A lot of folks from the US when coming to Paris, have saved up, are going to eat in starred restaurants and don’t really care about cost - they’re there for the Paris restaurant experience. I was there once and so I say “God Bless ‘em and more power.” However, I get a fair number of enquiries from other folks, some old (and on fixed incomes) and some young (with backpacks) who want the “Paris experience” complete with wine, but don’t have the savings to back it up. So what’d’y’a do? (A confession: much, if not all I’ve learned about the strategies to follow come from my culinary guru and mentor “P,” who insists on non-attribution.)
You enter a place and get the food menu and the wine list. You look at the wines up on the chalkboard – oh boy, one of those you think. Be calm, the chalkboard wines are for suckers who are lazy, dysarthric or impulsive.
Choose your meal, then pick up the carte des vins. If you’re patient, go methodically through it; if not, flip to the last page where it says “Divers.” In any case, you’re looking for Waldo and if you look long enough, you’ll find him. Any sommelier or wine buyer worth his salt has one bargain wine each in white and red that is drinkable (remember that you’re not in the US where the sommelier/waitperson is trying to palm off a last year’s crummy Cote de Rhone or loser Sicilian that’s half-madeirized.) No, in France they take pride is their selections. Once at the Elysees du Vernet, I was searching frantically trying to find Waldo before the sommelier was at my elbow, at which point one can no longer avoid conversation and advice (the most personal question in the world is not “How much do you make?” or “How’s your sex life?” but “What is your price range?”) and whew, there it was. Grimacing a bit, I said “I think I found the wine with the most ‘interesting price,’ (interesting price in French meaning the cheapo one). His reply “Everything on the list I’ve chosen myself, I don’t let anyone else do the buying, and in fact you’ve found one of my very favorites.” And friends, this was an extra-ordinarily cheap wine for the venue.
OK. So that doesn’t work, the wines are all out of your range. You hurriedly check the wines by the glass and sometimes you come up lucky, even four glasses cost less than a bottle. But even if not, you have another strategy left, the next-to-last refuge of the scoundrel – ask if they’ll sell you the wine-by-the-glass as a bottle and if so, how much; and often they will. The last refuge of the scoundrel is my distinguished advisor, “P’s,” ploy, have a stiff martini before lunch at a place like Harry’s and skip then wine at lunch.
And then it comes to quantity. When Colette and I dine together we share a bottle (guess who drinks a tad more?); but eating alone, as I often do, I want just a bit more than a half-bottle and anyway, half-bottles rank up there with chalkboard bottles as a major rip-off. So, you handl or stammer. Some places make it easy for you: you’re looking at the list, figure you need some for the delicious terrine, some for each course and some for the cheese; you haltingly say “but I cannot possibly finish a whole bottle.” Desired response: “Take what you’d like, we’ll charge you by the ‘ficelle,’” which means literally, by the string, but in fact, means by eyeballing what remains.
Most Lyonnais-type bistrots or bouchons in Paris have pots of Lyonnais wine measuring 40, 46, etc centiliters. And even some fine places, take Dominique Bouchet, have good valued wine by the carafe, in their case, a nicely-priced ½ liter of Bordeaux. But Americans should not assume that simply because the word carafe is French, that most places have wines by the carafe or carry another American favorite - “house wines.” That said, more and more places have ½ and ¼ liter containers which make it ideal if you and your eating partner have different desires as to wine choice.
Another strategy is to eat at wine bars, especially those that look all the world like a wine store and sell you the wine straight from the shelves with a reasonable corkage fee as do Les Papilles, La Cave est Restaurant and Chapeau Melon. All three have real menus but even places with limited platters of meats and cheese, like Les Caves Miard or Tandem, provide interesting breaks from regular eating.
Then there’s a new wrinkle in quest to find reasonably priced wine. Since the passage of the Evin Law, in part intended to reduce drunk driving, which it has been spectacularly successful at, many places offer to cork the unused portion of your bottle and put it in a sort of ‘doggie bag.” Two summers ago, just after the law had passed and Bruno Doucet had taken over La Regalade, I went and knew I’d have more than a glass (the terrine and cheese challenges again) but not a bottle, et voila, the offer of re-corking.
And finally, there’s rosé. Having grown up with Mateus, an all purpose Portuguese rosé, I have bad memories of it. But things have changed and for a summer drink, it sometimes makes sense and 9 times out of 10, it’s the price leader.
As usual, here are my current favorites:
11 rue Treilhard, 8th (Metro : St Augustin or Miromesnil)
T : 01 45 61 09 46
A la carte about 60 €
30 rue Gay Lussac, 5th (RER: Luxembourg)
Closed Sunday and Tuesday and Thursday nights
Menu 28.50 €.
La Cave est Restaurant
45, rue de Paris, Montreuil Sur Bois (Metro - Croix de Chavaux)
T : 01 42 87 09 48
Closed Saturday noon and Sundays
A la carte 35 €.
*Originally published in October 2006.