are neither alone nor dining with anyone else. These places, some famous for a century or more, started out as breweries (what brasserie means) that served food to go along with their beer. They catered primarily to people coming alone. They still do. You will not be a conspicuous, self-conscious solo diner in one. Sadly, they have mostly been bought by large food industry giants and the quality isn't what it was a generation ago. But a few are still ok.
Why not try a place where you are likely to meet other people in the same situation? Go to a bar where you can eat. There used to be just a few in town, die-hard expat bars, but now in the cocktail scene these places are multiplying. Probably additionally fueled by the French take on the Italian Aperativo trend, the Cocktail/Apéritif Dinatoire. Search for this latter term on your favorite yelp-like site to find last minute happenings.
A bar, not in Paris. I just like the picture of the bar in Campeche better.
In Vino Veritas: Like the cocktail and expat bar, the wine bar is a great option for eating solo. There is often conversation around the bar, often with other anglophones. When bored, have a nice conversation with your wine about its terroir, provenance and the weather last year in the vineyard. I do. But then I am probably certifiable.
Photo: Appearance wine bar.
There is no need to eat alone at all, if you want company. In Germany approaching a table in a big crowded restaurant and asking if you can share the table is not unusual. Pretty uncommon in France. But we have a surprising number of table d'hôtes; tables in a restaurant that are not reserved and shared communally by the guests.
Or go underground. The Hidden Kitchen may have gone public by opening Verjus, but there are still unofficial restaurants out there. People running a place from their home kitchens. Small groups, usually mixed nationalities and you are usually immediately part of a dinner party. Check out the website https://www.eatwith.com
Very small neighborhood cafe-restaurants often have a regular clientele that live alone and take many of their meals there. (Sort of serving the same function as a diner in the states. If you sit yourself with regulars in a diner and chat with them and the waitress you feel at home instantly). These places were once jewels in the French culinary crown. Small family-run. The owner would go out to Rungis (the paris professional food market) before dawn to get the best and cheapest, freshest ingredients for the day. The wines would include affordable bottles of older vintages that the family bought from their friends the vintner every year on their summer holiday. No more. Industrial food distribution. Canned and a frozen ingredients. Tax changes in the 90's on wine. The venerable Café Parisien has suffered. Some are still ok, some have been reinvented. A few still have that neighborhood feel and serve great-value, solid, real, if often stodgy fare.
Casual places that serve French comfort-food or regional specialties tend to be much more relaxed than your average French hostelry. And often livelier. These kind of places bring out the friendly inner-child in some Parisians and acquaintances are often struck up during dinner. Take your time over the meal, make sure you have at least a starter and a main, and with a few glasses of wine, you will find yourself fitting in.
The foods of Auvergne and the Southwest were the staple of the dine-alone single working man's diet of Postwar Paris. It was good solid peasant fare that stayed with you (like Sausage and Aligot, the blend of cheese, garlic and potatoes which becomes a deep-craving food when winter sets in). A majority of cafés were at one time owned by people from the southwest. (One used to refer to the Auvergne Mafia meaning that subtly bonded group of the police and their small restaurant owner confreres. Though people don't behave like Phillipe Noiret in Les Ripoux anymore It will tell you more about the normal Parisian eating options than Babette's Feast). Now Southwestern fare is generally more a regional speciality food.
No mention of French comfort food can be made without saying something about meat. Meat has a very special place in our hearts here. Big pieces of beef. Not ever bien-cuit (well done), seldom à point (medium), usually saignant (rare). Or--with a surprisingly look of pure savage carnivorousness and delight on the face of your slight 5 foot tall blond dinner companion as she says--"Bleu!"(well, Blue. just introduce the meat to the fire but don't let them get intimate). It is funny, we call the English Les Rosbifs (roastbeefs) for historical reasons. But we are much more obsessed with a, well, "bonne viande" than anybody but Argentinian gauchos. There are not many steakhouses in the Anglo-American sense, but places that specialize in meat may cause our native residents to let their hair down more than anyplace else. There are meat restaurants where people have been known to extemporaneously sing Georges Brassens songs together with total strangers.
(Another aside on meat. You might not like it. Americans tend to value tenderness above all in meat. American beef is often aged differently and longer than French beef, which produces big differences in flavor. The French tend to value certain flavors over tenderness and like beef to have a certain heft. Eating it rare means it still isn't too tough. Try French meat rarer than you like your steaks in the States and you might like it better).
Try a real Crêperie Bretonne for eating savory buckwheat galettes from Brittany, slathered in salted butter, washed down with earthenware jars of hard cider, at an unfinished wooden table. Toast the owners and your neighbors with "Yermat!" (Cheers, Santé, Slainte in Breton). If you can find the appetite, follow your "Complète" (ham, cheese, and egg) with a sweet crêpe stuffed with real salted-butter caramel. "Usually one of the cheapest ways to have a sit-down meal in town as well. There are lots of these places, particularly concentrated down by Montparnasse where the trains from Brittany arrive. Some are very good, some not so. Everyone has their favorite. I like the ones with cheesy Breton names and decors.
Fondue Savoyarde may be the ultimate winter dish. Scooping out mouthfuls on bread from a big bubbling bowl of molten cheese and wine. The flame under the pot keeps you warm. Washing it down with a bottle of Chignin Bergeron. Some restaurants will only serve this dish for two people, some will sit you at a communal table. If there's a minimum, have the Raclette instead. A kind of piece-by-piece queso fondido. Or just order a Fondue for two and don't finish it. It will still be a reasonably priced meal. The quality of these places his up and down like with the crêpes. Most are just ok. You can look on Yelp to find one near you. When a perfectly balanced Fondue is made with the right wine, and a balance of, say, Cantal, Beaufort and Gruyere it is truly memorable. Fondue is probably second only to meat in producing a convivial atmosphere.
Pizza is a subject, like religion or politics, that must be approached with caution. To say you like many kinds of Pizza will generally shock a New Yorker or a Neapolitan. And both are equally sure the other is seriously misguided on the subject. But Pizza is a good option for dining alone here, so, as the saying goes, "I look forward to your letters".
Most pies in Paris will be unappealing to the various American, Canadian and Italian palates. Each country or region bends the recipe towards their own ingredients and tastes. Some become unique culinary artifacts. The Perfect Slice on Mulberry in Little Italy or in Brooklyn. The Crunchy smoky pies from coal-fired ovens on Long Island. An intoxicating surfeit of thick satiating crust and cheese at Giordano's in Chicago. The instant Proustian recollection at each whiff of a thin crust in Spaccanapoli. Unforgettable raised Foccacia-like wedges topped wit cheese and sausage in Milano. The yeasty comforting pizza bianca served at dawn by the docks in La Spezia. The rolled, stuffed pierogi-pizza of Dubrovnik. In Paris, alas, the local adaptation just doesn't do it for me. As a teenager eating in Normandy, I liked the fluffy pastry dough with melted French Emmenthal cheese they served in the local pizzerias. But Pizza? In Paris it isn't as bad as that. But much of the Pizza has crust neither crisp nor yeasty, very little tomato and a lot of industrial French cheese. And they seem to have this twisted compulsion to put an egg on top. But Pizza is a dish some of us crave when alone. A big plate of a pizza is a great companion to a book at the dinner table.
Check out the separate upcoming post listing restaurants we recommend by category.