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Best Petit Bistros in Paris

From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Diners enjoy a multicourse dinner on the heated terrace of Le Comptoir.

Haute cuisine, at least in Paris, has gone on one big diet. Forget the traditional bloated dinner tab, the palatial dining rooms filled with gilded furnishings, heirloom silverware, and the endless degustation menus. Replacing all that ceremony is the march of the downsized baby bistros that have turned the city into a culinary playpen.

The trend began, slowly, in the nineties when several chefs left behind their Michelin-starred restaurants, abandoned their state-of-the-art kitchens, and opened homey bistros where they could cook what they wanted for the sheer passionate fun of it. Precocious young chefs, itchy for culinary autonomy, followed. So did patrons looking for an affordable dinner.

How do you define this breed of eatery? Some baby bistros are combination groceries and diners. Some could pass for delis or gastropubs. But almost all are small, inexpensive by Parisian standards, and focused on locally foraged ingredients. What the chefs do with those ingredients ranges from rediscovering arcane regional French recipes to creating new culinary hybrids. But all of them are finding the space to experiment, and they’re turning out some of the freshest food in Paris.

To see where the movement began, make a pilgrimage to La Régalade, launched in 1992 when Yves Camdeborde defected from the posh Hôtel de Crillon and opened this cozy baby bistro lined with burgundy banquettes. Quickly becoming its own kind of classic, Le Régalade continues to thrive under chef Bruno Doucet, luring serious gourmands out to the distant 14th arrondissement for its roasted pigeon.

A second, more central, La Régalade Saint-Honoré debuted in 2010. The prices are still low (33 euros for three courses) and the crowd eclectic (Chanel meets flannel). But the real lure is chef Doucet’s devotion to succulent Gallic produce. Tellingly, one of the bistro’s most talked about dishes is a plate of dusky morel mushrooms in cream sauce, studded with croutons. There are big meaty flavors too, though even the standout crisp-skin pork comes paired with almost juicy lentils.

On the Left Bank’s Rue Saint-Dominique, the dollhouse-size Les Fables de La Fontaine features fish hauled in fresh from Normandy and Brittany. Thirty-five euros buys you a three-course lunch (complete with wine) that tastes like a seafood masterpiece. But it’s hard to avoid ogling the à la carte listings when the options can include sea bream crowned with black truffle sauce, and an almost tropical mascarpone roused by oranges, clementines, and coconut sorbet.

Over in the 11th arrondissement, Jeanne A is a multitasking grocery and restaurant combination. That explains the hams hanging like chandeliers from the ceiling, the bins of fresh produce, and the charcuterie case. Provision your picnic or eat at the long communal table with room for 15. Savvy locals are willing to knock knees for a taste of the specialty roasts that may feature a black-footed chicken from the Challans region or a spit-roasted duck served with fried foie gras or chorizo.

In the linked world of baby bistros everything eventually comes full circle. Yves Camdeborde, who opened that first La Régalade kitchen, has returned over a decade later to the Left Bank, art deco Le Comptoir du Relais. Book ahead if you hope to snag a table for the multicourse dinner (50 euros). When you sample the foie gras with truffles, the braised beef cheeks, and the mango tarte tatin, you’ll be tasting the nuanced flavors of a minor revolution that has now fully come of age.

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