When Wendy Lyn first went to Paris 20 years ago, she thought she was in for a whirlwind three-day tour. At the time she was working in London, where the biggest food buzz was a TGI Fridays opening in Covent Garden.
"When I arrived in Paris, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I fell down this hole and found myself sitting at a Mad Hatter tea party filled with chefs and people who really cared about food. They invited me into their world because I was willing to adjust and learn."
If this seems like a so-what statement, think back to that first trip to Paris when you expected to be regaled with oozing brie and crisp crepes at every cafe, only to realize you were just as likely to find frozen food as Michelin-starred cuisine. When Lyn's friends and family started turning to her for advice on dining in Paris like a local, she decided to launch her own company giving tours that teach visitors how to have the best meal of their lives in Paris.
"People think that [the French are] pompous and horrible, but so much of this is outdated stereotypes of how people are eating. How are [visitors] going to know unless someone tells them? The message hasn't gotten out about how people [in France] really eat. I show [visitors] that it's a lot more approachable than they expected."
Approachable doesn't mean easy. Lyn starts each tour with a debrief of French dining. "There is a real structure to how the French do things. When people don't understand the cultural nuances, they end up throwing a good meal under the bus."
According to Lyn, diners need to know that a bistro isn't a cafe isn't a brasserie. It's about choosing the venue that suits the occasion and adjusting your expectations. While Americans might be used to nibbling on a cheese plate at wine bar pre-dinner, Parisians balk. In France, cheese comes before dessert, not dinner.
And if you order a heavy Burgundy to drink early in the evening, the shock will be double as the custom is to start with light wines, moving to the heavier ones to pace yourself and extend the dining experience. "You can't customize the food scene for yourself," says Lyn.
But that doesn't mean there aren't tricks to make sure you always end up with a good dining experience. Start by scanning the wine list for natural wines. "If you see 100% grapes in the glass, you know it's 100% fish in dish," Lyn quips. Since natural wines aren't widely distributed, the chefs and restaurateurs who make it a point to source them can be trusted to take the same care when choosing ingredients.
Lyn also recommends window shopping for menus. Seasonal ingredients should star. If there's asparagus in the markets, asparagus should be on the table. Another tip off is the type of dishes a restaurant serves. Offal, like brains and liver, indicates the chef's care in sourcing ingredients. And this fastidiousness can be applied throughout their kitchen. You don't need to order it, but you're more likely to get a good meal regardless.
"Veuve Clicquot? Fancy name brand wine? Hands down you're not getting seasonal food."
Lyn also recommends checking your expectations at the door regarding service. "The waiters aren't going to be your best friends—they're there to do a job." Order quickly, then sit back and enjoy the scene and the company. "The rhythm of the meal is different, and it can be hard for a couple who has been traveling together for the past three weeks throughout Europe and have nothing left to say."
"When people dine at these so-called must go places, they feel like total outsiders because they see locals kissing each other on the cheek and opening wine. You can't just go somewhere and fit in, you need time."
But the food should occupy some time. Looking for classic cuisine? Lyn lauds Bistrot Paul Bert as the best example of traditional French dining as "my favorite place to eat in the entire world." Order off a chalkboard scrawled with the day's menu, which features produce grown at the restaurant's partner farm in Normandy, along with meats and cheeses sourced from top-notch producers. If you must have steak frites, ask for the special menu. As for cheese, their famed platter is served family style—slice yourself a piece of each before the server whisks it away to the next table.
For a more modern dining experience, head to The Clown Bar. Located in the hip 11th arrondissement this is contemporary Parisian dining at its most exciting. The menu features a series of a la carte plates for sharing. Go with a group and order six plates or so. "Everyone grabs their fork and digs in together," exclaims Lyn, and you can't wait to see what comes next!"
Want to learn more? Book a tour with Lyn the next time you're in Paris. Morning tours focus on French dining habits, while evening tours feature wine bars and often end up becoming mini-networking events. You can find out more on her website wendylyn.paris.