A weekend break to a romantic city is always going to be good but my mission, as I see it, is to do these things differently; think bigger, better, more indulgent and on a tighter budget. It can’t be done, they say. I beg to differ. There are magical places to be found in Paris, and if you look hard enough you might find something that literally astonishes you. I hadn’t been to Paris for quite some time and I thought of doing a little research prior to the trip but then decided that I would take everything as it came. I started my planning by booking into a hotel I had stayed at previously; The Saint James Paris is an institution among Parisians and it houses a members club for locals and regulars, it’s pricey but if you travel at the right time and scour websites such as Booking.com or Expedia, you might just find yourself a deal – on this particular occasion I managed to grab a room for 50% less than normal AND I was upgraded when we arrived. This, my dear readers, is how it’s meant to be! The Saint James has it all; a superior fine dining restaurant, wood pannelled bar, creative interiors, beautiful garden and a listed library. Not only is the interior and the history of the building astonishing, the service here is what really makes this place shine – it is, without a shadow of a doubt, some of the finest hotel service I have ever experienced; on our first night the valet even entered the address of the restaurant we had booked into the sat nav before bringing the car round for us – it’s the meticulous attention to detail that just adds that special something you might not find anywhere else.
Next on the priority list is food. Restaurants in Paris are tricky; there are a lot of restaurants, granted, but only a small handful worth eating at. I love French cuisine, but you’ll find more authentic French food if you look outside Paris. That said however, all hope is not lost. If you are after a traditional French Brasserie steeped in history and class, look no further than Brasserie Bofinger; a timeless classic that sits quietly in the Bastille area, it is almost 150 years old and its history, charm, the old Belle Epoque decor and its star studded guest list, continue to draw people in from all near and far flung reaches of the world. The food at Bofinger is exceptionally well done, very traditional French brasserie fair; nothing fancy and reasonably priced, served up by waiters in tailored uniform with impeccable training and decorum. It is neither too much nor too little and you would feel comfortable here in an opera gown or a pair of jeans and a semi-smart shirt. It’s one of the only true ‘Brasserie’s’ left and it is a shining example of true Parisian history and style. Don’t expect too much from the food, this is no Michelin starred restaurant and it does not pretend to be, it is warm and wholesome and perhaps even a little romantic, in that way that only a Parisian restaurant can be. I recommend the traditional French Onion Soup, it’s the best I’ve ever had. The food here is fresh and well done without being complicated; the sauerkraut dishes are the house specialities, but even if you’re not much of a sauerkraut fan there is plenty to tempt the taste buds and the dessert menu is pretty punchy, if somewhat over indulgent.
So after our first night in Paris dining at Bonfinger and sleeping in our uber-cool hotel room we decided to keep the next day pretty mellow, not least for the simple fact that I was sick with a cold and in no fit state to be running around town. A walk up to a local cafe for a light brunch / lunch, a further walk getting slightly lost and stopping to indulge in pastry and coffee at the first patisserie we spotted, followed up with more walking and a little shopping trip for my own foodie indulgence at a local speciality food store; the varieties of Fois Gras on offer was simply mind blowing (this is Paris remember!). After a quiet nap to recharge the batteries we set out for our second dinner, which also happened to be a surprise for me; I hate not knowing what restaurant I’m going to as I find it frustrating and this generally spoils the whole affair, but on this occasion I was more than pleasantly surprised. Chez Paul is honestly one of the most beautifully rustic and friendly restaurants I had ever been to (yes you heard it right, a friendly restaurant, with friendly waiters, IN PARIS!!). I over indulged, but it was so worth it. Undoubtedly so. The food was rich and filling and cooked as though it were made in a French country kitchen, it’s the kind of food that makes you feel warm and incredibly happy, and you just know there was love somewhere on that ingredient list. The restaurant was busy and the service sometimes a little slow but the atmosphere and the food made all the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I love over ambitious fine dining establishments, but I love authentic food just as much; perhaps sometimes I love it even more because, like this, it is served in a place that has character and soul.
Our last morning in Paris was a slow and quiet one but we definitely ended on a high note; it was my turn to show off a bit of a rustic old haunt that I particularly like. Chez Prune on the Canal Saint-Martin is a local hangout and definitely one of the best relatively cheap and definitely cheerful brunch spots in Paris. It’s quirky interior and haphazard restaurant and bar area make it something of unique spot, not to mention the view over the canal. This is not a tourist attraction, it’s a little off the beaten track and it can be challenging if you don’t know a little basic French or at least make an attempt at it. It’s busy and loud and colourful, the brunches are good in a sort of French-take-on-the-English Breakfast kind of way, with a few interesting additions. It is pleasant and the coffee is reasonable, the atmosphere and general artistic vibe to the place make it a fun and interesting place to spend a Sunday morning, and I hear it can be quite lovely in the evening too. After brunch you can walk along the canal and find several interesting shops and local stores and it is really quite beautiful in the spring and summer. Paris, unlike any other city, is both dirty and breathtakingly beautiful all at once. It does rustic as well as it does refined and there is very little middle ground. I implore you, if you have never been, to go, as soon as you can. It is a wonderful city for walking and exploring and it is, without any shadow of doubt, the city of love. Especially if you love food.