Monday, October 17, 2011

Paris without a reservation

We took a different approach to our latest trip to Paris which was not to make any reservations. Partly because we'd had to cancel two trips here already and didn't want to tempt fate by booking yet another swathe of tables we might have to cancel and partly because the plan was to visit as many small bistros and wine bars as possible. Actually I tell a lie. We booked a table for our first night but we've booked nothing else more than a day ahead. For hard to get reservations like Le Baratin we rang up earlier the same day and still got a table.

So far it's worked like a dream. There's been nowhere we haven't managed to get into including Inaki Aizpitarte's new wine bar Le Dauphin, Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir, Vivant and Rino, a restaurant we'd spent hours trying to get a booking for our last trip without success. A lot of these don't take bookings anyway or are so small that they won't take reservations on the phone especially from tourists

It's made me think that we go about visiting cities quite the wrong way these days, frantically trying to get a reservation at the most sought after restaurants and bars. Committing ourselves to a particular time slot which might not suit us because we're doing something else more interesting at the time. Squeezing in two meals a day when we might only fancy eating one. Stressing because we'll not be able to write up the hottest restaurants on our blog or for a future feature.

What we've done is wander in and have a glass of wine and a plate of charcuterie or couple of small plates then find somewhere else to have a main course or skip that and find a gorgeous cake from some enticing patisserie. We have had some fixed price meals - mainly at lunchtime - but have then eaten lightly in the evening.

Of course it's helped that there are only two of us and that we've been here for the week which removes the sense of urgency from the exercise but even if I was staying 3 to 4 nights another time I think - hope - I'd deploy the same tactics. It's also hugely reduced the cost of eating out.

What you do need so far as Paris is concerned is to come at the right time of the week. And that, unfortunately, is not at the weekend when many restaurants are shut or insanely busy but midweek from Tuesday to Friday (Mondays are also a popular closing day). Even then Parisien restaurants have erratic opening hours so do your homework, find out when the places you might fancy going are open and have a back up plan of a restaurant you could go to nearby if you don't manage to walk in. I admit I'm lucky to have a husband who likes nothing better than devising such strategies.

You also need to be prepared to eat at lunchtime rather than in the evening and earlier than might seem comfortable - the French start lunch at 12 so 12-12.30 is a good time to get a table. The added bonus is that the lunch menu is often cheaper than the dinner one.

There's always the delightful possibility you might walk past somewhere that's not on anyone's radar, where the locals themselves eat and which is a genuine find. One of the main problems these days - and I'm guilty of this myself - is that everyone goes to the same restaurants so your fellow diners are likely to be food critics and bloggers. Is that would you really want when you're exploring a city?

So how do you handle weekends - or midweek trips - to major destinations like Paris or New York? Plan ahead, leave things to chance or a bit of both?


  1. I love to stumble upon a lovely little bistro, or side markets and shops, and will sit in one of the parks with a lovely picnic, not really one for following the in-crowd i'm afraid.
    Surely it's part of the adventure of exploring a city while on a break to do as you have described above?

  2. Paris is small enough that I like to roam without a map and even if at first I think I'm lost, I somehow always end up where I want to be! The little places are often well kept secrets, you only later realise that others know about them too, but are keeping stum!

  3. I have a terrible pre-booking habit. But you're so right, especially when it comes to Paris. The last time I visited I booked tables four nights in a row. It took for ever to make the reservations and each meal turned out to be a disappointment.

  4. I never book when i'm on holidays except if there's a special place/special occasion. When we were in NY for 8 days we tried to book on the last night because it was my birthday and we didn't want to be disappointed but the restaurant staff told us we didn't need to. Otherwise, between being a real tourist, walking a lot and sightseeing I find it's pretty impossible to plan when everyone will be hungry! Sometimes, more often than not, we had a late lunch around 4/5 and then something light for dinner or some cake. If we had an earlier lunch then we found somewhere a little nicer for dinner :)

  5. Sorry to hear that @Eggs on the Roof. It's a terrible letdown when that happens.

    Glad to hear the rest of you are more adventurous. I have to admit my book-ahead habit stems from my journalistic background. You feel you've got to take in certain places for a piece whereas you almost always have more fun if you just see where the day and the mood takes you.

  6. Perhaps the thing to do is to plan well ahead and make "friends" with lots of Parisians on Twitter who can then recommend those amazing spots that only the locals know about. A bit more time, but far more interesting research I bet!

    I love Paris and am lucky to know a few people who live there. I've also found reading blogs like David Lebovitz's and Chocolate & Zucchini to be very helpful in knowing how to "approach" the city. The one thing I've never gotten used to is how late Parisians (and Europeans in general) tend to eat dinner. I like your idea of making lunch the main event.

  7. A good piece. I try - where I can - to do a bit of both. My problem is that being literally half way across the world (Australia) you cant leave to many things to chance or "I'll do it next time" as next time might not come about, or it could be yrs away considering the distance and cost.

    So for me its about getting that booking at a few I know I will have no chance of getting a table at - no matter what day of the week it is or time of yr, and leave the rest to chance, which has been a bit hit 'n' miss at times, yet there is always somewhere to get something to eat, whether good or bad.

  8. Well they do and they don't, Monica. Many eat late in the evening but traditionally the French start lunch at 12 which is what makes it easier to score an early table ;-)

    And fair point Chris. If I were going to Australia - which as a matter of fact I am at the end of next month - I'd probably be less laid back about it.