Is American Food Better Than French?

(Dispatch from San Francisco)

I simply can’t recall the last time in Paris that I was ate French fries that were actually made with real, freshly-cut potatoes. And served crisp, cooked like someone cared about how they tasted. Nor can I think of anytime in the recent past when I’ve been served fresh, seasonal tomatoes in a salad.

Last week I ate at Nopa, a shockingly-good restaurant located in an off-center location in San Francisco with wonderful cooking by a youthful, vibrant staff. From the opening plate of very crispy French Fries served with Maldon salt, to a thick, crusty, moist pork chop cut from locally-raised pork served with pan-fried peas whose brilliant-green flesh and taste assured me they were shucked no later than that afternoon. The food revolution that’s taken place in the past few decades in America has meant a number of excellent restaurants have opened everywhere, not just in San Francisco, and it’s pretty amazing the quality of products that are available in America nowadays.

Peaches
The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

So it gave me pause to wonder why this kind of food is rarely, if ever, found in restaurants and most markets in Paris anymore. (Save for pricey, starred establishments.)

In lieu of promoting freshness and cuisine du terrior, the current trend in Paris is le verrine: a little glass layered with a dice and/or puree of various foods. While the concept is fun, like ‘foams’, we’ve seen it and done it. And while it’s a cool idea, that’s the only innovation I’ve seen in the past few years in Paris. Still, I’d prefer to have food that simply tastes good; vegetables sourced from a local farm and sautéed briefly with a knob of good Breton butter or a really good, tangy lemon tart, made with freshly-squeezed lemon juice, perhaps from Corsican lemons, in a homemade buttery crust. Made with Breton butter, bien sûr.

Perhaps I’m thinking along these lines since I just finished reading The United States of Arugula by David Kamp. In spite of the silly title, this excellent book unwittingly tells the story of how America beat the French at their own game; namely cooking. While the French were resting on their well-earned laurels, garnered from mastering cooking techniques and developing various repertoires during the last few centuries, the Americans embraced the concept of cuisine du marché and took it to the next level by giving the ingredients more prominence than the techniques used to prepare them. Both ideas have their merits, I suppose, but I don’t need to tell you which I prefer.

Pluots
Pluots—A Plum Crossed with An Apricot

While this is not a sweeping indictment of all restaurants in either country (there’s always the good, the bad, and I’ve certainly been served the ugly), it seems like the French now have some catching up to do.


Some notables in the culinary field in France, including Hervé This, blame the 35 hour work week for depleting the labor source and diminishing the ability of restaurant cooks to produce good food. Or perhaps it’s the general malaise that’s swept the country, which led to the controversial election of a new President (who reportedly doesn’t like wine!), who made it a point to say that France needs to make some fundamental changes to survive. Or maybe it’s just a general resistance to change in France, a commentary on the lofty pride with which anything not French is inferior. (Will someone please admit the coffee in France is terrible? If so, I’ll admit the same about the croissants in America.)

A significant step that’s led to the demise of French cooking perhaps is industrialization, which made things like soggy canned corn a staple in everything from the salade Niçoise to le pizza. Like America and everywhere else in the world, the last part of the previous century have seen the tremendous growth of agri-business. Many of the fruits and vegetables available are grown in far away places and shipped to us wherever we live. But I went into a Safeway supermarket in San Francisco and along with the usual shelves of canned corn and other vegetables, there were fresh, organic local apricots and vibrant, colorful heirloom tomatoes, and several varieties of fresh yellow and white corn alongside big, bountiful bunches of fresh basil.

Contrast that with the equivalent supermarket in Paris, where most folks shop, and you’ll find rows and rows of flavorless, pallid tomatoes, overgrown cucumbers from Morocco, and dubious-looking heads of wilting lettuce. Both cities has a similar level of appreciation, sophistication and income level, and are equidistant to neighboring agricultural communities. So why the disparity?

peachesnectarines.jpg
Rows and Rows of Organic Peaches & Nectarines in San Francisco

In Paris, I prefer to shop at the outdoor markets, where the fare is much better than at the supermarkets (even though the majority of items at both come from Rungis, the large wholesale market outside of the city.) But although my local market is one of the largest and busiest in Paris with probably thirty vendors, only on Sunday is there one stand run by an actual producteur, who grows his own vegetables. Just one. In the entire market. Curious for a country which has a grand and celebrated tradition of living and eating close to the earth.

While American food and dining has often gotten a bum rap (recall the uninformed Belgian women I encountered who snickered and knew nothing of American artisianal chocolates), I can only name two or three small-scale chocolate producers in France (which are available at exactly one shop in Paris) or an outdoor market that matches the quality and selection of the sometimes-maligned Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco, which my Parisian partner is still talking about three years after his first visit.

French food has always been rooted in the terroir, or regionality of the food, which was the center of its cuisine for centuries. The food of Province, for example, is famous for lots of garlic and lusty olive oil. Gascon cuisine is heavy on the duck and duck fat. And Brittany has it’s exquisite butter and lovely oysters. So yes, there’s still plenty of exceptional cheeses, wines, sparkling-fresh seafood, chickens that taste like chicken and hand-harvested salts available in France. But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, why is it so hard to get a simple tomato salad in the middle of summer made with sun-ripe French tomatoes? How come every French fry I’ve been served in the last four years is pale, completely limp and undersalted, dumped from a bag of previously frozen sticks, instead of being sliced from the great potatoes that Parmentier propagated for our enjoyment? Are there everyday restaurants that feature vegetables that are locally-grown and cooked simply with care?

Michael Ruhlman recently reported that Eric Ripert, the French chef/owner of New York’s Le Bernardin recently returned from France, optimistic in his assessment that French cuisine was “back“, which prompted one commenter, who worked in several French kitchens, to respond, “Where did Eric dine in France?”

The answer?
In Michelin two-and three-star restaurants.

There was a famous incident when Alice Waters was preparing food at an event and another chef lobbied the remark, “That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” Although it was probably meant to be snide, that’s in fact where good cooking begins. It’s not trying to seal vapors of food into a blown-sugar bubble or dehydrating a steak into a fine powder and blowing it up your nose. It’s finding good ingredients and doing whatever you can to coax the best flavor out of them.

On my trip, I experienced that in many places, from little ice cream shops to upscale restaurants like A16, Manresa and Quince. (And even an upscale taqueria.) On both ends of the cost and availability spectrum, the chef’s goal was to search for top-notch ingredients and present them in a way which showcases their freshness and flavor.

And I daresay, their terroir.

55 comments

  • This post covered exactly what’s been on my mind lately. I moved from San Francisco to Zurich two years ago and despite the amazing cheese and bread here, I lament every day the sad use produce (or non-use, it’s all meat and potatoes). On my last two trips to Paris this year, I was hoping to find better use of tasty, local produce but was disappointed. I was getting pretty depressed with the farmers markets in ZH as well (every produce vendor carries everything – a sure sign they aren’t producing it all themselves). But yesterday I found a vendor focusing on cherries, selling seven varieties. Maybe there is hope. Or I might just have to move back to SF, where “real” food is appreciated at all levels.

  • This post was so thoughtful and eloquent and really opened my eyes to what I sometimes take for granted. And add to that the fact that I’ve done virtually no traveling in France so it’s very interesting to see this global perspective.

    What a great great post, David!

  • Yes, but the French have one thing we don’t: you.

  • Well…for sure the French have terrible coffee.

    But…as for the rest…I’m not entirely ‘sold’ by your argument (although I certainly agree that the fruits and veges at Monoprix are a sad sight). It’s sooooo easy to find great produce at the neighbourhood greengrocers, and there are still lots of wonderful butchers, selling extraordinary beasts that you certainly can’t purchase in Ottawa anyway other than frozen, and it is woefully easy to find fantastic cheese shops and terrific pastry shops, etc. etc. And I can go to places like G. Detou, or Izrael, or Goumanyat, and find stuff that is absolutely phenomenal. And the open air markets, right through the city, are a wonderful thing…even if most of the stalls are selling produce from Rungis.

    I also really don’t have the sense that French home cooks are lacking in imagination. If one follows some of the French food blogs (like mercotte.canalblog.com, or clairejapon.canalblog.com) or go onto some of the recipe-sharing sites (like http://www.linternaute.com/femmes/cuisine/) then one can sometimes feel almost exhausted by the endless creativity. I would assert that French home cooks are always playing creatively with established ideas. Tired of plain old goat cheese truffles? Then try rolling them in spices or fresh herbs. And then try enrobing cherry tomatoes with the goat cheese, and adding the other coatings. And then have the idea of sticking two toothpicks in the cherry tomatoes, and slicing the tomatoes in half so that you see the exposed centre, the white goat cheese, and the pretty coatings. And then try using green grapes instead of the tomatoes. And so on….an endless search for a new riff along an established theme.

    And, at the end of the day, there has to be a reasonable balance between those who are focused primarily on sourcing first-rate ingredients, and those who are wanting to push back the frontiers of technique. When I eat out I don’t want to eat something that requires no more technique than what a relatively accomplished home cook possesses: I cook well enough that it’s likely that a dish that is relying entirely on ingredients rather than technique is going to be no better – but a lot more expensive – in a restaurant than at home. So I’m not tempted. But impeccable technique – albeit with relatively simple dishes – can make first-rate ingredients sing a song that even an accomplished home cook can’t rival with. And that’s worth paying for.

  • Well, I can’t comment on the French produce but I can tell you it sounds like the stuff at Shop Rite they try to pass off as produce would pale in comparison to the stuff you get at Monoprix. While we have availibility to great produce, you have to seek it out at local farmers’ markets, specialty stores (e.g., Whole Foods), and during the growing season from CSAs.

    As far as restaurants, while in the last 10 – 15 years it seems there has been an explosion of great restaurants where the ingredients star, we still have too many people who only have access to places like Chilis and TGIF.

  • i agree, a wonderful post full of important insights. it is very sad indeed to see that produce is becoming increasingly mass produced on a global scale – and further that peoples’ palates are becoming accumstomed to bland vegetables shipped from afar (even in paris!!). on the other hand, it is heartening to see the proliferation (at least in the u.s., i don’t know about europe) of CSA’s, or community supported agriculture. there are currently 50 in new york city, and i am happily a member of one of them. (actually, yesterday i made a mixed berry frozen yoghurt from ‘the perfect scoop’, with fruit from my csa box – delectable!).

    while i’m sure your comparisons of paris and s.f. are accurate, i don’t think s.f. can be considered an accurate representation of the u.s. in general. s.f., as the ‘fruit bowl of america’, is special in terms of the wide range of things that grow there, as well as the extensive growing season. naturally that attracts people into good food, hence a growing/cooking/eating mecca! unfortunately, i don’t think the rest of the country is as enlightened, nor as well-stocked w. good, fresh produce, as residents of the west coast.

    hope you were able to smuggle some of those pluots back with you!

    sonya

  • Hear, hear. I have tried so many tomatoes but the really tasty ones are those very expensive grape varieties, which may explain why it’s so hard to get the salad at all. Rainer cherries, after tasting the insipid French ones I now understand why it is cheaper than their black varieties.

    Verrines, I hate them, most of the time the focus is on getting pretty colours instead of taste. But for the fries, well the ones served at Le Severo (8 R de Plantes) is good but then again, the steak, I didn’t like them much.

    The French are stuck in a rut. They like their food classical and their history intact forever. Only in this first world country do they still have 1 lane roads and their banks remain closed on Mondays. It’s not just food. The rest of the world moves on while they continue to spin on their own axis. It’s both their charm and their drawback.

  • Vicky: I totally agree.
    And I would argue, as a French girl who’s spent half of her life in California (in LA and SF), that while this is a very thoughtful post, it’s also kind of a blanket statement wouldn’t you say? I just ate in a very reasonably-priced and non-starred French restaurant last night in the Marais and everything was fresh and quite delectable; I have a wonderful little market I go to on Thursdays and Sundays right by les Halles with vendors who bring in their own produce and other sometimes incredibly difficult to find foods, and on this point about the coffee I must totally disagree with you and call you on making a statement that’s completely relative, although really a lot of things are relative. My best friend is from the panhandle of Florida and she will not eat a tomato from the great state of California where we met because they have no flavor to her compared to, what I must concede are, some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten from her home state. So it’s all relative. It would be nice if we tried not to broaden the gaping maw that has always been France vs. the US foodwise.
    Oh and to the commenter who was talking about CSAs, we have these in France too, and it is a growing industry. I haven’t joined a group yet but have been thinking about it.
    Finally, to add a little something to think about, we have access to good food all over our little country here, but, having spent some time on a reservation in South Dakota, I’d like to introduce the concept that for the very small percentage of the US population that has access to this fantastic food, there is a very large percentage of the US population that has to drive over half an hour to even get to a food store, let alone a decent one…

  • Bravo David,
    I did eat great food in Paris,not 2 or 3 star, local places, just honest eat and sip some wine food!
    As a New Yorker though, it’s too bleeping expensive eating here and the whole scene is so over the top!
    Even the market is high priced!
    Good food is flavor and it shouldn’t be entertainment, it’s taste and we can entertain ourselves!

    Cheers

  • I woke up this morning…and realized I wanted to add some more comments ;-)

    Firstly, that although it’s easy to get good coffee in the USA, that it’s even easier to get terrible coffee: I simply won’t drink the stuff that’s from a drip or perc coffee-maker. So whereas I personally don’t like most of the coffee served in French cafes, I don’t like the coffee served in many American establishments either. The only countries where I have pretty consistently had great coffee are Italy and New Zealand.

    Secondly, that two other excellent French food blogs are scally.typepad.com and http://stationgourmande.canalblog.com/

    Thirdly, I am reminded about a conversation I had many years ago about writing styles in French and English. I was complaining (energetically) to my brother-in-law about the fact that in French one will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid repeating oneself in the same paragraph (page!!!), and so, for example, if one were writing an article about Segolene Royale (the former candidate for the Socialist Party in the recent Presidential election), you might refer to her initially as Segolene Royale, next as Le president de Poitou-Charentes, thirdly as “the former partner of Francois Hollande”, fourthly as “the former protege of Francois Mitterand”, and so on… And I was complaining that this made French texts hard to read (you obviously have to be ‘in the know’ to realise that the “former partner of Francois Hollande” is the same person who is the “President of Poitou-Charente”!), and that they would be well-advised to adopt the stylistic conventions that govern writing in English, where clarity is always the holy grail. But his response to me was that I had truly missed the point: that the effort made to avoid repetition was part of the ‘genius of the language’, and that to move towards a more ‘efficiency first’ approach to writing would be to gut the language of what made it special.

    I think, at some level, that the same claim can be made of French versus American culinary traditions. French restaurant cooking traditions are not really about great ingredients (in fact, historically, many dishes evolved as a way of overcoming the challenges of BAD ingredients): the traditional focus is on surprising and delighting the eye AND the palate with something that tastes really different, and where you often can’t clearly identify each of the different ingredients that constitute the dish that you are eating: flavours are supposed to have melded together, so that the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts. So to expect that French chefs would seek to turn out plates where ingredients – rather than technique – are the Main Event is to ask French chefs to abandon one of the defining characteristics of the French culinary tradition.

  • David, you might try the frites at Le Plomb du Cantal in rue de la Gaite or La Bourse ou la Vie in rue Vivienne. I agree with you about the produce in Paris, though there are some great small farmers at some of the markets (definitely a minority though!). I think part of the problem is that in traditional French cooking vegetables are considered a “garnish” rather than a main ingredient.

    The produce is much better in Nice, where I now spend most of my time, but that’s probably because vegetables have always been more important than meat in this part of France – and because the produce doesn’t have far to travel to get to the market. I do miss the Paris producer Joel Thiebault, who supplies restaurants like Mon Vieil Ami, Petrelle and Les Saveurs de Flora. I loved my vegetable delivery from Le Haut du Panier!

  • David,

    I’m absolutely amazed at the number of folks who’ve commented here that have totally missed the point you were making. In essence, many of them not only misconstrued what you were articulating – they also took sufficiently long to say it(sometimes twice as long) that they might just as well have started there own blog rather than encroaching on yours.

  • Drbehavior: I encourage readers to leave comments on the site, of whatever length, since I find them rather interesting. I like reading them and am willing to wade through ‘em, like folks wade through my ramblings as well.
    Thanks for adding your opinion to the mix too.

  • Well, that was constructive!

    Comparisons between countries have always been controversial, and event more when based on a generalization.
    Paris is PART OF France, and S.F. is just as well not representative of the whole U.S.
    But that is a very interesting argument, in which I learnt a lot…
    (having lived in Lyon, Munich and Montreal, I’ve always been able to eat locally grown produce, sold by producers. You sometimes have to pay the price, but it’s worth it)

  • (Ooops: I just wanted to make clear that the thing I found unconstructive was Drbehavior’s comment. Just saying that it is always healthy to debate.)

  • Hilda: Since I straddle both cultures, they’re the only ones I can compare. And this post was inspired by a French blogger’s post about the dearth of restaurants in Paris serving fresh, market-based food. As mentioned, there is good and bad food available in both countries, I’m surprised there isn’t more locally-grown produce available in Paris.

    Rosa: Joel is at 2 markets in Paris, but neither is all that close to me and it’s preferable for me to shop nearby. I’ve thought about getting his delivery baskets but I like to see and rifle through everything before it goes in my market basket.

    Vicky: Your remarks about “…to expect that French chefs would seek to turn out plates where ingredients – rather than technique – are the Main Event is to ask French chefs to abandon one of the defining characteristics of the French culinary tradition” are challenged by a book I’m reading, The Perfectionist about the great French chefs (mostly Bernard Loiseau who committed suicide), but also focused on the influential Fernand Point, one of the all-time greatest chefs, who was obsessed with freshness.

    Reading the history of these fascinating cooks, and how they would insist on the highest-quality ingredients, even when their restaurants were humble roadside establishments, is very interesting. It’s a good read and highly-recommended.

  • I’m all over both sides of this, David. If you are shopping in a sophisticated city in the US you can get anything fine you want for a price. But it’s a big country, a big market and that just isn’t true all over the US. I shopped and cooked in Washington, DC, in NY, in Los Angeles and also in small places you have never heard of. What you could buy went from delight to trash and a lot of people didn’t know the difference in some places.

    I am no expert on Paris, since I’ve never had access to a kitshen there. I do hear people rave about poulet di Bresse, or even the Sunday roast chicken from a specific shop on the left bank. Am I being suckered? It’s perfectly possible.

    “Right off the boat” here in Italy, I was confounded by what I couldn’t get and confused about what to do with what I could get. It turned out that the supermarket was assuredly not the place to go for many things. After a while I learned where to go and what to do with what I bought. I even put on my crappy clothes and go pick it in the wild if necessary. And I pay a premium price for farmed, hand-reared meat, too. Even a supermarket chicken costs many times what the same chicken costs in the US.

    Some of this I think has to do with the size of the market. A market comprised of 59 million can’t accomplish what a market comprised of 300 million can do. What it can do is keep better track of what’s being sold to a discerning public that does give a damn about its food. I have my doubts about whether all that adulterated and sick food could be imported to Italy and sold to an unsuspecting public as it was in the US. But then, Italians are much more suspicious and demanding than they are cheap about the food they buy.

    So my current attitude is that in the big picture, the USDA is not acting for the public in the US, and that a lot of sketchy behavior is hidden from the shoppers. I swear to you that shopping for food in Mechanic Falls, ME is not like shopping in San Francisco, but you’ll probably have to take my word for it.

    My other take is that USians add too much stuff to what they eat and therefore don’t always pay enough attention to the quality of the basic ingredients. Whether that’s because their food is relatively tasteless and therefore covering it up seems a good idea, or whether the habit of adding loads of extra stuff has created a situation in which the taste of the base ingredients doesn’t matter, so what the heck, let them eat cake, I don’t know.

    I do know that there are lots of people who haven’t a clue what fresh, real cream tastes like. Even more who think that fake balsamic vinegar has any relationship at all to the real thing. Whose idea of pizza is loaded to oblivion. Who would rather have a lot of Benecol than a thin scraping of real butter. Who would rather have an enormous steak with practically no flavor other than a marinade instead of a really beefy small and perfectly cooked thing.

    So maybe there needs to be a revolution on both sides of the Atlantic?

  • Hi David,

    Many thanks for your very interesting post.

    If you want to know where all the good quality French produce is hiding, you should visit the organic markets in Dublin – the largest fruit and veg stall sells produce mostly sourced in France.

    We only have one seller who grows 100% of her own stuff to sell and she is at the Saturday market in the city centre. The rest, whilst having some local produce in the mix, is predominantly French in origin.

  • I don’t feel I can comment on the US -v- French question, but I tell you if I saw a sign selling peaches like the one at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market I be buuying them for sure.

    Also love the new hybrid fruit, new fruit is like a new chocolate bar, you just have to give it a go!

    As an aside I’ve just started reading your Room for Dessert, and it fab. I so want to make your coconut cake (and many many more). Great book.

  • Hmm, I’m loving this post. I come from a both a deeply foodie perspective and a farming perspective on the local, organic front and realize that I have always been extremely fortunate to have lived with easy access to excellent farmers markets with produce that is grown by educated growers who are complete seed and soil geeks. Of course, I naturally seek them out and usually they spring up out of the woodwork even when not immediatly apparant. I live now where there isn’t the sort of market I am accustmed to ( I’m on an island), but I’ve discovered my neighbor less than half a mile away is a Biodynamic farmer on six acres with a CSA plan! He is totally unadvertised and you just have to know about him by word of mouth. Of course, that’s pretty easy in a small town, but it still took me about 6 months before I knew he was around.

    I’ve even worked on several small organic farms for a few years, drawn inexplicably by my love of growing and the wonderful community that surrounds the organic, small farm culture. It’s really a great group of people! I was surrounded not by immigrant labor, but other highly informed – or at least, highly interested- college students learning about reconnecting to the earth and pure food why that is important.

    I am also spoiled for life by eating heirloom, organic vegetables grown with love, which actually does make a flavor difference as anyone who’s paid attention will attest. I know, it sounds crazy airy-fairy, but of course it is not. There is alchemy to all that we do, in this case that is why food ‘made by mom’ always tastes so good and is so unreproducable. And it’s why factory-farmed food tastes generally horrible and is being modified in the labs to contain more and more sugar or extra vitamins, or what ever. But nothing replaces the vibrant health that comes from a caring grower connecting directly with what they are doing. The literal hands-on *relationship* with the actual plants that provide us with food. It is worth every penny because it enhances our own well-being to optimal levels. And well-being largely shapes the way you make decisions and move in the world. That’s the whole point of good nutrition and suprise, we don’t need labs for that. We need to make it super easy for small farmers to do their thing in every single neighborhood. Radical ag zoning, etc…It doesn’t exist yet, but I’d love to see it happen, now!

  • Well I’d just like to say Thanks! to David and everyone else who has commented on this fascinating topic. I have nothing unique to add except that I feel so fortunate to have easy access to the abundance of fresh produce available in the Bay Area, at markets and restaurants alike, that sometimes, standing in a place like Monterey Market in deep summer with the perfume of ripe tomatoes, basil, and sweet fruit all around me, I can get choked up.

    P.S.–I really enjoyed the class at Draeger’s on June 22!

  • First time commenter, sorta new reader — I really loved this particular post, and just wanted to say that I appreciate your refreshing lack of swooning and romanticism about Paris. I love Paris, but the amount of expectation and emotional baggage that gets dumped on Paris, especially for and by “foodies,” is sometimes overwhelming (maybe people read too much of the Moveable Feast…). So I’m thrilled to hear that you recognize the bounty of American cities, too.

    Your post and your points are, however, pretty skewed toward California, where local cuisine and produce are undoubtedly unique in the country. A lot of food blogging, actually, seems to be extremely Cali-centric — not surprising, but not necessarily reflective of how the rest of the country eats, methinks.

  • Hmm. I find the focus is very much on the ingredient in French cooking, but it might depend on where you eat. Family cooking, for example, is often an enhancement of an inherently delicious product (the classic good tomatoes with good olive oil and fleur de sel, for example). But it may be that since families eat that way all the time (at least mine does), people are looking for something different when they go to a restaurant?

    It’s just a theory.

    On a totally different topic, David, I tried all your recommended glaciers in Paris, and I think I should issue you a challenge to try my favorite and see what you think. I was just blogging about it: Gelati d’Alberto. Have you tried it yet?

  • Sorry, the accents messed up the spelling of the street where Le Plomb du Cantal (home of some of the last great frites in Paris) is located. Without the accents it’s rue de la Gaite, in the 14th.

  • Mr. Lebovitz,

    I, quite frankly, completely disagree with you. I’m an American student who has been in Paris for the last month, so you know I haven’t been spending extravagant amounts of money, and I am still absolutely in love with French cuisine. America has nothing like it.

    If you’re looking for fruit, I’ve bought some of the freshest, ripest, cheapest fruit I’ve ever had in my life at small grocery stores where I work in the 5eme. And I don’t understand how you can possibly say there are no petite chocolatiers around Paris, because I have passed 3 or 4 without even looking for them.

    As far as going out to eat, I’ve found good food for a reasonable price almost everywhere, like near the Saint Michel or Luxembourg RER B stops. Dinners are around 13-15 euros a person, and you can usually find ‘menus’ for around that price that include an appetizer, a dinner, and a dessert. You couldn’t possibly think American desserts are better than French ones, could you!? And no, the coffee is not terrible, it just has a stronger flavor. And, finally, you absolutely CANNOT forget the incredible bread that comes with every meal, and that is available at almost every street corner, that is always fresh out of the oven. That alone is worth coming to Paris for.

    If you want to know some exact locations of these restaurants and vendors and chocolate shops, please email me. I hope that readers of this article are not discouraged by your review of Parisian cuisine, because if they chose to not bother trying it, they would be missing out on an absolutely incredible dining experience.

  • Hi Jen: Thanks for your response. In the post, I mentioned small-scale (artisanal) “chocolate producers“, not chocolatiers. I agree that Paris has perhaps the best selection of artisan chocolatiers of any major city that I know of…and I like them so much that I’m a regular customer!

    I also like the French/Parisian bistros which serve inexpensive fare, although many of the desserts that I see sitting on the bar were obviously made with pre-bought crust. There is great bread, poulet, cheese, butter, meat, etc…in Paris, but on the other hand, where where are the excellent tomatoes and peaches and apricots? The ones I had in San Francisco were sold by the farmers (with all the markets in Paris you’d think there’d be more of an emphasis on that) and tasted as sweet as candy. But the coffee…well, there are certainly others who share my opinion.

    (Or worse…)

    I think it’s sad that there are so many places in San Francisco that are proud of their ingredients and try to source them locally or at their freshest, when that doesn’t seem to be the case in Paris. Perhaps because I’m reading (as I mentioned in my previous comment above) about the older generation of chefs like Fernand Point and Michel Guérard who insisted on the best of the best. But I wish that the restaurants in Paris would celebrate local foods more. Which I think is the racine of what good French cooking was, and should be, always about.

  • When we lived in Paris, Michelin restuarants were most definitely out of our budget. But even dining at more modest establishments, we often felt that we fared better outside Paris. I found the food fresher and tastier all around… usually for a better price too. This always sort of surprised me coming from the NY metro area where though you could spend less for a meal outside of NY, rarely was the quality better.
    In fact, one of the best meals I ate in France was at a truck stop in Burgundy. The steak was unlike any I’d ever had.
    As someone who tries to cook local as much as possible in her own kitchen, yet loves and appreciates French cuisine as well, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!

  • As I am in Paris right now, this is a topic I have been pondering. I think some commenters have missed the point of your post. The French do not seem to showcase local foods in the same way that Americans do. This is a shame since they have so many wonderful products available to offer.

    On the other hand I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that eating experiences in America, overall, are better than those in France, unless one is referring to only upscale establishments. Maybe I will have an answer at the end of my stay.

  • Dear David,

    I misunderstood about the chocolate, so I understand what you’re saying now. But I will maintain the French coffee is not worse, it’s just stronger. Some people like it and some people don’t. I also have had wonderful experiences with fruit and vegetables, be it either off the streets or in restaurants, but I don’t know what the San Francisco fruits are like so I can’t compare them.

    I enjoy French cuisine in general partially because to me it tastes so fresh, but you are more of an expert than I am. To me American cuisine is mainly about mass production and speed, not quality. I wish I had had the chance to try this old style French cooking that you refer to, but I think that what I have eaten here has been wonderful and easily better than what I get at American restaurants. I am, however, just a student grateful for a chance to try amazing food for a very reasonable price.

  • I am French and I agree with David.

    My last experience of a French restaurant in Paris was a creperie in Montparnasse, with many stickers on the door proving that it was recommended by many restaurant guides (according to a former Michelin guide employee who wrote a book about his experience, everyone in this business is corrupt: I believe him now!). The crepes were all bland. The ingredients were the result of the industrialization of the French agriculture for the past half century. The irony is that a few hours earlier I had eaten a crepe I made myself with ingredients coming from a small cremerie bretonne, and it was good and tasty, though not extraordinary, but the ingredients had travelled so I could not expect a miracle, that is the main drawback of living in Paris and not a la campagne; the ingredients came from local producers in Bretagne (Britanny), and I had bought the eggs from an organic shop.

    What this experience (and others before in and around Paris) proves is that most cooks do not care. I noticed that many are young, and unlike my parents and grand-parents who regularly tell me how good food was half a century ago, how much tastier it was, they grew up eating bland mediocre ingredients, and it is possible that they do not realize that they serve shit, well, not shit, worse than shit because at least shit tastes something: they cook and sell nothing, emptiness. We did not finish our crepes, but we are to blame too, because we did not complain and we paid with real money instead of giving them pieces of white bland paper, nothing in exchange of nothing. And the restaurant was full! And nobody seemed to complain. I guess that 50 or 100 years ago there would have been a riot.

    Only 2% of French agriculture is organic certified, a few more percent must be uncertified organic: because farmers who grow natural food have to pay to prove that! There is no tax on the polluting industrial farmers to finance the organic certifications. But organic food is not perfect either: it travels so it is never as good as fresh food from the garden: I never had as good vegetables as those I picked up as a child in the family garden and that we immediately cooked.

    And the soils have been so deeply impoverished by chemicals for so many decades that the three years soils have to be put to rest before turning them into organic certified soils may not be enough. France has the largest chemical consuming agriculture in Europe. In the World, the US, France and Japan come first. And it has consequences on health in Japan too: a Japanese friend told that Japanese people are ill much more often than decades ago, and it not only stress because they were already stressed after the war. An experience on rats proved that those eating organic food had a much stronger immune system.

    The other huge problem is the standardization of the species that is the work of the INRA, the scientists paid by the government to select and cross species to obtain vegetables and fruits that please the all-powerful supermarket chains, that ask for shiny, perfect looking products that do not rot, can sustain shocks during transportation,…they killed thousands of local species that fit the local soils, to give us products (I can not call that food) that have grown too fast on sterile soils, that have between 30 and 80% less vitamins and micro-nutrients, and that always taste the same.

    Claude Bourguignon, a scientist from the INRA who conducted an investigation on French soils and concluded that they were on their way to desertification was fired! He says that is the same all over Europe: 90% of the micro life in the soils has been destroyed by chemicals!
    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Bourguignon

    Capitalism has become a spectacle, as Guy Debord has written in The Society of the Spectacle. People do not buy real food anymore, they buy a spectacle. To buy a real chicken you cannot ask for a chicken, you must add a word and ask for an organic chicken. But 98% do not and get a poor animal that lived an horrible life in a small cage in a giant factory eating an industrial mixture made of industrial “food”, mud (for real), industrial garbage (for real), antibiotics,…

    What is incredible is that there has not been a revolution. Most people feel nothing and are used to feeling nothing, and do not even realize how empty and meaningless their lives have become. I think the capitalist Matrix is even more frightening in what it has achieved than the USSR. At least there most people were aware of what was going on, they could see reality, they did not buy the propaganda.

  • David,

    A fantastic piece, it certainly rings true, we were just back from New York and had some of the best Vietnamese, NY-Style Mexican-Fusion and organic brunch that I can remember all in one city and inside 3 days!

    America and Australia for example look forward and innovate both in production and the recipes produced out of them. They use the past as a starting point for their style of food but don’t let it burden the process where it could become a hindrance. Dare I say people in Europe aren’t that open minded when it comes to ethical and sustainable (not organic per se as it doesnt really go for much these days other than the chemicals as the process of cultivation and mono-crops are for the most part the same as non-organic) foods and creating some new and innovative from the raw ingredients, and I mean that of the whole of Europe.

    But really how many people in Europe would say America had better food than them… Can I see a show of hands… a show of hands… is that someone in the back..oh no he was picking his nose..

    I would raise my elbow at this point in time ;)

    Keep up the great writing!

  • My experience of US food is limited to a week in New York, where I ate a range of foods, from cafes to reasonably fancy restaurants. I have to admit I was generally unimpressed – everything I ate was over-salted and dull.

    In Paris I have found the food to be generally reasonable, and occasionally superb. I have found over my time in France, that if I want to have really good food, I should go to French restaurants, and eat classic French dishes. Expecting decent Asian or Indian food for example, is foolish.

    I do agree that as a GENERAL thing, French restaurants are not particularly inventive, but what they do, they do well.

    As for market shopping; it is one of the true joys of living in Europe. I love finding fruit that is truly ripe. Enjoying each of the seasonal fruits and vegies when they are at their best. Sometimes I miss the Australian markets where you can buy any fruit at any time of year, but really it is made up for by the delicious flavours of truly ripe tomatoes, asparagus and apricots

  • ” the lofty pride with which anything not French is inferior.”
    I know this attitude only too well. It’s true the French – or at least the one I hang out with – thinks this way.

    “(Will someone please admit the coffee in France is terrible? If so, I’ll admit the same about the croissants in America.)”
    Ok – this could be a cultural thing – the coffee – My Frenchman thinks all coffee in America is disgusting. Maybe its what you grow up with and are used to. He is always wishing for a Paris style coffee to turn up at the table after dinner.

    Great article David – I loved reading through the very well thought out comments it evoked. Personally – I feel the way about food in France that you do. Because our trips are always to catch up with people the food destinations are mostly an afterthought and they are mostly unsatisfying although the French themselves seem happy with the state of affairs. Next time we visit (September?) I will insist he takes me somewhere decent for food.

    Did you ever try Le Sept Quinze ? I thought that was a great little unexpected charming place.

  • I have to defend the smaller American cities and the availability of produce. I live in Memphis and we have excellent greengrocers here who buy locally (great tomatoes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and Muscadine grapes, along with the usual suspects of zucchini and summer squash) as much as possible. They greengrocer down the street from me used to buy the figs from the tree in my back yard from the previous owner.

    We also have a farmers’ market once a week in the summer.

    There are several farmers’ markets in Milwaukee in the summer. There is a produce stand less than a mile from my boyfriend’s house that sells the best sweet corn I’ve ever had.

    There is a very nice farmers’ market in Cedar Rapids in the summer.

    If you are near where produce is grown, it seems to be pretty easy to get it, in my experience.

  • the other day i was trying to explain to our clients, visitors from HK, why i was recommending them a ‘nouvelle american’ restaurant over a famed french one in NY. And i couldn’t quite hit the nail on the head, but I think David just did – the focus on the ingredients rather than the technique. Perhaps I am plebeian in preferring the former to the latter (though I do see the merits of both), but I find that it is a much more joyous and fulfilling meal for me to eat something where ingredients take the center stage.

  • Thanks guy deborde (…) for your thoughtful and informative post that lays out very clearly what I have been experiencing in my nearly 20 years in France, what I have seen on French farms and what I have been saying to anyone who cares to listen about the mediocre standards. The soil here is pickled in pesticides as is so much of the produce.

    Organic is very hard to commercialize here because the farmer has to go through (expensive) hoops to prove that his/her produce is organic. Certain food, like produce, is getting progressively worse and no one seems to notice. And before it gets to Rungis…it comes in from Morocco and Spain. Granted, some chefs insist upon perfect ingredients but 1-I suspect they get all the good stuff before it gets to the hoi polloi and 2-many (many!) of them have their own gardens.

    As for the coffee, I soooo agree that it is appalling. And Jen, this has nothing whatsoever to do with strength. It has everything to do with the fact that the (vast) majority of French cafés/restaurants/consumers buy the (vastly) inferior Robusta beans. If you like it, so much the better, but I encourage you to seek out an espresso made from Arabica beans and compare.

    All in all though, this is a great post and David has opened up a great dialogue.
    Thank you!

  • Sam: You could have the cat pee in a cup, color it brown, and give it to Fred if he’s missing French coffee. (Just kidding!) In his defense, there is some bad coffee in America, and judging from recent experience, most of it is served high-above the Home of the Brave, in the less-than-friendly skies.

    I mostly go to small restaurants in Paris, not for the fresh ingredients, but for the classics, which normally the French do well…except today my salade Nicoise had a mound of rice, canned potatoes, greenish-tinged tomatoes, and for some reason, green peppers…I guess if you’re going to screw it up, you may as well go for broke.

    Haapi: I think it’s what one is used to, and you’re right that it has little to do with strength. Most of my French friends like the coffee just fine. Curiously, when I go to Italy, I see French people adding water to their espresso, as well as some Americans doing the same. The folks at Illy told me their #1, most profitable outlet was their stand at Charles De Gaulle Airport, which I presume is filled with Italians getting their ‘last-chance’ fix.

    Kiriel: I haven’t found many truly ripe tomatoes here. Mostly you need to get are those heirloom tomatoes, which are harder to find than one might think. There’s a lot of those “on-the-vine” tomatoes that look like good ones, but taste no different than the others. But yes, I agree that sticking with the classics is your best bet.

    GuyDeBord: Have you tried Crêperie Bretonne? It’s the best I’ve tried in Paris and the cook looks like he just stepped off the TGV from Bretagne.

    What would be great to see in France is more promotion of locally-grown produce, like they do with their magnificent cheeses, breads, and wine. Why is it okay to serve flavorless, chemical-laden fruits and vegetables from other countries when they wouldn’t tolerate it in their other foodstuffs?

    François Simon, the critic for Le Figaro wrote a rather scathing critique of French cooking a few months back that I was trying to find to link to. But just like America took a critical look (and is still taking a look) at the state of their food supply a few years back, it would be nice for everyone to think a little bit more about how they’re shopping, what they’re buying, and how they’re cooking it.
    No matter where they live.

  • David, there are places in France that have an abundance of local produce. I do agree with you somewhat about the marchés in Paris, but in Provence, (unsurprisingly perhaps) local produce is abundant. If you haven’t been to the marché agricole in Velleron, please go as soon as you have the chance :) (fwiw I wrote about it extensively here.)

    Also for the first poster, tanya, you can find local producers in the Zürich markets – of course, they do only carry things in season, and the season in the area is not that long, but they are there. Just yesterday I was at the Bürkliplatz market where there were locally grown cherries galore, fresh apricots from the Wallis/Valais, and so on. Or check out the small stalls at the periphery of the Helvetiaplatz market who carry maybe only one or two things – like the farmer who literally has a farm within the city of Zürich.

    I would also argue that many things are not nominally local (say coming from France or Italy to Switzerland) have not really travelled as far as things that may be labeled ‘local’ in many parts of the U.S. I’m not putting down American markets at all (and it should be said that California is blessed with a climate that is perfect for growing many things over a long season), but I think that national borders sometimes seem to make things more distant.

  • David-I think that the Illy stand at CDG is so popular because it’s one of the only places to get Italian style coffee (and correct me if I’m wrong) which is made from arabica beans. This American goes there every time she can! Of course, taste is often what you are used to.

    I think that is the big problem here. The taste of food has changed over the past 20 years and I honestly believe that most people haven’t noticed because the change has been gradual. I also think that this is because everyone is still buying into the myth of how great the food is here. (And it can be, don’t get me wrong. The quality is just not as wide-spread as the perception.)

    That said, almost any time I speak to an old-timer (or the in-laws) they are constantly griping about the lower quality of today’s fresh products. Happy 4th.

  • I think part of the problem is that Paris is an expensive city for many things, food included. Even a mediocre head of lettuce sells for 2€ and a good one is a whole lot more. (Prices for organic are through the roof…)

    That, coupled with the high cost of living, can put good food out of reach of many folks, and for restaurants, which have to struggle to survive here. (Normal restaurants pay higher taxes than fast-food joints, too.)

    The good stuff can be very, very expensive. And I’m not just talking about foie gras, but things like heirloom tomatoes (10€/kilo, about $7/lb…one medium tomato at the lower-priced Marche d’Aligre, cost me 3€, around $3.50). I bought some organic broccoli recently too and one small stalk was 2€ ($2.70). For serving one person, those are manageable. But for a simple restaurant or family, that’s expensive.

    That’s why I stick with mostly buying cheese, bread, and wine…and chocolate, of course.

    And my coffee? I buy that in Italy.

  • Wouldn’t comparing food/produce in Nice or any place in Provence with San Francisco/Northern California be a better bet?
    Certainly living in New York, if I don’t go to a farmer’s market, I do not get regional produce.
    Even Whole Foods refuses to go regional here -very disappointing :( But they are mass-market & their suppliers are in California.
    Overall, everything I ate “casually” in Paris was superior to eating casually in New York. The produce I saw at the St. Germaine Monop looked fantastic to me and a damn sight better than what I see in NYC supermarkets and I liked those water sprays they have constantly going.
    San Francisco is a unique food town and I wished I lived there, but it would take so much longer to get to Paris..
    Change is always wonderful where ever you’re headed..
    Maybe you’re just having a “Holiday Romance” with the US..?
    Choices, choices…

  • We leave a few blocks from Nopa and it’s one of our favorites!

    Actually, my husband and I were having a similar conversation when we got back from our recent trip to Paris. We definitely had some good meals in Paris, but they were more expensive than what we would’ve paid in our hometown of San Francisco for a similar meal. However, the pastries were fabulous and much more prevelant than at home, which I really appreciated (and the extra 5 pounds I came home with gave proof to how much I appreciated that).

    But I’ve never had a tomato as good as from my father’s garden in Michigan. I’ve had many arguments with people in California (San Francisco and Santa Monica) that I cleary hadn’t been trying organic and/or heirloom tomatoes, but I stand my ground that my Dad’s tomatoes are the best ever. I don’t know if it’s Michigan or just my dad, but there it is.

  • I must be Jessica’s neighbor–small world! I live at Golden Gate and Broderick, 4 blocks from Nopa.

    I just want to relate a funny story I have from a trip to Paris. After days of heavy bistro food we thought we’d spend a pile of money on good fresh seafood and got a reservation at Restaurant Goumard, which sadly we thought was supposed to be the premier place to get seafood a’ Paris.

    My 6 oysters (fresh, yes) cost 38 Euros, and every damn one had chunks of shell and sand in them from idiotic shucking.

    My fresh squid turned out to be mini squid steaks, cut with cross hatches so they curled up prettily when cooked; all well and good, but this technique doesn’t wow me because I’ve eaten in Thai restaurants before and there’s nothing squid loves to do more than curl when heated. Sadly, this came with halved cherry tomatoes which WERE NOT RIPE! Also, the squid was grilled over a propane flame, and apparently the chef at Goumard doesn’t have a sensitive enough palate to realize that propane has a chemical added to it which smells bad to humans so they can tell when it is leaking all around them. That chemical flavor infested my squid.

    After the waiter noticed I wasn’t eating, he asked if something was wrong and I sort of shrugged. He then commented that the restaurant is so good everyone always eats all their food, at which point I felt compelled to say that I thought it was just so so. He then proceeded to subtly insult my American palate, so I had to tell him the tomatoes should be ripe in such a restaurant and that I could prepare the entire dish easily at home and that I wasn’t interested in eating it. He huffed and then left; we finished our beautiful bottle of wine and then left ourselves.

    This is all on top of initially being seated in a nearly empty restaurant next to a raucous table of Americans and Canadians; we asked to be moved to the quieter smaller side room and were accommodated, if rather stiffly.

    Oh, and did I mention the bread was ice cold?

    Things I decided bout food in Paris:
    1) they think the bread is always perfect, and it is sacrilege to re-warm bread so by the time one eats dinner at 8 or 9 PM often it is headed toward stale. American restaurants at this level either bake bread fresh for dinner, get special dinner bread deliveries, or admit they’re better at other things and carefully rewarm bread to take the chill off
    2) they know nothing about tomatoes. I had a friend visiting who brought along a friend who claimed to have a friend who runs one of the best restaurants in Lyon, and when I served them a simple salad of sage accented chunks of perfectly ripe California summer heirloom tomatoes in 2002, they had never seen any of those varieties and had no idea what this heirloom craze was about.
    3) many restaurants completely rest on their laurels, as shown by things like my oysters. The raw product was good as far as the oysters go, but the execution was missing that little bit of attention to detail which would have made it wonderful.
    4) Paris must not allow restaurants to use wood or charcoal grills any more, which if true is quite sad. San Francisco won’t let people build new wood fireplaces in their homes, but restaurants can still install new wood-fired pizza ovens, bread ovens, charcoal grills for meat, etc.

    There’s a saying I’ve heard that in Paris the food is so wonderful because it’s only 2 hours away by train (i.e., Paris food isn’t great but the cities elsewhere in France retain their interest in fresh local ingredients and care in preparation).

    To generalize, I think San Francisco has a leg up on Paris, but France in general of course has a huge leg up on America in general.

  • As an American who has lived in San Francisco and Paris and now lives in Sydney, Australia, I have been surprised how well food in the U.S. actually compares. Sushi in Atlanta, GA and Knoxville, TN beats most of the sushi here in Sydney (even with a large Japanese population). America has great variety and a new pride in great restaurant food.
    As far as food in supermarkets, the same is true. I generally find the produce the same or worse here in Sydney than my previous supermarket in Atlanta, GA and it doesn’t even compare to Rainbow Grocery or Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. And food is expensive here – perhaps 1.5 – 2 times the prices in the U.S..
    Finally, I have been dying to tell you David that your blog is one of many I visit but it is by far the best read in general. Your writing and photography is excellent and is certainly more satisfying (couldn’t think of a better word) than most, no matter what the topic is, food or otherwise.

  • Hi David, first of all let me say how much I love your blog (and have made your tarte au citron repeatedly with much pleasure for all…) I am lucky enough to live in Santa Monica and go to the market twice a week – yes, year round – and do notice, each time I am in Paris (usually once a year) that the fruit in the markets — even Bastille on Thurs and Sat — can’t compare. Still, everything else (you’ve named them: cheese, bread, chickens, etc, and, even the greens, are wonderful. That said, I always feel, if I’m eating out in Paris, even in Nice, in contrast to cooking in Paris, I long for the dark greens and ‘real’ salads… But then my friend François whips up a pot of lovely soup, or I stand in line at Pierre Hermé for the macarons au beurre salé…and when I go home I’ll have the run of the divine American produce… Thanks again, David. Did walk up the hill to Montmartre to get those fabulous chocolates and caramels you raved about. Yum.

  • This is May 2010, and I’m planning a trip to France.

    David, has the situation improved?

  • Is it really that surprising?
    As compared to Paris and its surrounding region, the area around SF is more hospitable to agriculture. The californian region abounds in fresh produce because so much of it grows right around the corner.

  • Gautam: I’m not sure that France isn’t considered an agricultural country, less so than the Bay Area. France traditionally had a reputation for its farms and terroir. Unfortunately the area around Paris the fields are mostly used for growing sugar beets and colza, and many of the small farms have closed because the land is more fruitful (ie: profitable) for those crops I guess.

    Fortunately there are some organizations working to save the small farms, and I wrote a post about Communitiy Supported Agriculture in Paris.

  • What a shameless, manipulative and deceptive article. The best of French food (in starred Michelin restaurants) is dismissed as unrepresentative of the dining habits of the majority of the French, yet when it comes to San Francisco, the best (and very expensive) restaurants are mentioned as relevant examples of the contemporary San Francisco restaurant scene. The truth is, the best of French cooking is still vastly superior to the best of American cooking, while at the same time the food of the majority of the French has been declining steeply down to American standards – the country has over a thousand McDonald’s restaurants and a rapidly rising rate of obesity.

    The limp frozen fries that are served at cheap eateries in France should be more properly compared to their American equivalents – the limp frozen fries served at Applebee’s, Perkins’, and similar chains that now completely dominate the dining scene in the country and are far, far more representative of modern American eating patterns than a tiny little establishment in San Francisco serving local arugula.

  • During a recent trip to New York City, I went to the main farmer’s market in Union Square, which was filled with produce grown by the farmers themselves, whereas the main markets in Paris have produce trucked in from elsewhere. Of course, there is some local produce and great regional products, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were outdoor markets in Paris that were truly representative of what real French farmers actually cultivate? (I recently wrote a bit more about the French markets at les Tomates.)

    At that same trip to New York City, I ate at places like Shake Shack and Bill’s Burgers, where a meal could be had for under $10, and the fries were made from real potatoes and served crisp. (In addition to having good food in NYC and San Francisco, I’ve had similar experiences in other cities in America.) Of course, there aren’t any burger joints in Paris, but at many of the inexpensive cafés in Paris (which might be considered their equivalent), the food is often disappointing. I’ve read and hear quite a few stories from people who’ve come to Paris and found the same thing.

    There are great places in Paris that aren’t expensive, such as West Country Girl and Breizh Café, but those places are still more of the exception and when I originally wrote this post in 2007, it was a surprise to find these differences so pronounced. I do hope with the success places like those that others will use them as an example—and since I wrote this post several years back, I’ve written many, many posts on the site featuring restaurants, bread bakeries, markets, shops, and fromageries, that are having success doing just that. They can be found on the My Paris and Paris archive pages.

  • I totally agree. Right now I am in Paris and I impressed about food here, I expected to find better prices. Everything is expensive and I have my doubts about quality. I was in London before I arrived in Paris, and London is wayyy better (quality, selection and prices). For me, Paris cannot stand the quality of any other major cities. If you are coming to Paris do not expect to pay a fair priced for food, not even in McDonalds which then price are practically the double in USA.

  • I was very disappointed about food in Paris during this summer. I guess I was expected some extraordinary, but what I got was so so, not worth my 40 euros/meal. I found your blog after I got back to San Francisco. But you solved the mystery for me. By the way, I just finished your book. I love it! Something to remind me of life in Paris. Despite of the lack of good food at decent price, Paris has a special place in my heart.

  • Perhaps it is Paris that is resting on its laurels more than the rest of France. I have lived in Bordeaux for 15 years, and there is an abundance of delicious produce, (including luscious apricots and deeply flavorful tomatoes) all around, at small “primeurs” and outdoor markets, locally grown. (We are, after all, not far from the Lot-et-Garonne region.) Of course, if one chooses to shop at Carrefour or Auchan hypermarkets, then it can be a different story; but even Carrefour has medium-sized supermarkets for neighborhood convenience, and the produce I find in them is generally just fine, if not as magical as what’s available at my favorite greengrocer. But I also agree with the other comments that SF is not representative of the rest of the USA. Not all places are fortunate enough to have the access to high-quality produce available there.

    Paris is so driven by the tourist industry that I wonder if many places have just stopped trying to be excellent, and have become merely “adequate”, perhaps mistakenly figuring that they can get by on the city’s reputation, and no longer feel the need to make an ongoing effort. Just a thought.

    But I totally agree about the verrines. Beurk.

    In Bordeaux, try Saunion or Cadiot-Badie chocolatiers.

  • Janice: I do think it’s something that is more prevalent in Paris, although there was recently a program on France 2 about the declining quality of produce and ingredients used in Paris restaurants (the reporters went into the garbage cans of the restaurants after they closed and pulled out all sorts of boxes for everything from frozen desserts to ground beef used for “fresh” steak tartar!) They also did the same for Marseilles, where restaurants were claiming to serve “fresh” bouillabaise and most had boxes of frozen fish in their dumpsters.

    I think a number of places in Paris do rely on tourists and locals who still think everything if wonderful, just because they’re in Paris. But there’s a new crop of young chefs here in Paris doing great food using fresh ingredients. And the restaurants are packed, so I hope more places like that do open.

    And I know both those chocolate shops in Bordeaux..they’re excellent!

  • Oooh, I saw that program – and wasn’t it the same one where they talked about the use of spray flavors that come in canisters and are (in some restaurants) misted over a plate just as it heads out of the kitchen?