As the saying goes, the way to someone's heart is through the stomach. The same can be said about countries: The way to the heart of a destination is through its cuisine. Paris has long been one of the world's most famous culinary cities — but London? Yes, London, too.
After years of being maligned for its mediocre food — soggy beans and greasy fish and chips — London has turned the corner and is now winning awards for its new twists on traditional cuisine. For the ultimate gourmet tour, sample your way through the classic cuisine of both cities, with plenty of French wine and British lager along the way.
Paris' new trendy eateries may make the headlines, but the city's culinary legacy is rooted in its traditional restaurants. Kick off your culinary tour at Chez Georges in the 17th arrondissement, a charmingly gruff bistro with worn tables and cutlery that belie the stellar cuisine. This is bistro fare at its finest, simple yet elegant, with tastes that linger on the tongue long after the meal has ended. Among the menu highlights: sole meunière with creamy mashed potatoes, sweetbread with a fricassée of peas and duck and pork pâté en croute. For dessert? Homemade chocolate profiteroles.
Another old-timer is Le Bistrot Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, which the New York Times highlighted in a recent piece titled "Ode to the Classic Bistro." Paul Bert has all the hallmarks of a traditional bistro — tables mashed close together, a happily loud crowd, lots of flowing wine and satisfyingly hearty food, like steak frites, rabbit liver with mushrooms, and duck foie gras on toast.
London has long been famous for its international cuisine, particularly Indian — a recent Newsweek article reported that when Brits are asked in yearly surveys: What's your favorite dish? The answer isn't fish and chips or bangers and mash. It's tikka masala. But while London has famously excelled at making the food of other countries, it used to come up woefully short with its own. That's no longer the case. Traditional cuisine — from steak and kidney pie to Welsh rarebit — has been going through a resurgence.
For a cheeky take on classic British cuisine, head to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which serves reimagined dishes from past centuries. Highlights include roast marrowbone (from circa 1720), made with snails, parsley, and anchovy; hay-smoked mackerel (circa 1730), with lemon salad, wood sorrel, and smoked roe; and spiced pigeon (circa 1780), with ale and artichokes.
Oldest restaurant in London? That distinction goes to the plush, velvet-strewn Rules, dating from 1798, with an astonishing guest list that has included Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, and HG Wells. The menu is a rollicking tour through British culinary history. Dishes include wild rabbit with cider, braised pig's cheeks with black pudding, and rump of Lake District lamb. To drink? Kate Middleton's Royal 29, of course, a tantalizing mix of vodka, Lillet and crystallized violets.
Nature's bounty is a lot closer than you think. Paris and London may be known for their urban sprawl, but both cities also feature a wonderfully diverse array of food markets. From clumps of freshly picked mushrooms with the dirt still clinging to their roots to homemade marmalades to pungent cheeses, the city markets offer a taste of the country in the city.
The lively Marché Bastille (Thur. and Sun.), in the heart of the Bastille neighborhood, is one of Paris' largest markets, with hundreds of vendors selling everything from tangy olives and juicy tomatoes to fresh seafood to baked goods, like buttery chocolate croissants. A tip: The wine vendors here offer excellent deals on local wines — pick up a few and make it a party.
Marché Mouffetard (Tues. – Sun.) reflects the colorful Latin Quarter, with a diverse array of vendors, including those selling creamy pâtés, charcuterie, and delectable pastries. A bonus: You can often catch buskers performing on the streets around the market.
Then, follow your nose to Rue Montorgueil, a cobblestone street where historical and trendy purveyors share sidewalk space, from La Maison Stohrer, one of the oldest patisseries in Paris, to L'Escargot Montorgueil, topped with a large gold snail, where you can sample the mollusks in the traditional parsley and butter.
In London Borough Market (Wed. – Sat.) may look familiar: It has made an appearance in numerous films, including Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter. Happily, the city's largest market lives up to its hype: Gourmet vendors peddle the freshest seafood in London, from twitching eels to swordfish; fragrant and fiery Indian and Thai spices; imported cheeses; and liquid refreshments, including local wines, aromatic teas, ginger beer, and thick fruit smoothies. It's far from the only market in town, however. Among others is Notting Hill Farmers' Market (Sat.), which The Guardian describes as "distinctly chichi" — and they're right.
Go local with purveyors like Local Honey Man and Ye Olde Pie Emporium, and then sample your way across the rest of Europe, at spots like Seriously Italian (try their pheasant ravioli). Top off your visit with a sparkling local cider (or three) from Mill Whites Cider. Cheers!