Lazy lunches in old-school brasseries are what Parisian dreams are made of – and nowhere is as entwined with their history as Montparnasse. If you’re in search of traditional dishes, silver service and marvellous dining rooms in Paris, there’s simply nowhere better.
“The cafes and bistros of Montparnasse were once at the heart of the city’s cultural life,” says local food and wine expert Veronica Cassidy. “But it’s not just history. In the last few years, the neighbourhood’s old dames have gotten a facelift, while thriving immigrant communities have added new flavour to the food scene.” These days, there’s more to discover than just Hemingway’s and Joyce’s favourite dining spots during the 1920s, and the crêperies that have lined Rue du Montparnasse for centuries. Come in search of vegetarian cooking with a social conscience, brilliant modern bistros and the perfect steak-frites.
Share tables and save pennies at Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse
Restaurant, French, $$$
In spring 2019, the unthinkable happened. The one-of-a-kind Bouillon Chartier, a fixture in the 9th arrondissement since 1896 and known for its marvellous Belle Époque dining room and affordable food, opened a second branch in Montparnasse. Except this ‘new’ location isn’t as new as it might seem. The restaurant at this address was actually run by Edouard Chartier for nearly 20 years from 1906 until it was sold in 1924, making its reopening a return to the establishments’s origins. Miraculously, it has retained its original Art Nouveau interior – painted tiles, glowing tulip lamps, elaborate woodwork and all. The concept is simple: service continu, no reservations and paper-clothed tables shared between diners. Bottles of wine start at just €10, six escargots will set you back €7.40 (although the salade frisée aux lardons is worth ordering for the crouton-to-lettuce ratio alone), and you can stuff yourself with steak haché or choucroute alsacienne for less than €11.
Healthy, seasonal cooking served at affordable prices underpins the ethos of L’Oratoire, the restaurant run by superb community live-work project, Les Grands Voisins. Like the rest of the site near Denfert-Rochereau, it’s simple and a little industrial in appearance: inside there’s a plant-filled dining room, while outside you can sit at colourful metal tables on a semi-covered veranda. It’s astonishingly good value. At lunch, €13 will get you three (often vegetarian) courses: think a white bean salad followed by lentils with tomatoes and courgettes, then a plum tart to finish. You can also order €6 tapas plates throughout the day, including terrines and rillettes as well as more veggie-friendly options, plus glasses of organic wine for €3.
Handily located near Gare Montparnasse, Les Fauves epitomises modern casual dining. Strings of bare bulbs dangle above the Mid-Century-esque tables, and mirrors back the yellow and blue leather booths. But this busy, buzzy neo-bistro certainly isn’t a casualty of style over substance. The menu is inventive and well priced, blending riffs on French classics (such as duck breast with rhubarb pickles) with vegan bowls, great burgers and hearty salads. All are plated in an exceptionally pretty way. Expect to spend around €40 a head on a two-course dinner with wine, although with caipirinhas and mojitos at just €8, it’s easy to get carried away.
Set apart from Montparnasse’s main strip of brasseries, La Closerie des Lilas is one of the city’s worst-kept secrets. Its history is inimitable: Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne ate here; Paul Fort played chess with Lenin beneath the signature green awnings of its shady terrace; and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are just a couple of the American writers who drank and wrote at the hallowed bar. Today, unless you’re on a big budget, opt to eat in the brasserie rather than the restaurant. The menu is resolutely traditional. Settle into a leather banquette and order bone marrow to start (€12) then roast chicken with dauphinoise potatoes (€26) or haddock with beurre blanc to follow (€26). Desserts are a must: perhaps profiteroles, crème brûlée or crêpes suzette.
For a true reflection of Montparnasse’s diversity today, local expert Veronica Cassidy recommends this restaurant and “beloved African-diaspora haunt” just off Boulevard du Montparnasse. The restaurant’s name, Niébé, means black-eyed pea and was chosen because it represents life, hope and luck. The formule menu changes weekly but might include the Antillaise speciality accras de morue (salt cod fritters), mafé de poulet (chicken in a peanut and vegetable sauce, a recipe hailing from Mali and Senegal) or classics like feijoada (a beef and bean stew), all of which are transformed by Niébé’s typically delicate, modern presentation. Mains, including an extensive range of vegan options, cost around €25.
To find a true local spot to eat in Montparnasse, you have to venture a few roads back from Boulevard du Montparnasse. Bare tables and chalkboard menus set the scene at wine bar and restaurant Cachette, where you can come for a laid-back dinner or settle in with a book and a coffee in the afternoon. Expect good ingredients, simply served. Starters are predominantly French, with dishes such as goat’s cheese salad or chilled pea and mint soup depending on the season, but plats (around €20) are more pan-European, ranging from seafood linguine to Greek salad and vitello tonnato.
Nothing says Parisian decadence like an ice tray piled high with huîtres (oysters), prawns, clams, whelks, lobster and langoustines. Add in an elegant Art Deco setting and a glass of champagne, and it’s hard to imagine a better blow-the-budget lunch combination in Montparnasse (classic platters start at €20 and go up to around €60). Undiscovered La Coupole is not, but it’s stylish and, in the nearly 100 years since it opened, its illustrious guests have included everyone from Matisse and Picasso to Yves Klein, Albert Camus and Patti Smith. There’s more besides seafood on offer, too: french onion soup, steak and an even improbable but now notorious lamb curry. The latter was introduced as a sort of colonial curiosity in the 1920s and has never left the menu; it’s even said to have been former French president François Mitterrand’s last meal.
Succumb to Paris’s most famous steak at Le Relais de l'Entrecôte
Restaurant, Steakhouse, $$$
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte is famous for one thing and one thing only: steak. The mini-chain’s recipe for constant success since its first restaurant opened in Paris in 1959? A no-option menu of walnut salad followed by tenderloin doused in its signature secret “green” sauce and served with crispy, super-skinny fries. (Order your steak bleu with caution: saignant will come on the bloody side of medium rare, while bien cuit, AKA well done, is likely to raise eyebrows.) Like the restaurant’s other two locations in Paris, the wood-panelled dining room and colourful tablecloths here are simple, but it’s a winning formula – particularly as second helpings are included. Expect to spend around €40 per person with drinks.
Go for a classic Montparnasse treat with galettes and crêpes at La Crêperie de Josselin
Creperie, French, Gluten-free
Rue du Montparnasse has been the address for crêpes in Paris for decades. Trains from the coast arriving at neighbouring Gare Montparnasse have long brought all things Breton to the capital, chief among them salted caramel, buckwheat flour and artisanal cider. Start with a bolée (never a glass) of the latter while you peruse the menu and stave off any hangry feelings at the street’s best-known haunt, La Crêperie de Josselin. At the closely packed tables behind lace-curtained windows, you can get stuck into a menu of buckwheat galettes and sweet crêpe; always stay for two courses (around €20). Highlights include the filling savoyarde, with reblochon cheese, ham and potatoes followed by an apple compote crêpe flambéed in Normandy’s famous appley brandy, calvados.
This small but delightful bistro a short walk from Duroc Métro has all the charm of the larger boulevard brasseries but none of the literary associations and associated hangers-on. Even so, its mosaic floors, mirror-backed banquettes and suited waiters hark back to a different era straight out of Parisian dinner dreamland. Like the decor, the menu is timeless: expect the likes of foie gras, asparagus with hollandaise, boeuf bourguignon and chateaubriand with béarnaise. Main courses go up to around €40, but you can also order half portions, which is particularly handy if you’re planning to try the fabulously fluffy Grand Marnier souffle for dessert.