Contrary to preconception, it IS possible to eat cheaply in Paris. Perhaps eating well with good value is the better way to put it. On a recent trip I planned out the days and meals where I would splurge and contented myself during the other meals to stay on a budget of 20 euros per meal or less.
For breakfast, I normally don’t eat at my hotel. This trip I stayed at an affordable hotel and then, later in the week, moved to a bed-and-breakfast. On the first morning I was jet-lagged, and so I opted for the 12 euro hotel breakfast, which was quite stocked and hence filling. I enjoyed a basket of croissants and baguette plus yogurt, meats and cheese (making the German tripists happy) and fruit. The other days I tended to go to a café and have a croissant and coffee at the bar like the Parisians, which didn’t set me back more than 5 euros. If I’m staying at an apartment then I find the nearest boulangerie and go out each day for the fresh goods.
As I was staying near Chinatown in the 13th, I traveled one night to avenue de Choisy and picked from the many places serving pho (a Vietnamese meat and noodle soup). There are plenty more to choose from on avenue d’Ivry, both streets being just a short walk south from Métro Place d’Italie. Picking a place is easy; just follow the crowd. The pho, which was nearly as good as when I had it in Vietnam, cost me 5 euros flat. Now that’s an affordable, filling and delicious meal. I splurged and added a beer—or was it two?
Another great cheap meal that I always love in Paris is l’As du Fallafel, on rue des Rosiers in the Marais. The falafel will run you about 4 euros. One night I got one and walked over to the Seine and enjoyed it riverside among all the picnickers and revelers who come out at night in the summer and cluster on the islands (Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis). Another no-brainer is crêpes. There is a fabulous crêpe place in the Marais called the Breizh Café, on rue Vieille du Temple. These folks are from Brittany (home of the buckwheat crêpe, also known as the galette), so they serve oysters, if you want to splurge, or you can eat handsomely for a mere 10–15 euros, with some alcoholic cider from the region thrown in. There is also a crêpe street with countless crêperies to choose from near the Montparnasse train station. Josselin, on rue du Montparnasse, is probably one of the more famous crêperies, but the group of various crêperies running down the street is kind of fun to peruse. No need for reservations at any of these places!
Your best bet for a truly affordable bistro meal is to order the formule or the plat du jour. At most bistros and other informal cafés you’ll find a formule (like a prix fixe), which might include an appetizer (called entrée) and an entrée (called the plat) for a reduced sum. Or you might order an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert for a reduced fee depending on what kind of formule they are offering. This is always a better deal than the à la carte menu, and it’s what you’ll almost always see the Parisians do. Also, in some places, you’ll see a chalkboard menu with a plat du jour. Unlike in a US kitchen, where you might find something the chef has an excess of and is hawking as the “special,” in Paris the plat du jour will often be the best thing that day as well as one of the most affordable. This is the best method to use and will enable you to eat at some of the better places we list in our restaurant section and not break the bank.
Of course, the time-honored tradition of a good baguette, a piece of cheese and a bottle of wine by the Seine or in the Luxembourg Gardens will always be a fabulous way to share some downtime among friends.