Just returned from 3 weeks in Paris with my husband and 3 ½ year old daughter. Got some great advice here about how to tactfully share a plate, market-driven restaurant vs. Brasserie types, and some good recommendations (thank you Parigi for Dans Les Landes recommendation – very much enjoyed it!). I’ll give a quick rundown of where we went but I want to really just provide a list of “tips” for parents with small children. We have been to Paris without a toddler and this was a totally different experience – and was surprisingly very enjoyable but I do believe it is because we planned well and managed our food expectations.
Meals – we generally ate breakfast and dinner at home and went out to lunch every day. We got beautiful pastries from Du Pain et Des Idees (right around the corner from us in the 10th), baguettes, wonderful butter, cheese, eggs and charcuterie from Marche Aligre, Marche St. Martin, and the Richard Lenoir Market. The chicken lady at the Richard Lenoir market was so incredibly and nice and the chicken was delicious. We also picked up things here and there at some of the market streets – Rue Montorgueil, Mouffetard, and Cler.
Lunch – we decided to save the smaller, market-driven restaurants for another trip and went to more traditional and brasserie type places. Believe me, I swooned at everything I have read about Spring but in the end didn’t think it was right for our situation. We stood outside of Comptoir in the 6th and I looked longingly inside (around 11:45 am – we could have made it!), but it was starting to drizzle, the space looked awfully tight, and both husband and child were approaching what I call “Level 5 Crab” so I just gave up - we had a crepe and walked over to the Jardin des Plantes instead. Sigh.
List of Restaurants:
None of these are groundbreaking stunners, but we love traditional French food and on our budget they were a real treat for us. Some were chosen for the food, some for the atmosphere, and some for both (i.e. Chez Denise). Some of our lunches lasted over 2 ½ hours. I am proud to say that our daughter was very successful - in most restaurants our neighboring diners usually looked stricken with panic when we were seated next to them but usually smiled or waved by the end of the meal –relieved that there was no screaming, yelling, or singing from the tot.
Le Gallopin – they were so incredibly lovely here – very nice service
Chez Denise (3 times) – what can I say? We LOVE it there – the food, the jovial atmosphere, the waiter, the other patrons, the room, the house Brouilly, the meat, the Larry David portrait, etc…
I would move in tomorrow if they would let me.
Bofinger – food has gone downhill since we were last there but my god, the room with the atrium! We asked to be in that room when we reserved – so worth it. They also sent over a complimentary juice “cocktail” with a sugared rim for my daughter – very chic, beautiful and thoughtful!
Breizh Café – beautiful ingredients and very delicious - also such a nice ouple running the place. And you can buy Bordier butter there!
Dans Les Landes – delicious and fun change from all the heavy food we had been eating. Nice to have a little variety and fun to share
La Rotonde – best steak tartare hands down. Delicious. Also very nice service – they gave our daughter a slice of ham, salad and frites and charged 5 Euros.
Balzar – good tartare and great menu enfants
Poilane – for breakfast – very lovely breakfast but almost too quiet with a young child. I imagine at lunch it is very busy.
Au Pied de Fouet – fun, cheap lunch and such a homey atmosphere. Loved our waiter – so friendly.
Le Square Trousseau – very pretty spot and great calamari
Café du Marche – average food but great location to people watch. Fun vibe
We also had wine and planches of charcuterie and fromage at La Palette (such a beautiful place but they tried to get us to add a tip onto our credit card receipt), Le Reveil de Xeme (in the 10th), General Au Fayette, La Patache, and Le Tambour. We love these places because we have nothing like that near us at home – and we certainly can’t bring a toddler into them! But we were able to enjoy a bottle (or two) of wine and simple yet delicious food as a family and felt very relaxed and sated.
So how did we manage to keep everyone well fed and happy? How did our toddler not have a breakdown and remain seated and quiet for usually 2 hours? Here are some tips that worked for us:
1.) Practice. We do not go out to eat in fancy restaurants at home. But we do go to diners and casual places. When we are out we sit in our seats, we use a “restaurant voice”, and we are polite – we say hello, thank you and please. We make an attempt to eat what we ordered. We act this way at any restaurant – dive, casual, or nice. And we go out one or two times a week. So many people are worried about how their kids will act in restaurants that they never take them anywhere – and then stress out when they do because they misbehave. Guess what – they don’t know how to act!!! Don’t differentiate restaurant behavior (i.e. – permission to run around a “family-type” restaurant but not in a nicer one) – just behave one way when dining.
2.) Make reservations for the places you want to go. If you have a reservation, you have a guaranteed table. You have a specific time to plan your day around and a specific location to plan your activities around. You’ll know when you can give your kid a snack and you can talk about the restaurant as something exciting to look forward to. On the days that you don’t have any plans (and definitely keep some days reservation-free just for flexibility and the sake of your digestion) grab a sandwich, crepe or salad or hit a wine bar at lunch for charcuterie, cheese and bread. There are no hidden gems to find by wandering around. On the few occasions that we ate in a restaurant without a reservation I was never pleasantly surprised – more like unpleasantly disappointed. Save your $ for the meals you really want.
3.) Stick to brasseries, cafes and wine bar type places. They are noisier, busier and more exciting for a toddler. There are more food choices – you will be able to find something for everyone and not have to ask for any special requests. You can make the meal longer or just order one dish. Many places have a menu enfant – great value at 11 Euros for a plat (usually steak hachis and frites), drink and dessert.
4.) Organize and prepare. Buy lots of little things to keep your kid busy in restaurants. Prior to the trip, I spent about $50 on coloring books, magic pens, Wiki sticks, pipe cleaners, flash cards, little dolls, silly putty, stickers, old maid cards, etc… These little things will save your life. Of course, don’t bring them out all at once, but I had my tote bag full of crayons and coloring books and each day I would bring 1 or 2 new things out. This seriously kept my daughter occupied throughout most of the lunches. We would also color a picture or two with her, play dolls mid-meal, sketch out a drawing for her to color, etc… but by interacting with her she was happy to sit through meals. These were all little, low-cost items and were discreet and contained. We did not take over entire tables with craft projects – just a few items at a time and she was happy.
5.) Manners. We taught her to say “Bonjour” and “Merci” – this went over big with the wait staff at most places and usually brought some good humor. We all dressed up a bit for us and to fit the dining scene in Paris – no leggings, sneakers and princess sneakers (except for the husband ). For example: We walked into Brasserie Gallopin with no reservations, but when they saw how dressed up my daughter was they immediately brought out juice, water, and began addressing her as “Mademoiselle” with big smiles all around. If someone smiled or waved she reciprocated, but her role in a restaurant is to have her own good time with her table rather than engaging with the other tables around her.
6.) Pack light. Invariably with a child you have to carry a lot of stuff. Be organized about it. The American mentality is to have 17 bags, sippy cups, toys and a huge stroller – this will not work in Parisian restaurants that have tight spaces. Fold up your stroller and stash it away once you enter the restaurant. Bring one sippy cup and ask the waiter to remove the wine glasses from your child’s dining area so you don’t have to worry about breaking anything. We got it down within a few days and could be seated with coats off in a matter of minutes without causing any commotion.
7.) Vacation mentality. At the end of the day, it’s a vacation. Relax. How you eat at home does not need to be replicated – if you indulge it is only for a few days or weeks. We were the luckiest people I know to be able to spend 3 weeks in Paris. Who cares if she hardly ate a vegetable? I did at first, and griped that she was eating too much candy and having ice cream twice a day. I guarantee if I insisted that she eat vegetables and finish her fish it would have turned into unpleasant battles and made mealtimes stressful. Thankfully, my husband pointed out that it was quite hypocritical of me to stick my entire face in a round of Mont d’Or and down a bottle of wine before 2PM by MYSELF and then complain about her sugar consumption. I decided to lighten up. The results? Sometimes she took one bite of steak and then consumed an entire barbe a papa on the walk home. I ate more cheese (that aged Comte is a very good thing) and also added copious amounts of Bordier butter to my baguettes. All was good. Three weeks of excess (candy for some, fat and wine for others) is a good vacation. Now we are drinking vegetable broth and forcing quinoa down our sad throats to compensate.
So I know that this may seem a bit excessive but we were REALLY able to enjoy our trip by being a bit prepared, a bit anal, a bit strict, and a bit lenient. I got in as much good food as I could manage and felt really satisfied by the trip without a lot of stress. I think our daughter really had a lot of fun and her dad was pleasantly surprised by how balanced our trip turned out.
Thank you Chowhounders – I had almost as much fun planning my trip by reading through all the posts and living vicariously through your experiences. Pardon the long post and not as exciting restaurants as most of you seem to know so well (sniff- another time). Hopefully this post can help some other chowhounders who are apprehensive about traveling with young children and can make their trip as enjoyable as possible!!!!!