The very first time we went to Paris as a couple, we took along a book called Cheap Eats in Paris by Sandra Gustafson. This was in the days before the Internet and iPhones made restaurant recommendations easy to find, and we used the book to find inexpensive cafés and restaurants (we had used the companion volume, Cheap Sleeps in Paris, to find our hotel).
Years before, when I was a student in Paris, cheap eats meant the student cafeterias dotted around the city, run by an organization called CROUS (Centre Régional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires) de Paris. I had a meal ticket that entitled me to a lunch at any one of several cafeterias, and from time to time I would investigate a different campus to see if the student engineers or doctors got better food than the foreign students (not really, I concluded).
The meals were basic, but typically French, and although there was considerable variety from day to day, seldom did one have much choice on any given day. The servers behind the counter simply added things to one’s tray as one moved through the line, and at the end, one would assess the whole and make the best of it.
Most meals began with some sort of starter (which the French call an entrée) – usually something like crudités (raw vegetables such as grated carrots or sliced cucumbers prepared with a bit of vinaigrette). Then a main course, which included some protein and a certain amount of bulk (lentils were often featured in large quantities). Then a small green salad. Finally, a choice of cheese or dessert. Copious amounts of bread were available to eat alongside the meal.
A few dishes were unappetizing. I remember the day tripe was served. I didn’t really get a good look at it until I was sitting down at one of the long tables, and when I did, it seemed to be looking back at me. This was not tripe à la mode de Caen, slowly braised in Calvados; it had been boiled, and it was pale and flabby. I took another plate and covered up the dish so that I could eat the rest of my lunch without having to see it.
Mind you, I don’t suppose it would have been much worse than some of the cafeteria food I ate during my Canadian university years – things that we called mystery meat or Syncrude pie, or that perennial feature, fried bologna.
These days, we rent an apartment when we go to Paris, and we save money on food largely by shopping at markets and cooking for ourselves. Yet we still love discovering cheap eats in the form of little cafés when we are out and about. If you want to find them yourself, there is really only one guideline: get away from the tourist areas. No, there may not be much English spoken, but if you can read enough of a French menu to point at your choices, you’ll be fine. And be prepared for places to look unprepossessing from the outside. Money saved on decor can be money spent on food, and that is a good thing. Spot the cheap eats in the following photograph.
The menu may be written up on a board rather than printed on paper, and you may have a limited range of choices. But chances are all the food is simple but flavourful, and it will probably be a prix fixe arrangement that offers several courses. Even with wine and coffee added on, it will come in at a fraction of the price of a fashionable café. Usually with excellent people-watching opportunities thrown in, and often conversation with the waiter or diners at nearby tables.
One that we recently enjoyed was just outside the city, in the suburb of Malakoff. We found it after strolling through the flea market at the Porte de Vanves. It was decidedly no-frills – formica tables, bare floor – but a few euros bought us each a generous lunch. Most of the other diners were regulars or market stallholders. At one table, a group of men compared ornate knives. People came and went for a quick coffee or glass of wine, consumed standing up at the bar. In the following picture, its orange awning is just visible on the right.
Another time we found a little place near the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. It had the traditional zinc counter and the tables were crowded together very tightly, but the food was splendid. There was also a tiny place in the 14th, now closed, that offered only three choices at lunchtime, prepared on a little stove in the back, and featured the work of local artists on the walls. We chatted with the waiter, who introduced us to one of these local artists. We ended up buying an ink sketch, which he signed for us. I can see it on the wall as I write this.
I was telling a friend about these discoveries, and we found ourselves talking about the days of workingmen’s cafés and Chinese noodle houses and those London chophouses that feature in the novels of Charles Dickens. All part of a range of cheap eats that were once available to single people living in rooms without kitchens, when masses of people lived in lodgings where cooking was impossible.
These eateries often had large common tables and benches rather than small tables and chairs, just like the university cafeterias. There wasn’t much choice, but you could get a reasonably nutritious and often very flavourful meal of several courses for a nominal sum. They were cheap because of the economies of scale possible by feeding lots of people at the same time with a set menu offering limited choice.
Today, food has become individualized and people equate “cheap eats” with fast food, which isn’t, in fact, cheap relative to its quality, and – as Morgan Spurlock showed in Super Size Me – is not healthy for day-in-day-out eating. Say what you will about university cafeterias, but students can eat there every day, three meals a day, without developing liver damage.
The university cafeterias are still dotted around Paris – when we stayed in the hospital district, there was one down the road – but the equivalent of the workingmen’s café or the cheap neighbourhood joint serving a few simple dishes at limited hours is an endangered species in the central city.
That’s too bad, and I don’t just mean for tourists like us. Students, artists, shop assistants and a whole range of people of slender means once relied on these places as a way of surviving in an expensive city. The very people who made Paris the place it is were nourished in cheap eateries. In these cafés they met their friends, argued about politics, fell in and out of love, and planned their futures. And not just in Paris, but in many other cities.
What will it take to bring back the cheap lunch at a long table in a crowded room where the choices are few but the food is plentiful and conversation is free?
Text by Philippa Campsie; original photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie. Thanks to Wayne Roberts for the inspiration: visit his website for more inspiration on local food and sustainable food practices.