PARIS — The City of Light has everything a wine lover could want and more.
Start with the ubiquitous cafes and tabacs that seem to line every boulevard. If wine and food are your thing, you're never more than steps away from a verre de vin blanc and a baguette with cheese and butter.
At the humble cafe, your wine of choice is likely to be listed as blanc, rouge or rosé, with formalities such as vintage and producer left to the imagination. But if you're sitting at a sidewalk cafe on a summer afternoon with a thimbleful of anonymous wine and watching the passing circus, how bad can it be, really?
The casual ease with which the French enjoy wine in every circumstance, including such public places as the Tuileries Garden, the vast public park in the center of the city, is one of the simple joys of Paris and one of the relatively few things a visitor can do on the cheap.
On the other hand, should you desire more interesting and exciting wine and food experiences, there really is no better place to be.
A good place to start is Juveniles, situated between the Opera and the Palais Royal. It is a wine shop that doubles as a restaurant during the lunch and dinner hours. The food is hearty and fairly inexpensive, and the wine list is eclectic and extensive. This is a small place where cafe tables are pushed together and there is little separation between diners. The crowd skews young, but it's hip to the exceptional quality of wine on offer. Champagne AR Lenoble is poured by the glass, if that tells you anything.
Just around the corner, behind the Palais Royal, is the iconic Willi's Wine Bar. A while back, owner Mark Williamson, a.k.a. Willi, expanded the dining area and seriously upgraded the cuisine, moving toward lighter, more nouveau faire. I've dined at Willi's twice now in the past month, and it was exceptional each time. On my second visit, I was lucky enough to snag a bottle of 2009 Grand Cru Valmur from Raveneau, a star producer in the Chablis region. At 170 Euros, I considered it a steal.
Besides its exceptional selection of wine and a vastly improved kitchen, Willi's is full of history. Each year, Williamson commissions a different artist to create poster art for the bar. The walls are hung with memorable posters from the past three decades. And yes, they are for sale!
While Willi's has been and remains my favorite spot in Paris for a great bottle of wine in a casual setting, when I want truly fine dining with an equal emphasis on the wine, I make a beeline for l'Atelier Joel Robuchon, a Michelin two-star restaurant situated off the lobby of the Hotel Pont Royal on the Left Bank.
It is a unique restaurant without tables. Diners sit at a bar that snakes through the restaurant and around the kitchen, giving everyone a bird's-eye view of the extraordinary teamwork at play in a Michelin-star restaurant.
The menu is divided into small plates and large plates, and you can order as little or as much as you want, or even share. The cuisine is inventive and ever-changing and always certain to dazzle. But what I like most is the presence of a sommelier to suggest specific glasses of wine with each course.
The wines are well-chosen, often from off the beaten path and, like the cuisine, ever-changing. A stop at l'Atelier (there is a second one, l'Atelier Etoile, near the Arc de Triomphe) is always an adventure and ultimately satisfying if you're even the least bit curious about magical food and wine pairings.
Of course, there are more modest and less expensive places to enjoy a great meal with good wine.
Paris is famous for the bistro, and one of the best is Chez Andre, located on Rue Marboeuf near the Four Seasons Hotel George V. It is a classic bistro that has been around since 1936. It offers a chef's special each day of the week, and I happened in on the day when it was bouillabaisse, the fish soup most famous in the South of France. It was as good as any I had in Marseille.
Paris also is chock-full of good restaurants that don't aspire to a Michelin star. One of my favorites is a cozy spot on Ile Saint-Louis called l'Orangerie, a longtime favorite of locals that's not much of a tourist destination. It was a slow night, for the exodus of Parisians to the south for holiday had already begun.
The lone waiter turned in a tour de force, taking care of about 20 diners in a solo performance that was every bit as impressive as the cuisine. The wine was very good (a Chablis from Domaine Laroche), and the bill was modest, a welcome change after putting a serious dent in my wallet at Willi's and l'Atelier.