Eating on the Cheap

July 7, 2010

un sou – a French penny
mes découvertes – my discoveries
un Coca – a Coca Cola
un kir – an apéritif made of cassis liqueur and white wine
une carafe d’eau– a pitcher of water
au comptoir – at the counter
quartier – neighbourhood
le prix – price
un marché alimentaire – food market
“Framboises ! 4€, les deux barquettes !” – “Raspberries! Two boxes for 4 euro!”
les crêpes à emporter – crêpes to go
à emporter – to go
sur place – on the premises; “to stay”
un sandwich grec
– a Greek sandwich
une formule – a set menu
le 3ème – refers to the “3rd arrondissement”; Paris is divided into 20 different arrondissements
un resto– short for “restaurant” (familiar)
la vie quotidienne – daily life
un plat – a main dish; somewhat bizarrely, in English, we refer to plats using the French word entrée, whereas in French, an entrée is actually what we call an appetizer, that is, the entrée or “entrance” to the meal
un très petit prix – a very small price
un chômeur/une chômeuse– an unemployed person


My first couple of trips to Paris, I was more or less on vacation.  I had a steady job waiting for me back home, and a guaranteed income to go along with it, so I felt at liberty to stop and eat when and where I wanted, pay outrageous tourist prices for tomato and cheese sandwiches at the Louvre, and blithely rack up my credit card trying out all the adorable little restaurants that André Michelin’s heart might have desired.  I knew at the end of the day that I’d be able to pay it all off, if not with this paycheque, then with the next one, so what the hell – why not live a little and treat myself?

Now that I’m actually living in Paris, this sort of behaviour is not so practical unless I’m prepared to start singing a French version of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? in the métro.  Employment in the foreseeable future is still an uncertainty and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to find a job, so I need to stretch my savings out and make them last as long as possible.  This means that nightly dinners out at that delightful little bistro on rue Montorgueil are off the table, at least for now.  I’m back to counting my pennies – or should I say, my sous – the way I did back in university.  Luckily, having been a starving filmmaker for several years, I have lots of experience in finding ways to make my dollar euro go farther.

In the spirit of sharing, I thought I’d let you in on some of mes découvertes on how to eat cheaply here.  I’ll warn you in advance, this is not your Zagat’s guide to eating in Paris.  But hey, if you’re looking to save a euro or two, keep reading.

Tip #1: Kick the Coke Habit and become an alcoholic

Un Coca ranks right up there as one of the most expensive drinks on a Paris menu, more expensive than wine or beer. I’ve been to restaurants where I can get a glass of kir, wine or beer for 3 euro, while a Coke costs 5.  In some really touristy areas, I’ve seen Coke listed as high as 7 or 8 euro!  Perrier and juice are also relatively expensive.  It took a while for my North American brain to wrap itself around this fact, since I have spent years ordering pop and other non-alcoholic drinks in times of financial frugality. Clearly the fiscally responsible thing to do in this case is to drink more liquor, which serves the dual purpose of both quenching your thirst and making you forget you even had financial woes in the first place.

Of course, if you are set on being a teetotaler and want to order tap water, you will need to specify une carafe d’eau, otherwise the waiter will assume you mean bottled water (carbonated or flat), which can often be just as expensive as Coke.  I think there must be some kind of hidden tax on all these beverages to punish silly foreigners for eschewing the perfectly good option of French wine. I mean, really, what’s the matter with you?

Tip #2: Loitering at the bar = Money saved

A drink consumed au comptoir costs less than the exact same drink when consumed while sitting at a table in the same establishment, and even less than said drink when enjoyed out on the terrace.  This is because in France, the price you pay varies not just depending on what you order, but also on where you’re sitting in the restaurant.  What can I say? Real estate is really important to the Gauls.  So if you’re looking to save a little money, get up close and personal with your local barkeep. Make friends with your fellow customers at the counter while you’re at it. If you smile real pretty and play your cards right, maybe one of them will buy you a drink, thus resulting in even further savings.  It’s a win-win.

Tip #3: Monoprix is Monoexpensive

When you first arrive in Paris, it’s only normal to be dazzled by the Monoprix.  They’re ubiquitous, easily recognizable, and full of bright shiny objects and pretty, pretty groceries.  Also, since they kind of have the layout and feel of a Target or an upscale Wal-Mart, you get the impression that they must be reasonably priced (by Paris standards).  However, you would be wrong.  Monoprix is actually one of the most expensive places to buy groceries in Paris, but a lot of tourists and expats gravitate towards it, because it’s big, easy to identify, and sells just about everything from shower curtains to champagne.

The always-bustling Monoprix Champs-Elysées, just down the street where from I live, is one of the most expensive grocery stores on the most expensive boulevard in all of Paris. I therefore only shop there in cases of extreme laziness… I mean, emergency.

On the other hand, if you are cheap poor conscientious about your spending like me, and cannot afford to shop with the shiny, happy people, it is helpful to know the “hierarchy” of grocery stores, from the most to least expensive:

Monoprix, Casino, Simply Market, Franprix, Carrefour Market, Carrefour, Auchan, Ed.

Needless to say, Ed and I have become very good friends during my time here. Ditto for Dia, the Ed-brand product line.

Prices within the same chain of supermarkets can also vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood (hint: the more chic the quartier, the higher the prices). The size of the store also makes a difference–a small corner-store Franprix may charge you more for the same item as a bigger Franprix further down the road.

As with most countries, supermarket-brand items tends to be less expensive than their name-brand counterparts.  Both Monoprix and Carrefour carry their own store product lines, offering generic-brand versions of everything from milk to patio furniture. Brands like Leader Price and Prix Choc are also pretty safe bets, though the quality of certain products may leave something to be desired.  While advising me about grocery shopping, my French friends made it a point to warn me away from the bargain brands when it comes to chocolate, which appears to be on the list of necessary weekly staples over here. And quite rightly too.

Tip #4: Ditch the Atkins Diet

About 200 years ago, the citizens of Paris got sick and tired of not being able to afford the price of bread.  They got even angrier when their queen suggested that they might like to try eating cake as a pleasant alternative.  There was rioting, looting, chaos…  the people went a little postal and cut off all the heads of the French royal families.  Then they changed their minds about who was to blame and cut off the heads of a lot of the political leaders who led the revolution in the first place.  True story.

I think today’s French politicians must now realize that the price of bread is a touchy subject among Parisians, because at 0,80€, a fresh-baked baguette is one of the very few deals to be had in this city.  One baguette makes a lot of sandwiches, which is very practical when you’re eating on a budget.  Also, since you’re in France, it’ll be the best bread you ever tasted.  So load up on those carbs.  (Sorry, Dr. Atkins.)

Tip #5: Become a citizen of the world, or at least, eat like one

Aside from les crêpes à emporter, which will run you from 2 to 5 euro depending on the filling, most of the more affordable options for eating out in Paris are “ethnic” – that is to say, not actually French food.  A sandwich grec, which is essentially a bun filled with salad, shawarma and French fries – yes, they put French fries in their sandwiches here! — will fill you up for days and also costs 3-5 euro if you take it to go.  (As we established earlier, real estate is very important to the French, so food taken “to go” always costs a euro or two less than ordering the exact same item off the menu to eat sur place.)

Your typical Parisian sandwich grec (“Greek sandwich”).
Photo courtesy Kaïs Miled.

Of course, eating Greek sandwiches and cheese-filled crêpes on a daily basis might be easier on your pocketbook than it is on your cholesterol, so you’ll probably want to explore other affordable options in the international market as well.  Japanese food, for example, is much healthier and generally pretty reasonably-priced.  You can get very decent basic formules for 6-9 euro, though if you splurge on the jumbo sashimi platter, of course, you’re going to pay more.  There are also falafel stands aplenty in the Marais, and lots of cheap Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants scattered throughout the city.  One of my favourite places to eat is a tiny place in the 3ème called Happy Nouilles (“Happy Noodles”) where I can get a giant bowl of tasty hand-pulled noodles and dumplings for only 6,50€. Vive la difference.

A very common formule in Japanese restaurants around Paris involves an assortment of brochettes plus rice, soup and salad, a menu which is quite different from what I’m used to seeing in Toronto. Your typical brochette choices include meatballs, chicken, beef, salmon, tuna and something called “fromage-boeuf”, which I find a little bizarre; It’s essentially melted cheese on a stick encased in a really thin layer of beef (pictured here, centre).

Tip #6: Follow the trail of students, couscous and beer

I’m not quite sure why, but it would appear that at some point couscous got nominated as the quintessential go-to pub meal for students and the otherwise financially challenged here in gay Paree.  Think of it like their chicken wings.  And although it still falls under the umbrella of “international foods”, this particular dish merits its own special mention because we’re no longer talking cheap eats, we’re talking free eats. You heard me – free food in Paris!  And it’s delicious and filling too!

A north African dish, couscous typically combines steamed semolina grain, root vegetables, chick peas and chunks of meat, usually lamb, chicken or beef. Vegetarian versions sometimes include raisins, nuts or coconut.

Couscous, along with moules frites (mussels with fries), is a dish that is regularly offered free of charge at Tribal Café and various other establishments around the city on certain nights with the consumption of – you guessed it – an alcoholic beverage.  Yes, that’s right, it’s all part of the diabolical French conspiracy to get you liquored up.  (See Tip #1).

Tip #7: Take a cue from the ladies who lunch

If, like me, you are a hopeless foodie who finds it torturous to be on a limited budget in a city that offers world-class cuisine, you can still treat yourself to a nice meal out at that restaurant you’ve been wanting to try – just do it at lunchtime.  There are always special menus and formule deals at lunch, and it’s often the same plats you’d get at dinner, only less expensive.  That way, you still get the pleasure of tasting what the chef has to offer but at a très petit prix. It’s the same across the board from neighbourhood bistros to fine dining establishments – lunch is always a better bet, price-wise, than dinner.  So fill ‘er up at lunchtime and save the KD for dinner. Well, if they had KD here. Which they don’t. I think it’s banned in the constitution.

Tip #8: The early bird may get the worm, but he also has to pay full price for it

The other day, I lost track of the time and had to hustle to make it to the bi-weekly outdoor marché alimentaire in my neighbourhood a scant twenty minutes before closing, thus saving myself from the unthinkable fate of eating mediocre supermarket produce for three days.  While I stood in front of one of the booths debating whether or not I wanted to buy melons or strawberries, an impeccably-dressed businessman swooped in and scooped up two cartons of raspberries in response to the vendor’s lusty cry of “Framboises! 4€, les deux barquettes!”  Barely had he handed over his cash and turned to walk away when the vendor’s cry changed to “Framboises! 3€, les deux barquettes!”  Now, if I was that businessman, I’d have been mighty peeved, but as it was, I just put down the melon and picked up two cartons of raspberries.  Sold!

Measuring a mere 62 linear metres, the Marché Aguesseau at Place Madeleine in my neighbourhood is the tiniest of all the Parisian food markets. It runs every Tuesday and Friday from 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

The proverb to be gleaned from this story is clearly Better late than… well, actually, it’s just Better late*.  At the very end of the day, vendors will often drop their prices in an effort to sell off the rest of their produce before the market closes.  If you’re okay with a slightly reduced selection, try arriving half an hour before market end and you’ll probably score some deals.

Left: Muriel, one of the friendly regular vendors at Marché Aguesseau, poses with some heirloom tomatoes.
I adore being able to buy my produce fresh from food markets, which are a regular part of everyday life here and run year-round, rain or shine. In some neighbourhoods they happen once or twice a week, in others they’re open every day. The prices tend to run a little higher than at the supermarket, but the quality is also better. In this case, I consider the extra pennies spent well worth it.

By the way, when it comes to pricing, not all markets are created equal.  Those in heavily touristed areas, like the one in rue Mouffetard, will have higher prices. (See Tip #9.)  For a list of all the weekly Paris markets by arrondissement, click here.

Tip #9: Stay away from the Louvre. And the Eiffel Tower. And Notre Dame. And…

By sheer chance, I happen to be living smack-dab in the middle of the 8ème, one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Paris and a stone’s throw from the famous Champs-Elysées Boulevard.  I feel really fortunate because it’s right in the centre of town, which means it’s super-easy for me to get anywhere and there is always lots to see — but I never eat here.  Neither do most Parisians.

That’s because the Champs-Elysées is tourist central.  So are the streets that border the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Montmartre square, the Centre Pompidou and…  well, you get the picture.  The concentrated presence of tourists almost always indicates inflated prices at the restaurants that populate that neighbourhood.  Get off the beaten path, take 15 or 20 minutes to walk or take the métro somewhere far from the tourist attractions**, and you’ll find that the coffee that cost 5€ now costs 2€.  You’ll know you’re in the right place if the people around you are speaking French instead of English/German/Italian/Russian, they’re smoking like chimneys and gesticulating disdainfully, and they’re not carrying backpacks or wearing baseball caps, blazing white sneakers, or socks with sandals (sorry, my American and German friends).

This tactic also has the added benefit of getting you into a part of the city that probably isn’t pictured in your Let’s Go Paris, and giving you a glimpse into la vie quotidienne of the people who actually live and work here.  Pretty soon you too may find yourself sneering in contempt as you complain about the ridiculously high price of bread.

Tip # 10: Get a job

Yes, I know.  You’re about to say, “Gee, thanks for the pointed reminder Darlene. If I had a job in Paris, I wouldn’t need to worry about eating on a budget, now would I?”  I realize that this last tip may at first seem like my snarky way of making fun of you, but I promise you it’s not (well, mostly not, anyway).  Paradoxically, once you have a job in Paris and can afford to start eating out, eating out also becomes more affordable.  This is because many companies in France provide their employees with either a lunch allowance or with tickets restaurant ­– half-price vouchers that can be used to purchase food in local restaurants and some food shops.  Sadly, there are no such tickets restaurant for the rest of us chômeurs. So dust off that CV and get cracking.

Which reminds me – I’d better get back to going through the want ads and stop writing this blog entry, so that I can afford to buy some pretty things at Monoprix and start eating out again.

Happy bargain-hunting and bon appétit!

* Somewhat conveniently, this adage appears to be appropriate when applied to multiple  situations related to living in France. But more on that later.

** The 11ème and 12ème are largely made up of lively, residential neighbourhoods, and I personally adore the little cafés and restos around the métro stop Faidherbe-Chaligny, which is far, far away from all things tour Eiffel.  You’ll also see very few tourists in most parts of the 13ème, the “Chinatown” of Paris.  And while you will spot more foreign visitors in the bustling streets near métro Odéon or off rue de Rennes near Gare Montparnasse, if you get off the main strips, there are good deals to be found there as well.

14 Responses to “Eating on the Cheap”

  1. elaine Says:

    It makes me happy to know you have found cheap noodles. All is right with the world.


  2. Ketti Says:

    Now one day, some day, when I go to Paris I will not succumb to the allure of the nefarious Monoprix.


    • Darlene Says:

      Haha… well, Monoprix isn’t nefarious, per se. And they do carry good products, it’s just not the cheapest place to shop when you are on a budget. ;)


  3. eric g Says:

    I shopped at Carrefour for a whole week while I was in St. Tropez. None of my so called friends(French ones)warned me of the ridiculous prices they had!
    Thanks cuz, now I know!

    -Good blog XO-E


  4. Alia Says:

    Let’s go for noodles in August. Or Japanese cheese-meat. Heh.


  5. Andrea Says:

    L’As du Falafel on Rue des Rosiers very yummy. Cheap, and it filled me up for a day. Too bad I could never figure out when it was open.


    • Darlene Says:

      L’As is really good but my favourite falafel in Paris is actually Maoz Falafel on rue Saint-André des Arts. The one with roasted eggplant is a revelation in falafel-y goodness.


  6. Jenn Says:

    Loved this post!! Brought back some great memories of living in Paris :-) I’d die for one of those sandwichs grecs right about now!!!

    Looking forward to seeing what else you got here :)

    God bless


    • Darlene Says:

      Thanks Jenn. I know what you mean – they’re pretty addictive! I took a peek at your blog too and you’ve got some fantastic images on there. Keep it up!

      Cheers, Darlene


  7. Vivian Says:

    Very helpful post (as an expat currently living in Paris). Where would you say Casino ranks in your supermarket hierarchy?


    • Darlene Says:

      Thanks Vivian! I personally haven’t shopped at a Casino but I conducted a little survey among my native Parisian friends and the general consensus is that Casino is nearly, if not just as, expensive as Monoprix.


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