Insider's guide to Paris

David Downie gives insider's advice on the hottest places to eat, stay and play in Paris.

Published August 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The crisis is dead! Long live the crisis!

France's long-running recession appears to be ending, with higher-than-expected growth and employment rates recently announced by the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. No one is more surprised than the Parisians themselves.

The national mood has begun to swing from existentialist bleak to uncharacteristic bright, helped along by France's (mostly) stunning performance in the World Cup held in the country this summer. Waiters and cab drivers are smiling again, the dollar is up to about six francs (the exchange rate used in this article) and the strident tone of French-bashing American and British newspaper editorialists has softened.

The City of Light may be glowing more radiantly than it has since the end of the Gulf War -- the start of "la crise." But the flip side of these glad tidings is an increase in prices, visitors, traffic and headaches in general as the Paris tourism-and-convention machinery roars into high gear. Long live the new crisis!

Anyone arriving by airplane quickly learns that taking a Paris taxi into town can cost almost as much as a plane ticket: 250-400 francs (about $40-$66, without tip). Traffic is the culprit. The only way to avoid the problem is to take the express subway to center-city stations (the Gare du Nord and Chatelet) from Charles de Gaulle (48F one-way) or Orly (57F). Don't even attempt to rent a car and drive around town. Parking is nightmarish at best. And air pollution has never been worse.

The biggest challenge to most visitors these days, though, is finding affordable hotels and restaurants in what is possibly the world's most popular destination city.

This problem is compounded when you stay or eat in the central 1st, 2nd, 7th, 8th, 16th and 17th arrondissements. Reputedly, the "right addresses" are found here, near shopping streets like the Faubourg Saint Honori and monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Trocadiro, Place Vendome and La Madeleine.

But generally speaking, "right address" can also mean "most expensive, most crowded, most international and least authentically Parisian."

Not everyone needs or wants to be near the Champs-Elysies, for example. The famous avenue linking Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe has been skillfully restyled, but it remains a busy traffic artery where suburban youths hang out at fast food restaurants and overpriced cafes cater to an almost uniformly foreign clientele.

Of course, if your budget and worldview allow it, Paris' top-end hostelries in these sought-after arrondissements remain among the world's best. For many people, luxury is what Paris is all about. The trick is to reserve ahead, preferably through an agency, to avoid standard hotel rates and the standard "we're all booked up" from gourmet hot spots. Get out your calculator and use six francs to the dollar (restaurant prices are per person, without wine). It's helpful if you're good at addition ("l'addition, s'ils vous plait" -- "the bill, please" -- can also sometimes be translated as "please call me an ambulance").

Here is a best-of-the-best short list. A double room at the 18th century palace hotel Le Crillon (10 place de la Concorde, 44-71-15-00) will set you back a mere 3,000F-4,000F a night. Eat at the hotel's two-star Les Ambassadeurs (44-71-16-16) and expect to spend 500F-800F for lunch or dinner. Or indulge yourself at the English-country-mansion-style Parc (55 avenue Poincari, 44-05-66-66; 600F), near Trocadiro, and pray for a table at megastar Alain Ducasse in the townhouse next door (47-27-12-27; 200F). Sleep at classy Balzac just off the Champs-Elysies (6 rue Balzac, 44-35-18-00; 2,000F) and eat at 3-star Pierre Gagnaire downstairs (44-35-18-25, 500F-1,000F). And there's always the Ritz (15 place Vendome, 43-16-30-30; 3,300F and up, up, up) and its stellar eatery, L'Espadon (43-16-30-80; 500F-900F).

Sometimes feeding on gold plates is a sound investment: A recent French government survey shows that the natives still spend about an hour and a half at table on average. Doing business in Korea or Japan means playing golf; in Paris it means eating toward "yes." Hence the huge number of "serious" top-end restaurants such as these, with well-spaced tables and private rooms.

The current hideout of politicos and the
business people courting them with foie gras
is off the beaten path, however. The Cantine
des Gourmets (113 avenue La Bourdonnais,
47-05-47-96, about 350F-500F), a one-star, is
within waddling distance of UNESCO and various
ministries, far from the madding crowds.

But luxury, calm and voluptuousness
aren't everyone's cup of thé. One of the
positive consequences of the recession was a
centrifugal effect on businesses of all kinds.
The city's neighborhoods tumble outwards
clockwise from Notre Dame cathedral in a
snail-shell pattern. Outlying arrondissements
(like the 11th, 12th and 20th), or formerly
neglected central ones (like the 3rd and 4th),
have been recolonized by everything from
fashion boutiques to art galleries, artisans'
workshops, recording companies, publishers
and -- of course -- restaurants and hotels.

Just off the Place de la Nation in the
extreme northeast of town is the Nouvel Hotel,
an affordable 2-star charmer with a garden
court (24 avenue du Bel-Air, 43-43-01-81,
about 400F-600F). A 10-minute walk from there is
Les Zygomates, a great neighborhood bistro in
a century-old former butcher shop (7 rue
Capri, 40-19-93-04, about 150F).

In the Marais -- fashion city -- just off Rue
de Rivoli, is the tiny but swank Hotel Caron de
Beaumarchais, with a marble chimney in the
lobby and 18th century decor throughout (12
rue Vieille du Temple, 42-72-34-12, about
700F-800F). A 10-minute walk toward the
Place de la Bastille and you're at Paris' oldest
brasserie, Bofinger (5 rue Bastille, 42-72-87-82, 150F-250F), with Belle Epoque decor and a
great set menu at 169F including wine.

A favorite of discreet business people is
the Hotel Résidence Henri IV (50 rue des
Bernardins, 44-41-31-81, about 650F-800F),
on the edge of the Latin Quarter, in a quiet
street five minutes from Notre Dame or the Tour
d'Argent. Around the corner is the up-and-coming restaurant Le Reminet (3 rue des
Grands Degrés, 44-07-04-24, about 200F).

High and low seasons have pretty much
disappeared: Paris is always overrun. For last-minute hotel reservations, you're most likely to
find a room in one of the city's huge (and
expensive) business-tourist establishments.
The Méridien Montparnasse has more than 900
rooms (19 rue Cdt Mouchotte, 44-36-44-36,
1,900F and up). The Grand Hotel Inter-Continental (2 rue Scribe, 40-07-32-32,
1,750F and up) is also a whopper, and the
Holiday Inn (10 Place de la République, 43-55-44-34, 2,300F and up) is a good fallback for
those with thick wallets.

If you're really stuck for a hotel, try calling
or visiting the Paris Tourist Office (127 avenue
des Champs-Elysées, 49-52-53-54). This is
also the best address for tourist info in
general, though the lines can be long and the
reception brusque. If you're looking for current
movie, music, entertainment and theater
listings, skip the lines and buy Pariscope (3F,
sold at all newsstands): It has an English-language insert prepared by TimeOut

Paris is known as a museum city. This is
both a compliment (for museums such as the
Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay) and a jibe (Paris
is embalmed, dead, moribund, dusty, etc.).
There are about 150 museums in town and
you can spend your life standing in lines trying
to get into many of them. The newest (and still
undiscovered) of them is the Musée du
Montparnasse (21 avenue du Maine, 42-22-91-96), in the former studio-cum-restaurant of
painter Marie Vasilieff, friend and protector of
Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Modigliani.

If visiting starving artists' haunts aren't your
bag, try the recently restored and reopened
Musée Jacquemart-André (158 boulevard
Haussmann, 42-89-04-91). This late-19th century city mansion of the mind-bogglingly
wealthy family of the same name is stuffed
with art objects and family heirlooms. The dust
hasn't yet settled.

Visitors who prefer a cocktail to a shot of
embalming fluid should go east. Eastern Paris
as a whole, and the Bastille-Gare de Lyon-Bercy triangle in particular, have become the
city's newest shopping, strolling and partying

The Viaduc des Arts, a 19th century
elevated train viaduct, has about 50 craft
workshops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes
under its arches, starting from behind the
Bastille Opera House. Atop the viaduct is a
linear park, the Promenade Plant&#233e. It runs
among flowers for several miles, above the
smog and traffic.

Nearby Bercy used to be the city's main
freight port on the Seine, where wine was
stored in warehouses. Much of the area was
bulldozed a decade ago and has finally come
to life as a vast and beautifully landscaped
park. Flanking it is Frank Gehry's whimsical
American Center building, recently bought by
the French government to be transformed into
a movie museum and resource center (the
Cinémathèque Française).

For a decade the Marais has been the
hottest neighborhood in town (especially for
fashion hounds), but the Bastille area due east
of it in the 11th arrondissement has now
become the bastion of branché Parisians: the
hip, the trendy, the studiously marginal. It's no
coincidence that the term "poseur" sounds best
in French. Dozens of fashion boutiques, art
galleries, restaurants and cafes have
mushroomed in the rue de Lappe, rue de la
Roquette, rue de Charonne, rue Keller and
other streets in this former blue-collar
neighborhood. Pack your GSM cellular, leather
pants and roller blades.

The blades will come in handy for skating
to the north, to the Belleville and Ménilmontant
neighborhoods in the 20th arrondissement.
Here too, cell phones and leatherettes are de
rigueur, especially when you go to one of the
jumping Thai or Vietnamese restaurants in the
Rue de Belleville. You guessed it, the
telephone company is being privatized and
things are looking up!

Whether you go east, west, north or south
in Paris you'll have to look in all directions to
find bargains in 1998-99. The higher the
economy flies, the brighter the City of Light
burns. And the stiffer the addition. The crisis is
dead. Vive la crise!

By David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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