The Best restaurants in France

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Good restaurants in France

How to find the best restaurants and other good places to eat in France - A guide to the guides. 

How to find the best restaurants and other good places to eat in France - A guide to the guides.

The main guides:  Michelin Gault et Millau
Bottin Gourmand Other guides

An enormous amount is said, written and televised about the best restaurants in France, and other good places to eat.  Some of it is well researched, but a lot of newspaper articles and supposedly objective pieces have been penned by hacks and travel writers in exchange for a free binge offered by restaurants themselves, or local or national tourist offices.
   No risk of that here; there are no individual restaurant reviews on About-France.com. Defining a good restaurant is, like choosing a good book or a birthday present, a matter for individual choice and individual preference, not something that can be objectively determined by measurement against a scientific benchmark.
   That being said, there are clearly "good restaurants" and "poor restaurants" in France, and plenty that are in the middle, and there are a number of guides to help you find them. The best, and most complete of these, are naturally French. 
   But what is a "good" restaurant. Is it one providing delicately prepared and exquisitely presented food that is as much an experience for they eye as it is for the taste-buds? Or is it good traditional-style home cooking, made from fresh local ingredients, according to age-old recipes?  Or is it exotic? Or is it something that is tasty and yet good value for money? One person's "great little restaurant" down a backstreet can seem footlingly banal to someone used to the grand tables of the best gourmet restaurants, specially in France. Yet each can be something to write home about.
   There are half a dozen well-known restaurant guides in France, offering restaurant information on the Internet ; these are detailed below. The most famous of all, is of course, the Michelin Guide.

Michelin starred restaurants

The Michelin tyre company produced their first travel guide over 100 years ago.... in 1900!  And they first began giving stars to good restaurants in 1926. Today, the highly demanding Michelin stars are the international gold standard when it comes to ranking restaurants. With Michelin, there are no under the table deals. Michelin stars - a ranking from one star to three stars - are only given to the very best restaurants.
   In 2013, there were 106 three-starred Michelin restaurants worldwide, including just 28 in France. Of those in France, ten are in Paris, the rest spread around French cities, towns and even villages. Three-star Michelin restaurants are the nec plus ultra of gourmet dining, and they don't come cheap. However, there are big differences in price depending on the location. While a four-course menu in a three-starred restaurant in Paris may well set you back 350 € per person, plus wine, the most rural three-star  Michelin restaurants offer menus at less than 150 €uros. These are the prices for the basic menu in restaurants such as  Régis Marcon's "Clos des Cimes" at Saint Bonnet le Froid, in the Haute Loire department of Auvergne, or the Michel Bras restaurant at Laguiole, way off the beaten track in the Massif Central, between Aurillac and Rodez.
   Michelin are a bit more generous when awarding two stars; there are 82 two-star restaurants in France, 18 of them in Paris. Then there are hundreds of one-star restaurants spread across France.
    Since 1997 Michelin have also included a category called "Bib Gourmand" ("Bib" is the world-famous "Michelin man" mascot, his full name being Bibendum). This lists restaurants offering very good value for money.
   The Michelin website can be searched by location (town, department), and/or type of restaurant. Unless you choose one of the selection criteria in the Classification drop-down menu, you will get a full range of restaurants, including Michelin starred, Bib Gourmand, a Michelin selection, restaurants with menus for under 20 €uros, and also a lot more restaurants that are just listed for information purposes; listed in this case does not mean recommended.
 The website also has a zoomable map showing thousands of restaurants, starred or otherwise; but they do not all show up - even the three-starred ones - unless you zoom in to a fairly local level. There is an option to show just certain types of restaurant, from brasseries and pizzerias, to classic or gastronomic restaurants.  But for a list of three starred restaurants in France, and two-star restaurants, the clearest source seems to be Wikipedia. The French version of the list is better than the English one.

Gault et Millau

Michelin's main rival is the Gault et Millau Guide, which was founded in 1972.  Since 2010, Gault & Millau have classed restaurants on a scale of one to five chef's hats (called toques in French). At the top end of the scale, Gault & Millau have made their 5-toques category even more exclusive than Michelin's 3 star ranking.  In 2013, the five-toque category listed just 15 addresses to Michelin's 28. Most, such as the Clos des Cimes at St. Bonnet le Froid, are in the top categories in both guides; but 5 of Gault & Millau's top 15 only have two stars with Michelin. Conversely, 18 of Michelin's 3-star restaurants do not get 5 toques with Gault et Millau.
Parisian restaurants with both Michelin 3 stars and Gault & Millau 5 toques ranking (2013)
Restaurant Chef Area of Paris
L'Arpège Alain Passard 7th
Gagnaire Pierre Gagnaire 8th
Ledoyen Christian Le Squer 8th
L'Astrance Pascal Barbot 16th
Restaurant Guy Savoy Guy Savoy 17th
 The Gault and Millau website has a full list of all their restaurants (with or without toques), which can be selected by region or smaller unit, then sorted by toques (choose "Trier les résultats" (sort results) then "Nombre de toques décroissant"  (number of toques, downwards) .  For most diners, except the most demanding, any restaurant listed in this list – including those with no toques – will be worth a visit.... and prices, specially at the lower end, can be very reasonable.  For a complete list of Gault & Millau listed restaurants, visit their home page, and click "trouver" before filling in any search criteria. Or else type in a town or region on the main page of the website.

Le Bottin Gourmand

Another guide that only lists the best restaurants is Le Bottin Gourmand, which roughly translates as the Gourmet Directory. The guide lists about 4000 restaurants and hotels in France, and their quality standards are high. Le Bottin Gourmand does not class restaurants, but their easily searchable online restaurant database can provide lists by town or department, and by budget. Their lists include virtually all Michelin-starred or Gault-et-Millau-toqued restaurants, plus plenty more not necessarily included in the other lists.

   Diners can be reasonably assured that any classic or modern restaurant featuring on any of the top three online guides (except for some of those that are just listed on the Michelin website) will source all their ingredients fresh from local suppliers, whenever this is possible. In many cases, they may also source as far as possible from local producers, notably meat, cheeses and vegetables. All the food served will have been prepared fresh on the premises; and while bread and patisseries will have been supplied by local bakers, and cheese from a local cheese merchant or producer, even such things as sorbets or soups will have been prepared by the chefs. Nothing will have come out of the deep-freeze.
   Any self-respecting restaurant will have a good choice of French wines, notably local wines if in a wine-producing area. Foreign wines are not common in French restaurants, though restaurants with a good cellar may well include a few at the end of their wine list.
   Even top restaurants may have their own house wines; but wine is not essential. In most good restaurants, there will also be a choice of still or sparkling mineral waters, and tap water (une carafe d'eau) will be provided if you specifically want it. But it may be necessary to specify "du robinet", meaning from the tap (GB) or from the fawcet (US).

Other restaurant guides

   The same can not be assumed for many other thousands of restaurants that do not appear in the top guides. While many ordinary everyday restaurants do source a lot of their ingredients locally, and do not use deep-frozen products, others have less scruples. Many will use fresh produce where appropriate, including some local products, but may rely on deep-frozen or otherwise industrially-prepared ingredients for certain options or elements.
    The biggest  French online restaurant guide is l'Internaute (The Internet Surfer) with a searchable online restaurant database; this is a user generated restaurant guide, listing a lot of urban restaurants, but not much in smaller towns. As with any user-generated listing, specially those that cannot check that reviews are from bona fide customers, the star ranking can be very dubious. As happens all too often on sites that allow unverified and unverifiable user-generated ratings, good restaurants can get poor reviews put up by people with a grudge, or even by competitors, while other restaurant owners get their friends to give them glowing reviews, or even write their own reviews. By all means use l'Internaute to find restaurants (though they do list some that do not exist, or under the wrong name or in the wrong place); but be wary of the reviews.
    More reliable, but more limited and a different sort of guide, is "Les Routiers". In the UK, the Les Routiers brand "recommends only quality establishments.... that offer... great food " and value for money. In France, where the brand originated, les Routiers is primarily  a restaurant label and guide for truck-drivers. While there is an emphasis on value for money and good plentiful food, and French truck-drivers tend to be more sensitive to good food than their counterparts in many other countries, the brand is distinctly less chic than the three top guides. Les Routiers restaurants are roadside restaurants with parking space, often plenty of it. The Les Routiers website lets you search for restaurants with search criteria useful for tourists and lorry-drivers, including such things as with-shower, wide-loads, motorway restaurants, and so on. To select the best restaurants on the Les Routiers database, click the "Relais casserole" button; this is the les Routiers label for good food.
    Two other guides are Le Routard, and Le Petit Futé,  the French equivalent of Backpacker's guides. These travel guides have aged and matured with the backpacking generation of the seventies, for whom they were originally designed. Today they remain outdoor and travel centered guides, targeting a youthful or once-youthful audience, alternative options to the more establishment travel guides listed above. Both these guides recommend thousands of restaurants, and their logos are therefore commonly posted in doorways or windows. Le Petit Futé has a searchable online database, with brief descriptions saying why a restaurant has been recommended; Routard.com 's guides must be downloaded for a fee, depending on the area. While neither of them concentrate on top of the range restaurants, they both have their quality standards, and a recommendation by one or the other should be a sign that a restaurant is good, of its category, and normally good value.
    Finally, there are plenty more restaurants in France, specially in small towns or in rural France, that are not in any guide book, and not even on Tripadvisor (where reviews are not necessarily any more reliable than on the Internaute website, for the same reasons); you may find them in local or very local tourist brochures, on the French Yellow Pages website or just by asking people with local knowledge. And if you can check out eating places with somone with local knowledge, that can often be as good a guide as any. As long as they give you a choice of addresses, they'll probably be sending you to somewhere that is worth a visit.

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France is full of good restaurants. Its top-of-the-range chefs define gourmet standards worldwide; but in France they also have a major influence on thousands of other more modest  restaurants, which try to follow their example, often with a good degree of success.  It is said that the British and the Americans eat to live, while the French live to eat. This page is designed not only to help you find the best restaurants in France, but also other good restaurants, wherever you may be in France.

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