Book Review: Hungry for Paris

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Paris. Yes. You say the word and immediately think of great food! But as everyone who has visited Paris can attest, actually FINDING excellent food is a challenge when you're hungry, or don't speak French well, or are unsure of where to go. I've just read a book that solves this problem in the best way. The book? Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants. Written by renowned food writer Alexander Lobrano, this book is a treasure. Filled with the aforementioned 102 restaurant recommendations, it goes far beyond the standard guidebook or restaurant guide and truly shares French cuisine - the good and the bad, the under- and over-rated, and the best meals - with readers. The book is arranged geographically, by arrondissement. Each restaurant has a story behind it - and a detailed menu of what Alec (and companions) ate - as well as recommendations, prices, locations, and history. FINALLY, a food guide that treats food - and restaurants - seriously. The reader also gets a glimpse into Alec's culinary history - and there is nothing so enticing, for foodies, to read about how much other people also love food - and their stories. Eating out 6 times a week will do that - and I am in awe (and in envy) of Alec's dining experiences. His love of food - and of sharing it - is a boon for all of us.


Hungry for Paris - an interview with Alexander Lobrano

For visitors to Paris, this is an invaluable book to have.  For armchair travelers, this book will make you buy plane tickets to Paris. We're already planning a visit - and deciding what restaurants to dine at even before we search for airfare. Hungry for Paris also addresses cultural aspects of French Cuisine - including manners, mores, history, reservations, and more. Each restaurant Alec recommends is a gem - I almost had to stop reading after each entry, to think about what I'd order, and to visualize its location, chef, and menu for myself. Whether you have a large or small meal budget in Paris, a taste for classical French food or leaning toward ethnic or bistro fare, this book covers it. One key aspect of this book is that it teaches the reader about food in France in "the Happy Eater's Almanac: How To Have a Perfect Meal in Paris." I've been to France, several times. I've eaten well (and poorly) in Paris. Yet, now I feel that I have a fresh start, an educated mind and palate - I'm ready to eat! From eating locally and in season, to eating alone, Alec prepares us for one of the best parts of life - eating well. He's well-versed in French food and restaurants, and we are very lucky to glean from his vast experience.

We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Alec about his book, Hungry for Paris, his background, trying new restaurants, and more. Here's what he had to say...



WE:  Please tell us about your book, Hungry for Paris: the Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants...

AL: As the correspondent for GOURMET Magazine in Paris and a food-loving resident of the city for 23 years, I get hundreds of emails every month asking for advice on where to eat. So finally I decided to write the book that I’d want to find on a bookstore shelf if I were coming to Paris and really wanted to experience the city’s best food, everything from its coziest little bistros to its best haute-cuisine restaurants and ethnic tables. There lots of books about food in Paris, but none of them told me everything that I’d want to know if I were coming to town—not only what and where to eat, but what the atmosphere of the restaurant might be like, who the other clients are, what it looks like, maybe something about its history. I also wanted a book where the cost of a meal in the majority of the restaurants I discussed would be affordable for the majority of readers.                  

HUNGRY FOR PARIS is my very personal guide to great eating in Paris, and since no one wants to lug around a pound of paper just for some good addresses, I decided to write a book that would hopefully be as much fun to read as a real reader’s book as it would be to use for finding good addresses. This is why it’s a combination guidebook, memoir and portrait of the city of Paris all wrapped into one.



WE: What led you to write this book?

AL: I think the seeds for HUNGRY FOR PARIS were planted during my first trip to Paris as a 13-year old boy. I was astonished by the food, the beauty of the restaurants, their liveliness, and the happy seriousness with which the French sit down at the table. This was a far cry from what I’d experienced growing up in suburban Connecticut, and I was instantly besotted. I was heart-broken when I left Paris with my family and determined to return. It took a long time — I worked as a writer and a book and magazine editor in Boston, New York, and London before I finally found a job in Paris. I knew no one when I moved to the city, but I decided to take advantage of the fact that I had a generous expense account and eat my way through the city. It was a spectacular education in gastronomy, Parisian life and mores, and it also did a world of good for my wobbly high-school French. I also learned to eat alone in a restaurant, which was something that was unthinkable before I moved to Paris. Every day I made a discovery of one kind or another, and slowly but surely I learned to eat lots of different foods that I’d always turned up my nose at — snails, brains, kidneys, etc.

Over time, I realized that my favorite subject to write about was food, and I started contributing on French food and restaurants to all sorts of magazines and newspapers, including Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and many others. Eventually I landed a weekly column as a restaurant reviewer for the Paris edition of TIME OUT Magazine. This lasted for fifteen years and it taught me the discipline of how to write a balanced review of a restaurant. I also did the Paris restaurant chapters for Fodor’s and many other guidebooks, but along the way I couldn’t help but noticing that the Paris food book that I’d hope to find didn’t exist and so I decided to write it.



WE: I truly believe that food can be an intercultural experience, and many essays in your book describe the quintessential Parisian dining experience (i.e., eating alone, seasonal eating, etc.). What is most important for non-Parisian diners to know, when embarking to the Paris?

AL: To be happy in a Paris restaurant, I think it’s important to appreciate the seriousness with which the French approach a restaurant meal and the respect that they have for chefs. This is why Parisian diners almost never ask for a dish without the salt, or the garlic, etc. — they have too much respect for the chef’s expertise to challenge him or her by reworking a recipe to suit their own tastes. Or to put it another way, the customer is not king in Paris restaurants.

People who don’t understand this often accuse Parisians of being rude, when in fact their behavior is often a reflection of their reverence for good cooking. It’s also worth noting that Parisians are generally quieter, more reserved and more formal than people from other countries.
I also think that any trip to Paris is a wonderful opportunity to challenge your own food prejudices. I often tell visiting friends to be adventurous — try a pig’s foot, an andouillette (chitterling sausage), or any of the other French specialties that might make most people queasy. The worst that can happen is that you discover you really don’t like tripe, etc., and you can return to your steaks and your chicken breasts when you get home.



WE: Do you still find new restaurants? Or do you prefer to dine at old haunts?

AL: How I wish I could return to my favorite old haunts more often! Instead, I am sampling an average of six new restaurants a week to find the best ones to review on my website and also for the magazine columns I do on Paris food. Even during the present recession, the Paris restaurant scene is very lively, and a whole new generation of terrifically talented young chefs are opening their own restaurants after years of training in the service of other more established chefs. Two good examples of excellent modern French bistros are Le Gaigne and Jadis, both of which I’ve recently reviewed on my website.



WE: Food is so important to every culture - even more so in France. Your tips for first-time visitor explore French cultural assumptions and mores. How do you suggest visitors best prepare, interculturally, for traveling to - and eating in - Paris?

AL: Since French food has never become as much of a part of the international idiom of food as Italian, Chinese, Mexican and other kitchens have, it’s a very good idea to acquire some Gallic culinary background before arriving in Paris. I think that reading Julia Child’s wonderful “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and “My Life in France,” a biography of Julia Child by her nephew Alex Prud’Homme, offer some wonderful background on both French food and the way in which an untutored but food-loving individual mastered the country’s gastronomy.



WE: Your book - and restaurant recommendations - are so very detailed - was
it fun to do the research?

AL: Though I more or less lost what was left of my waistline in the process, it was a spectacular experience to do the research necessary to write HUNGRY FOR PARIS. The hardest part of developing the book was to decide on a prospective list of restaurants to be included—I winnowed down the 102 restaurants that I write about from a list of almost 500, and the second hardest part was organizing all of the testing meals. By the end of the research, almost everyone was avoiding me for fear that I suggest we go to such and such a restaurant. All of the places I wrote about are restaurants that I’ve been to on an average of a dozen times through the years, but all of them needed to be freshly tested, and sometimes re-tested, before I was satisfied that they should be included in HUNGRY FOR PARIS.

Aside from actually eating so many superb meals, what I most loved about this project was that it took me all over Paris at all different times of the year, and this intense experience of the city caused me to fall in love with it all over again. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t feel lucky to live in such a beautiful city and one which attaches such importance to the pleasures of the table — food and wine, of course, but also conversation, conviviality, and sensuality.



WE: Are there ways for diners in Paris to give back? Are there local restaurants that source locally-grown food, or that give back themselves to the community?

AL: I think one of the best ways to give back to the community in Paris is to make a donation to It’s a terrific French organization that serves free hot meals to the homeless at various locations around the city every day. Another thing that visitors to the city can do as a giveback is to walk, cycle or use the Metro to get around town. No one in their right mind would want a rental car in Paris, and taxis are expensive and polluting.
Insofar as locally grown food is concerned, almost all good Paris restaurants make an effort to serve the freshest seasonal produce, grown locally or brought in from other European countries. In fact it’s rare to find anything as gastronomically or environmentally mad as asparagus or strawberries in December on a Paris menu. The French still eat very happily according to the seasons and have rejected the idea of blueberries from Chile or New Zealand out of season.



WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

AL: Food is a joyful, nourishing gift that also offers an intensely focused and interesting lens through which to discover another culture. This is why I’ve watched with regret as a certain brittle sanctimoniousness has crept into food writing around the world, but especially in the United States. As far as I’m concerned, food is too serious to be taken this seriously. Instead, it’s the daily basis of human sharing, and it’s from this perspective that I wrote HUNGRY FOR PARIS. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in Paris for many years and to have had the pleasure of assiduously discovering its very best restaurants. I believe that the best pleasures should be shared, and this is why I wrote my book and why I hope you enjoy it. 



WE: Thanks so much, Alec. Your book is more than inspiring - it is full of dreams, ideas, loves, and, of course, stories. I have read your book twice now, and bought several copies to give away. It's the best book I've read on Paris - or food. I can't recommend it highly enough!

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Photo courtesy and copyright of Bob Peterson.