Of course, the unsuspecting tourist may still have to pay a ferocious price for anything from mineral water to a sandwich in cafes located near major tourist attractions. But scrutiny of any restaurant menu should ensure there are no nasty surprises whentaking pot luck - and remember, all prices include service. The four restaurants recommended here, which all offer three-course meals for F100-F200 (£12-£24) excluding wine, should convince doubters that Paris still offers unbeatable value in the mediumprice range (see box below for details).
Joel Fleury cut his catering teeth working for the excellent Flo chain of brasseries. So it is no surprise that since taking over Le Grand Colbert two years ago he has made it a great favourite with a wide spectrum of customers - stockbrokers (not the braying London sort), librarians from the Bibliotheque Nationale next door, journalists and rag trade from the Sentier area and, late in the evening, theatregoers and actors.
Le Grand Colbert is a cavernous brasserie with a lovingly restored 1830s decor. Large potted plants, mosaic flooring, globe lights, handwritten menus and bustling long-aproned waiters are classic brasserie features, as are the filets de hareng, sole meu n iere, choucroute, confit de canard, steak tartare (correctly prepared with chopped, not minced, beef) and an andouillette with the mysterious tag "A.A.A.A.A". (This is not a rendering, in advance, of the sound about to be made by the contented customer, but a seal of approval from the Association Amicale des Amateurs d'Andouillettes Authentiques).
But other dishes are of a kind less often found in brasseries: a gratin of apples in a Calvados, cream and Camembert sauce; poelon de morilles au porto; feuillete a la moelle (bone marrow); langoustines au sauternes on a bed of spinach and enclosed in filo pastry; and cold ratatouille, which is much better than it sounds and most refreshing when the weather is hot. If you are there in the summer, try to book one of the tables just outside the back entrance of the restaurant in the airy Galerie Colbert, which is part of the network of 19th-century arcades that are such an attractive feature of this part of Paris.
The unspoilt Passage Geffroy-Didelot - an alleyway reached by going under an arch on Boulevard de Batignolles, 100 metres from Villiers metro station - used to be lined with small workshops. Three of them knocked into one have become L'Impatient, a long,narrow restaurant with glass all along one side and original turn-of-the-century posters and Doisneau photographs on the walls. Its young owner-chef, Paul Blouet, trained at L'Huitriere, a noted fish restaurant in his home city of Lille, and this shows in his confident and inventive handling of seafood which never strains for effect. His tresse de saumon et de barbue (interwoven slivers of salmon and brill) is no gimmick: the slight but not total interpenetration of flavours is different from the kind you get in a panache (various fish simply presented together) or a marmite (in which they are stewed together).
Blouet's other great quality is his judicious use of herbs - many of which, along with some vegetables, he gets from a "pick and pay" market garden he discovered while cycling on the outskirts of Paris. Chive-flavoured foie gras, duck with orange and mint, ravioli with a filling of baby courgette skin, tarragon, parsley, chives and mint, pigeon with lavender and thyme ice-cream may sound outlandish, but all work magically well. The secret lies in the sometimes very small quantities of herbs used and their relative proportions - what the French call dosage. Prices at L'Impatient, especially those of the set meals, are a gift considering its very high culinary standards. And there is a bonus: the unaffected niceness of Blouet and his wife Beatrice.
Blouet changes his basic menu only every three months, though he offers a different entree, fish dish, meat dish and dessert every day. Jean-Louis Huclin, the co-owner and chef of L'Oeillade, has opted for the high wire: many of the 60-odd dishes on his menu change daily. There is cuisine bourgeoise (this is the dominant note of the set lunch, which offers very good value for money): frisee aux lardons, saute de veau Marengo, paleron de boeuf aux carottes, andouillette (another A.A.A.A.A.), oeuf s a la neige and so on.
But other dishes are more catholic in inspiration: langoustines poelees (with ginger, leaf coriander, basil, garlic and sate sauce), profiterolles de cervelle au porto, epaule d'agneau rotie au cumin, dattes caramelisees au four. L'Oeillade is not for those who pick at their food. There is no a la carte, just a three-course set menu with a wide range of dishes to choose from (and some extra niblets in the evening). Given the calibre of the cuisine, who's complaining? It has been alleged that L'Oeillade compensates for the generosity of its meals by overcharging for wine. This is untrue, as you will see from the carte des vins (wines from Fr85).
Huclin and his fellow owner Pascal Molto, who runs the front of the house, are masters of deadpan humour. This enables them to negotiate the motley assortment of customers who take their small, wood-panelled restaurant by storm at both lunch and dinner -quiet American ex-pats, loud, middle-aged residents of the posh Faubourg St-Germain in which L'Oeillade is located, officials from nearby ministries, politicians and people from showbiz and the arts.
Faubourg St-Germain could hardly be more different from the hill of Belleville, a working-class area now gradually being upgraded. The once delightful Place des Fetes was sadly allowed to be vandalised by tower-block developers in the Seventies. But rou n d the corner from rue de Belleville, where Edith Piaf was born (allegedly on the pavement), several blocks of dilapidated houses on the hillside were recently demolished to make way for a steep, well-landscaped public garden. The view from the terrace above it is almost as good as from Montmartre's Sacre-Coeur, but has the advantage of being tourist-free. It encompasses most of the capital's familiar landmarks, including the recently regilded dome of the Invalides, which twinkles cheerfully in the distance on sunny days.
Giving directly on to the terrace, and spilling out on to it in fine weather, is A La Courtille, a restaurant with a relaxed, youngish atmosphere and an attractively stark decor of pale cream walls dotted with Willy Ronis photographs. The range of disheson the menu is correspondingly spare, but their execution skilful: the navarin d'agneau printanier is all the lighter for being made with pieces of leg rather than the more usual neck; the skin on the saumon "a l'unilateral" is crackling-crisp ; the creme brulee is very generously dusted with tiny black vanilla seeds; the poire au vin rouge has a concentrated, spicy sauce and is made with the most flavoursome variety of pear available at a given time of year. First-class bought-in products incl ude andouillette (yet another A.A.A.A.A.) and the rare boudin aux chataignes (the black- pudding filling contains chestnut fragments).
But the product of the vine is the first love of owner Bernard Pontonnier, who was taught to appreciate wine at an early age by his baker father in the Loire Valley. His shortish list reflects his personal tastes: there are only three clarets, but eight
different Beaujolais "vieilles vignes", some big Rhone whites and reds, and of course several Loire wines. Pontonnier is also interested in unusual grape varieties and appellations. Try the Touraine made with the astringent Cot (or Malbec) grape, the fresh and fruity Vin de Pays des Collines de la Moure (Chardonnay) or the breathtaking Les Gravels Gaillac white, which uses the fragrant L'en de l'El grape. Most wines can be ordered by the glass, which enables you to indulge in a spot of wine-tasting duri ng the meal. The cost per glass is proportionally the same as the cost per bottle. Now if that isn't good value, what is?
TRAVEL NOTES RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS: Le Grand Colbert, 2 rue Vivienne, 2eme (42 86 87 88). Closed Aug. Last orders: 1am. From F185. Set three-course meal F155 including wine and coffee.
L'Impatient, 14 passage Geffroy-Didelot, 17eme (43 87 28 10). Closed Monday evening, Saturday, Sunday, 18 Feb-5 Mar and 15 Aug-5 Sept. Last orders: 10.30pm. From F200. Set three-course meal for F100; four-course meal for F150.
L'Oeillade, 10 rue de St-Simon, 7eme (42 22 01 60). Closed Saturday lunch and Sundays. Last orders: 11pm. Set three-course dinner for F215; four-course meal for F195; three-course lunch for F135.
A la Courtille, 1 rue des Envierges, 20eme (46 36 51 59). Last orders: 10.45pm. Meals cost from F175.
Prices (which include service) are, unless stated, for a three-course a la carte meal excluding wine. Booking essential.
GETTING THERE: British Midland (0332 854854) flies London to Paris for £65 return plus £7 tax, to be booked before 18 January and taken before the end of March. After 18 January, fares start at £81 flying midweek.
PACKAGE DEALS: Crystal Holidays (081-390 9900) offers two- to five-star accommodation. Prices for two nights start at £149, plus £15 airport tax. Air France Holidays (081-742 3377) provides two- to five-star accommodation from £136, plus £19 flight supplement. Air France flies from 13 airports around Britain. From April, return rail travel with Eurostar, plus two nights' two-star accommodation, will be available for £126.Reuse content