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The Secret Formula of the Frugal Gourmet in Paris

Le Marais Joli. Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Leeds, 1999.What do you do when you have champagne tastes and a beer budget (although a glass of beer can sometimes cost more than a glass of champagne in France)? And you like to eat, not necessarily quantity (because reducing calories and cholesterol is forever on your mind) but quality (because you can't stand to waste a single meal on a mediocre one)?


It pays to be creative, inventive and resourceful -- an idea we (Americans) don't even realize has been ingrained in us from birth, for which I am eternally grateful.

Le Palet. Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Leeds, 1999.When I was a "lowly" tourist here in France, our travel budget was spent more on dining than lodging, going from one restaurant to the next, savoring every morsel of authentic French cooking. We perused dozens of guide books, made lists of possibilities, then tested zero, one, two, and three-star restaurants, until we were saturated in fats and downing Alka Seltzers. All that changed when I became a bona fide resident of France and my budget moved down out of the "luxury vacation" category and into "making-ends-meet." Of course, we all know that "necessity is the mother of invention," but even if saving money isn't your goal, maybe just getting a bargain is a "high" for you ... and you empathize with my deep satisfaction of finding a really great meal for a ridiculously low price.

So, what's the secret? Do I dare give away my formula for dining success? I'll start you off with the top five, then after that, you're on your own. Here goes...

Formula one:

Define your goals. Are you looking for quality? Ambience? Inventiveness? Friendly service? In my humble opinion, there is only one reason to patronize a restaurant: food. All the ambience, creativity, or friendly service in the world will not replace that which hits your palette and your stomach. Face it: décor costs, top notch waiters cost, and you pay for it. So, if what you want is great food, stay away from the restaurants which have put money into everything but.

Formula two:

Get off the beaten path. Restaurants on major streets are paying higher rents and those costs must get passed on to the consumer. Restaurants in high tourist traffic areas cater to one-time patrons and don't have to worry about ever seeing these customers again, so quality could suffer.

Formula three:

Be cautious of inexpensive restaurants you have seen in more than three guide books. If too many people/critics/books are promoting it, then it may already be overrun with non-French diners, leading back to formula number two -- restaurants who cater to the one-time patron. Of course, this does not universally apply, but is still a fairly good index. Besides, if what you want is a truly French experience, then sitting among mostly tourists isn't where you're likely going to find it.

Formula four:

Eliminate restaurants that offer coupons in advertising flyers or coupon books. If they're discounting their meals, there must be a reason. Maybe they're new, maybe just not very good.

Formula five:

Take recommendations from people you trust to have good taste! Good old-fashioned word-of-mouth can be amazingly successful!

You're ready. Hit the streets. Read up. Ask friends. Make reservations. Savor every morsel. Have fun. Feel accomplished. I do all these things just about every day and love every minute. You can, too.