Dine on history at these centuries’ old Parisian culinary institutions.
Paris is one of the world’s top culinary destinations and taking in its gastronomic pleasures is a highlight of any trip to the French capital. The city may currently have over 10,000 restaurants, however, the tres Parisienne concept of dining out in a venue with an attractive setting and a menu of dishes to select from, is relatively new. From the 1760s to the turn of the 20th century, the city’s dining scene transitioned from the tables of modest inns to those of glamorous gastronomic restaurants and dazzling Art Nouveau eateries. You can savor a delectable bite of French history at these restaurants in Paris.
La Tour d’Argent
One of the most famous restaurants in the world, la Tour d’Argent was born in 1582 as a humble inn on the outskirts of Paris. Named after a shimmering Renaissance castle which it faced, the “Silver Tower” soon attracted the attention of King Henri IV, drawn to its excellent cuisine eaten with a new utensil, the fork. Many other regal clients, from emperors to tsars, would go on to frequent the gastronomic institution. In 1911 it was bought by André Terrail, whose family still owns it today. The savvy restaurateur propelled La Tour d’Argent to new heights–in reputation and physically by increasing the two-story building to six and topping it with a panoramic dining room. This is where current-day customers can savor its famed numbered duck, wine from its legendary wine cellar, and its soaring views over the city.
INSIDER TIPIf you can’t afford to dine at the gastronomic restaurant, you can enjoy a more reasonably-priced meal at its rotisserie or a snack from its bakery, both found across the street.
À La Petite Chaise
In 1680 a wine shop serving some modest fare opened in a house (cheze in old French) amidst the fields west of the capital, now the 7th arrondissement. Its original wrought-iron grill and sign beckon diners into its classic dining room, once popular with Chateaubriand, Georges Sand, and President François Mitterrand. Gone are the days when its menu included fish caught from the Seine, instead it features well-prepared soupe à l’oignon, magret de canard, beef tartare, and other French favorites.
Although it was originally a café, Le Procope is now one of Paris’s most historic restaurants. Established in 1686, the coffee house became a meeting point for Left Bank philosophers, writers, and revolutionaries. Nods to its roster of illustrious regulars, from Rousseau to Robespierre and from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Verlaine, decorate its maze of dining rooms. Although its cuisine isn’t as revolutionary as its former customers, the menu offers respectable modern takes on classics such as coq au vin and sole Meunière.
INSIDER TIPThere’s also seating on its small back terrace on the charming cobbled lane la Cour du Commerce-Saint-André.
Au Chien Qui Fume
Opened in 1740, this brasserie used to be a popular watering hole for the workers of Les Halles, the city’s former central food market. Although its decor has evolved over the centuries, it still features clues to its name, “At the Smoking Dog,” via its logo, cheeky canine paintings, and decorative panels on its zinc bar. If you don’t sit down inside for a meal of its seafood specialties, you also can stop by for a drink on its terrace overlooking where the market halls once stood.
This chic venue in the 6th district is certainly the most seductive of Paris’s historic restaurants. Originally opened as a wine merchant in 1766, in the 19th century it became a favorite haunt of the Parisian elite–and their mistresses. Beyond its elegant dining room are private salons, whose mirrors still bear scratches made by these ladies of pleasure, testing the authenticity of diamonds gifted to them by their wealthy benefactors. In 1933 it became the first restaurant in Paris to earn three Michelin stars, although these have since been lost, the posh restaurant still dazzles.
INSIDER TIPIf you can’t afford to book out one of its private salons, you can still sip on a drink at its sensual ground floor bar, draped in red embroidered tapestries.
Le Grand Véfour
Not much has changed at this grand restaurant since it opened in 1784 at the Palais-Royal, the most buzzing place in Paris of the era. Its refined interiors have maintained their original Pompeian-style frescoes, mirrored ceilings, dainty chandeliers, and the tables where Napoléon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo, and Collette once dined. In more recent times, its renowned chef Guy Martin shifted the restaurant’s formerly two-starred menu to more casual, yet equally delightful, market-based cuisine.
Au Rocher de Cancale
Although it’s changed addresses a few times, this restaurant has been a popular eatery on the vibrant rue Montorgueil market street since 1804. This was especially so during the first half of the 19th century when dandies and writers would flock here after the theater for its famed oysters from the Breton port of Cancale. Among these was Honoré de Balzac, who immortalized the restaurant in his opus La Comédie Humaine. Its beautifully restored facade is a testament to this era, along with the preserved frescoes on the second-floor walls painted by Paul Gavarni, coincidentally the illustrator of several of Balzac’s novels.
Arriving in front of this restaurant found at the beginning of rue Montorgueil, you won’t have any doubt as to the dish it’s specialized in since 1832. Originally called L’Escargot d’Or, a large golden snail still sits above the entrance. It would take almost a hundred years before it became a smash hit, thanks to its new owner André Terrail, of the Tour d’Argent. During the roaring twenties, you could dig out buttery snails from their shells next to Pablo Picasso, Salvator Dali, or Charlie Chaplin. Today this stylish venue proposes traditional escargots de Bourgogne, creative versions of this quintessentially French specialty, and a range of less slippery dishes.
Originally a cheese store and restaurant dating back to 1845, in the 20th century this restaurant’s location in the heart of literary Paris made it popular with both French and foreign writers including Paul Valéry, André Gide, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. Today these scribes have been replaced with the young writers of tomorrow and other diners attracted by its reasonably priced menu and old-school ambiance.
Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse
One of the city’s original bouillons, eateries offering simple traditional dishes at low prices, this is the best bargain for a historic restaurant in Paris. Originally founded in 1858, the restaurant was bought by bouillon baron Edouard Chartier in 1903. Like a number of the other restaurants in his empire, he had it redecorated in the fashionable Art Nouveau style. Despite changing hands a few times before returning under the Chartier label in 2019, its ornately carved mirrors, floral tiles, gilded light fixtures, and stained-glass ceiling have miraculously remained intact. Within this sensational setting, you can feast on a three-course meal with wine for less than one dish would cost you at most Paris restaurants.
INSIDER TIPCome on the late side of lunch or early side of dinner to beat the venue’s long lines.
Café de la Paix
Prestigious from day one, the café and restaurant of Place de l’Opéra’s Grand Hotel were both inaugurated in 1862 in grand pomp and in the presence of Empress Eugénie. Its majestic Second Empire interiors of gilded columns, intricate moldings, and painted ceilings have tempted celebrated patrons from the future King Edward VII to Marlene Dietrich. The café menu features refined “casual” fare such as croque monsieur and salads, whereas the restaurant has more creative contemporary cuisine–all at prices as spectacular as the decor.
Sitting behind the Paris Stock Exchange, this establishment got its start in 1876 as a beer and wine wholesaler. Adapting to the fast-paced lifestyle of his financier clients, owner Gustave Gallopin cleverly began selling half-pints of beer, served in small silver cups to keep cool. It became the first Anglo-American bar in Paris and its swank wooden bar from the era still stands inside the entrance. You can grab a drink here before moving into the back dining room, flanked by a wall of gorgeous stained glass, for a meal of French classics.