Until I moved to Paris 20 years ago, I’d never given much thought to eating outdoors. Growing up in Connecticut, dining en plein air meant the occasional picnic with sandy sandwiches and ravenous mosquitoes on a rock-edged Long Island Sound beach or, less often and more fun, a holiday barbecue where almost everything ended up tasting like charcoal lighter fluid.
Then, on a very warm early June night during my first summer in Paris, I met a friend for dinner in the Place des Vosges and everything changed. I got there first and was delighted when the waiter showed me to a candlelit table, dressed with a neatly ironed pink tablecloth, in the open-air arcade that surrounds the exquisite square. What a wonderful idea, I remember thinking, to sit outside on such a pretty night. My friend was late, but I didn’t mind—the Place des Vosges had become my own dining room, and I was dumb with the splendor of it all, the square itself, of course, but also the distant spattering of a fountain, the laughter of children eating ice cream cones with their nanny, an old man on a park bench so engrossed in a book he didn’t notice the fading light, an elegant woman with coral-red hair and a lime-green linen dress walking a Great Dane, the whole delicious spectacle of urban civilization, the great show that is Paris.
Savoring our meal while walking home, I wondered why there was no tradition of outdoor dining in American cities. To be sure, a harsher climate meant that many people preferred the reliability of air-conditioning to the hope of a breeze on a hot night, and it was also true that most North American cities lacked the squares, gardens and broad sidewalks that make it easy to put a few tables outside. But what really was missing was the European joy in public life, in seeing and being seen. This, plus the fleeting sensuality of summer in the city, explains the Parisian passion for dining outdoors. Having the world’s most beautiful and romantic urban backdrop doesn’t hurt either.
Outdoor dining in Paris first became fashionable when the Bois de Boulogne, the forest park on the city’s western edge, was landscaped during the reign of Napoleon III. Fanciful pavilions like those housing the restaurants L’Auberge du Bonheur, La Grande Cascade and the Chalet des Iles were built, and the city’s beau monde took to trotting out to the Bois for a breathe of fresh air and a meal in a sylvan setting. At about the same time, barges on the Seine and the Marne were converted into guinguettes, open-air dance halls where simple meals were served with a lot of wine and a good time was had by all.
It’s a very different world today, but one essential element of Parisian life remains lunching and dining outdoors, under a parasol of green leaves or a ceiling of stars. A few favorites, including a couple of those old charmers still there in the Bois de Boulogne:
L’Estaminet des Enfants Rouges Tucked into the charming Marché des Enfants Rouge, this friendly mini-bistrot offers one soup of the week, one delicious plat du jour, and several salad platters with cheese, cold cuts or smoked fish, all served at long picnic tables on a terrace facing the market. The plat is luck of the draw—grilled cod with vegetables and chicken curry with rice were two recent specials—and desserts, including apple crumble and chestnut-purée cake, show off the kitchen’s homey style. Continuous service noon-7:30 pm. 39 rue de Bretagne, 3rd, 01.42.72.28.12. €25
La Cagouille This modern neighborhood behind the Gare Montparnasse railway station may be visually uninviting, but the terrific geranium-bordered terrace of this excellent seafood restaurant is a treat on a warm day. Chef Gérard Allemandou was one of the pioneers of minimalist seafood cooking in Paris, and dishes like his succulent griddled mussels, delicate deep-fried white bait and grilled red mullet with olive oil make for perfect warm-weather eating. 10 pl Constantin Brancusi, 14th, 01.43.22.09.01. €38 prix-fixe, including wine.
Auberge du Bonheur Hidden away in the woods, this old half-timbered hunting lodge is a preferred address of celebrities in search of a quiet, confidential setting. So yes, maybe that is actress Carole Bouquet at the corner table. If the traditional French cooking is simple but appealing, the huge terrace shaded by catalpa trees and at night lighted by white lanterns is magical indeed. Open for lunch only year-round; opens for dinner too mid-May to mid-Sept. Carrefour de Longchamp, Bois de Boulogne, 16th, 01.42.24.10.17. €45.
Barlotti It’s not easy to find a car-free setting in central Paris, so the spacious, quiet terrace of this stylish Italian restaurant on the trendy, pedestrian-only Place du Marché St Honoré is doubly welcome on a warm night. Start with the generously served mixed antipasti plate, and then choose from a tempting menu that might include tagliatelle with lobster, linguine with baby clams, or risotto with zucchini and shrimp. It’s expensive, but many dishes can be shared. 35 pl du Marché St Honoré, 1st, 01.44.86.97.97. €50
La Pizzetta The quiet, confidential Avenue Trudaine, a fashionable thoroughfare in the 9th arrondissement, is ideal for sidewalk dining because the residential neighborhood doesn’t get a lot of traffic and the Haussmannian scale of the street allows for a lot of light and air. This store-front pizzeria has become a smash hit for serving what many consider the best pizzas in town, along with spaghetti alle vongole (with clams, garlic and parsley) and a handful of other excellent pasta dishes. 22 ave Trudaine, 9th, 01.48.78.14.08. €35
Le Bistro de Breteuil Join the BCBG (bon chic bon genre, or yuppie) local residents on the broad terrace of this popular, good value restaurant for lovely views over the Place de Breteuil and a glimpse of the golden dome of Les Invalides shimmering in the night. The set-price menu includes an aperitif, three courses, a half-bottle of wine per person and coffee. Try smoked salmon to start, choose among main courses like sea bass with lemon butter or rack of lamb, and finish with cheese or a dessert such as crêpes flambéed in Grand Marnier or chocolate profiteroles. 3 pl de Breteuil, 7th, 01.45.67.07.27. €38 wine included.
Le Bristol Two-star chef Eric Frechon’s talent continues to delight diners at the Bristol, which has recently become one of President Nicholas Sarkozy’s favorite tables. The festive striped officers’ tent that serves as a summer dining room, overlooking a courtyard garden, is a sumptuous setting in which to sample Frechon’s latest creations, such as mackerel poached in bouillon spiked with vadouvan, the trendy Indian spice mix found on menus all over town right now, along with dishes like lamb sweetbreads with fava beans and nasturtium flowers. Hôtel Bristol, 112 rue du Faubourg St Honoré, 8th, 01.53.43.43.00. €120-275 à la carte.
Le Chalet des Iles The pleasure of a meal on the balcony or terraces of this half-timbered Napoleon III pavilion, shaded by pine trees on an island in a lake in the Bois de Boulogne, is more about its romantic surroundings—complete with strolling peacocks—than gastronomy, but the food is just fine, and when you board the little flat-bottomed boat that takes you there, you leave all your cares behind. Try the terrine de foie gras, sea bream with quinoa, or duckling with black currants and red rice. There’s usually a pasta dish or two too, and don’t miss the excellent tiramisu. Lac inférieur du Bois de Boulogne, 16th, 01.42.88.04.69. (Métro: Rue de la Pompe, then Ave Henri Martin to Porte de la Muette; most taxi drivers know the location.) €21 and €27 lunch menus weekdays only; à la carte €50
Le Pré Catelan If you want a huge splurge en plein air while you’re in town, you won’t do better than this enchanting pavilion in the Bois de Boulogne. Big planters of shrubs and flowers frame one of the loveliest terraces in the world, and the deliciously inventive cooking of three-star chef Frédéric Anton turns an outdoor meal here into an idyllic—if wildly expensive—experience. Dishes not to miss include his Breton lobster with snow peas, garlic, capers and mushrooms; turbot in watercress sauce; and wild strawberries with cream and a bitter almond biscuit. Route de Suresnes, Bois de Boulogne, 16th, 01.44.14.41.14. €85 lunch menu, à la carte €200. Closes for several weeks in August.
Le Restaurant du Palais Royal Popular at noon with ladies who lunch and erudite administrators from the neighboring Ministry of Culture, this contemporary French restaurant looks out over the tranquil and lovely gardens of the Palais Royal. Order the simpler dishes to eat well, however—snails in herb sauce, sole sautéed in salt butter or free-range chicken grilled with spices, and definitely the melted-chocolate tart for dessert. 110 galerie de Valois, 1st, 01.40.20.00.27. €60
Restaurant de Sers The spacious courtyard garden of this town house hotel just off the Avenue George V is a delightful choice for a light summer meal and a breath of fresh air in the middle of downtown Paris. Chef Christophe Huy does great warm-weather dishes like Maryland-style crab cakes or sea bass in a jus de poulet. Don’t miss his superb Franco-American cheesecake, the result of his six-year stint working in the US. Hôtel de Sers, 41 ave Pierre 1er de Serbie, 8th, 01.53.23.75.75. €60
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of France Today; updated in July 2010