Looking back, there were flags. English menu? Yes. Suspiciously quaint neighbourhood? With its ancient cobbled streets and historic pedigree, Le Marais is like a theme park designed by Rick Steves. Patio jammed with non-French speakers? Sure, but it was the dying days of August, and everyone knows that’s when Parisians flee their city lest they end up cheek-by-jowl with sweaty, unfashionable foreigners who insist on pronouncing manger as if it were Jesus’ birthplace.

Yet we were seduced. By the wobbly (but cute!) bistro tables and the fake (but twee!) “rattan” bistro chairs. By a menu that blared its devotion to France’s timeless casual fare: the bourguignons and coq au vins, the croque monsieurs and moules frites. All three of us—me, my partner and my son—ordered the same meal: steak tartare, with a side of frites.

It was… okay.

But within an hour of eating, it was not okay at all. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that if you’re in desperate straits, make a beeline for the nearest church and frantically plead your case to the rector. Hardly an auspicious start to a tour of Paris bistros.

Lively Parisian street scene
Bon Appétit There are French bistros aplenty in the Latin Quarter.  Photo by iStock/Starcevic

Once, the French bistro was a safe bet for hearty, if not exactly groundbreaking, cooking. From a stout cassoulet to a perfect ratatouille spiral, simple bistro fare was the gateway drug to a consuming addiction to French cuisine for legions of food obsessives, myself included. It wasn’t haute, and it wasn’t meant to be. It was, however, very, very good.

Over the past few decades, however, things changed. To cut costs, many bistros chose to purchase and serve pre-packaged microwaveable or sous-vide container meals, prepared offsite. (Tellingly, one survey estimated that three quarters of France’s 150,000 restaurants were involved in various degrees of gastronomic chicanery.) The result? Bland, flavourless sauces. Limp frites and tough, chewy viandes. The once-vaunted bistro scene had, it seems, become positively merdique—which, although it sounds like something nice you’d order in a lovely brasserie, actually means “crappy.”

In response, the French government launched the Fait Maison, or “House Made,” designation. Restaurants choosing to adhere to a set of strict standards—most everything has to be made on premises, basically—would be allowed to place a specialized logo on their awnings, menus or next to specific dishes. Consisting of a stylized skillet topped with a roof, it means that even woefully ignorant tourists can identify the real deal. Voila!

Le Trésor
Le Trésor is one of the rare Parisian restaurants displaying the Fait Maison logo our writer was on the hunt for. Photo by Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty

On our visit, there was a problem, however. There didn’t seem to be a lot of logos floating around. My cousin, who has lived in Paris for decades, had never seen one. Her ex-husband, a native Parisian, was similarly stumped. Was this even a thing?

A day after our initial, ill-fated bistro encounter, however, we chanced upon our first Fait Maison establishment—Le Trésor, which specializes in the regional cuisine of Auvergne, a mountainous region in south central France. We chose to sit outside, on fake rattan chairs. We were handed English menus. Sigh.

Le Bouledogue
Le Colimaçon and Le Bouledogue both proudly trumpet their house-made status. Photo by Le Bouledogue

However, we were also surrounded by actual French speakers—so, you know, promising. I ordered the saucisse d’Auvergne (okay: sausage), which was accompanied by a dipping sauce and a bowl of aligot, another regional dish. The sausage was very good, studded with sizeable chunks of pork. But the aligot was a revelation. Made from mashed potatoes mixed with crème fraîche and Tome de l’Aubrac (a regional cheese), it comes whipped to a gummy, almost glutinous consistency. It was hearty, substantial and thoroughly delicious. I was halfway through when the man sitting next to me interrupted.

“Pardon,” he said hesitantly, “it is good you order this. It is the real food from Auvergne.”

“It’s excellent.”

“Yes, but I cannot”—he stopped abruptly, patting his midsection and clearly making the universal gesture for “aligot belly.”

Le Trésor was excellent, but it was also an omen. Soon, we began to see the distinctive Fait Maison logo more and more. At Le Colimaçon, a cozy spot on Rue Vieille-du-Temple. On the menu outside Le Bouledogue, about a block from the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was prominently displayed on the chalkboard at Le Bistrot Tocqueville, which, coincidentally, was not far away from where we’d planned on eating that night.

Le Colimaçon
Le Colimaçon and Le Bouledogue both proudly trumpet their house-made status. Photo by Guy Saddy

Restaurant Janine is located in the newly ascendent Les Batignolles neighbourhood, and on the evening we went, it was very busy—predictably, since it was included in a recent New York Times roundup titled “6 Paris Bistros to Try Now.” Janine isn’t a Fait Maison establishment; it does, however, adhere to the standards of “Artisans Militants de la Qualité,” an initiative launched in 2013, also likely designed to counter the decline in French cooking standards.

Restaurant Janine
Restaurant Janine (above and below) doesn’t call itself a Fait Maison establishment, but a stroll down the road proves that many of the restaurant’s favourite ingredients can be found at a nearby market—there’s no arguing this isn’t eating local. Photo by Caleb Maxwell/Unsplash

After walking up a flight of stairs, we took our seats near a window overlooking busy Rue des Dames. The menu, which on that day was relatively compact, revolves around seasonal ingredients. We ordered entrées, mains and a bottle of decent wine. As is often the case, the wine went down quickly. Our waiter noticed.

“Would you like another bottle?” he asked.

“Maybe just a glass.”

“We don’t usually sell this one by the glass, but that’s okay—I can drink the rest myself.” Ballsy, but he’s earned the privilege: our waiter, we later find out, is the owner, Thibault Sizun. So: Janine is definitely not a corporate front.

Restaurant Janine interior
Photo by Stephane Riss

Our mains arrived. Two of us opted for the lamb shoulder plated on a bed of polenta and topped with blackberries; the contrast between the gaminess of the lamb and the semi-sweetness imparted by the blackberries married perfectly. The duck three ways—breast, spring rolls and a tiny heart—was also a hit, an example of understatement masking serious technique. But the star was an appetizer: lapin à l’escabeche, chou pointu grillé, mayonnaise à l’estragon et piment vert (shredded rabbit with grilled pointed cabbage, with tarragon and green peppercorn mayonnaise).

Restaurant Janine
Forget Fait Maison: Restaurant Janine sports an Artisans Militants de la Qualité logo (below), bestowed by the Collège Culinaire de France. This designation was originally called the Restaurant & Producteur Artisan de Qualité when it launched in 2013, but was renamed in 2022. Photo by Stephane Riss
Artisans Militants de la Qualité logo
Artisans Militants de la Qualité logo. Photo by Guy Saddy

It was simple, and sublime. The pointed cabbage was deeply flavourful but also artfully ornamental, covering a pile of succulent rabbit like a lace doily. While enjoying it (thoroughly) I began to wonder: where on earth are they sourcing this stuff?

Ironically, I would find out the next day. A few blocks from Janine, on a mainly pedestrian stretch of Rue de Lévis in the 17th arrondissement, there’s a bustling market street that stretches over a few blocks. Mixed in with patisseries, wine shops and boutiques is an extraordinary bounty of fresh meats, fruits and vegetables: overflowing baskets of everything from plums and chestnuts to bins of exotic mushrooms and spiky Romanesco broccoli that, despite its almost tropical appearance, is local.

Next to the broccoli? Pointed leaf cabbage. And in a glass display case at nearby Boucherie Centrale Lévis, freshly butchered rabbit for €12.90 a kilogram. Basically, all of last night’s menu ingredients were represented, and that was likely no accident. France, it’s clear, has all the right clay. Even less of an excuse, then, to serve up anything other than excellence.

Restaurant Janine more than lived up to the hype. But was it really a “bistro”? Who cares? Brasseries, cafés, café-restaurants, restaurants—all are variations on a basic theme. However, even the origin of “bistro” was obscured, like a pile of shredded rabbit under a pointed cabbage leaf. Well, at least until I looked it up. It’s apparently from the Russian bistra, and means “quick!”—which is what the czar’s soldiers would bellow at harried French waiters during Russia’s last swing through France in the Napoleonic Wars. The irony, however, is that while certain bistro-style dishes come together very quickly, others—the braises and tarts, the terrines, soups and stews—must be prepped or cooked well in advance, and require significant time to execute well.

And “well-executed” is, of course, what we were anticipating when we set out for our final lunch in Paris. We’d chosen a ringer: the Michelin-recommended L’Esquisse, about a 10-minute stroll from the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. Unfortunately, we had planned poorly and arrived just as the lunch service was winding up. The host was apologetic, but had an idea.

“Try L’Étoile de Montmartre,” he said. “It’s just a block away, and they’re open all day.”

All day? You mean like Denny’s? This is what my face said.

“It’s very good,” he assured us.

We arrived at the bistro. Immediately, alarm bells. With its fire-engine red exterior and long zinc bar, it was a cliché. But we settled into seats on the patio, and ordered. Our food came. We each took a first bite.

Oh. Mon. Dieu.

In front of my son was the L-bone de boeuf—tender and immensely beefy, it’s a thin but massive steak that stretches the full length of an oversized wooden platter. My wife? She was staring in wonder at the poulpe à la gallega, or octopus, which was succulent and perfectly cooked. But my meal was indisputably l’étoile: poitrine d’agneau, or rolled confit of lamb breast. Deeply flavourful, with an intense sauce that spills over a bed of roasted eggplant and potatoes, it was rich and elegant, and one of the finest mains I’ve had anywhere.

On the menu, there was no mention of a chef, or restaurateur. This is exceptional bistro cooking, drained of self-congratulatory fanfare. But reading the card more closely, I found something I’d initially overlooked: at the bottom of the page, almost like an afterthought, was a rendering of a tiny skillet, perched underneath a pitched roof.

L’Étoile de Montmartre
Our writer stumbled upon L’Étoile de Montmartre by accident… but the rolled confit of lamb breast shone brightly, indeed.


This story was originally published in the March/April 2024 print issue of Western Living magazine.