I was reluctant to travel to Paris. My knowledge of French was non-existant and people I talked to who had been—cousin’s wife, a few guys I met at a pub in London, fellow hostel guests—forewarned me of the Parisian attitude—snobby and a disdain for outsiders. Despite the negative reviews, I felt it my obligation as a rookie traveller to go to the city of lights and love. Boggart’s character Rick, in Casablanca took a shine to it, and I knew for better or for worse it was going to be an experience to remember; isn’t that the reason one puts on a gigantic backpack and ventures out into the real world anyway?
Foresight has never been my strong suit. I quickly learned that a foreign city with a foreign language makes finding vegan food a challenge, so to avoid hunger it is wise to scope out establishments with vegan options as soon as possible.
After I got off the train from Brussels, I navigated the subway system to the Gare du Nord station. I walked next to a canal lined with benches, people drinking and smoking cigarettes, cafes and stores, and I spotted a small health food store dubbed Bio Canal.
After I checked in at the St. Christopher’s hostel near the Bassin de la Villette, I hurried down to the grocery store, my stomach churned after the long train ride. Although one could eat out every night, or prepare vegan gourmet meals when travelling, I chose to stay on the economical side of things while shopping at the Bio Canal. I perused what the modest health food store had to offer and spotted a plastic containers in the refrigerated section, meals to go. The brand was “Soy” and the small container was filled with a mix of legumes, rice and seitan. A middle-aged hippie woman who worked at Bio Canal read the French directions and assured me it contained no animal products. Next to the register I bought a bag of corn chips and an orange juice juice box. For a little less than €6 Euros I had a meal that supplied me with both protein and essential nutrients. I enjoyed my “Soy” meal, orange juice and corn chips on a bench next to a canal, where I people watched and drank in a city I would come to love and miss.
I woke up on Sunday to dreary, drizzly weather, and made my way to Bio Canal. It was closed. Even though the interior was dark, I still pulled at the door, extremely hungry and full of disbelief. I had not thought of a back up plan of where to eat, and for a few minutes I panicked.
I found another grocery store located near my hostel. I walked up and down the aisles looking for something, anything, which could pass as a meal. I spotted a can of lentils. I knew my hostel did not have a kitchen so my delusional mind decided the wisest thing to do was open the can (it was the kind you can pop open without a can opener) and eat the lentils on the sidewalk, sans utensil. Unfortunately the tab broke off, and I stood there for a minute on the sidewalk, perplexed at my newfound dilemma. Eventually the manager of the store took it upon himself to half open the can for me, using one of the openers they sold to customers.
Once again I was out on the Paris sidewalk in the rain with my lentils and unwashed clothes, trying to pour the contents from the half open can in my mouth, having minimal success. I realized how preposterous this attempt at curbing my hunger looked when I saw a mom with her child cautiously keep their distance as they shuffled past me. I wanted to run after them and explain I was not insane, but just a hungry traveller who had run out of options, but instead I headed back to my hostel with a half-empty stomach and half-full can, determined to find a fork and claim victory over the French lentils.
These shoddy attempts at eating vegan did not comprise the dining experience of my whole trip, Paris does have a few very respectable vegan restaurants, each one unique, and true to the tradition of French cuisine, absolutely delicious.
Le Patager du Marais Bio
The first restaurant I stumbled upon by accidentally—after furiously searching for another one that had previously gone out of business—was “Le Patager du Marais Bio” or “Café Restaurant Bio Vegetarian” located on rue Rambuteau. Marais Bio had a green awning with brown tiles and a stony brick wall. It had an air of the Parisian chicness combined with relaxed simplicity one might hope to feel in the French countryside. The “suggestions” of the day were written in French, but the congenial manager/owner with black suspenders who took people’s jackets as they entered, scribed them in English for me.
All the items written on the menu had English translations, little carrot symbols next to the dishes that were vegan and rice symbols next to the food that was “served with brown rice or quinoa protein or fried potatoes.” I chose the “Crusty Quinoa Burger with Vegetables and Tofu, served with mushroom or Provençale.” The burger was moist and delicious, and the food was arranged so prettily on the plate I felt uncivilized when I rapidly scoffed it down to subside my hunger.
Desserts included “Crème au Chocolat” and “Yaourt parfume a la fleur d’oranger”—yogurt with orange blossom. Beverages ranged from cocktails with fruit, such as ginger apple carrot and carrot beet celery, to homemade fruit juic, beer, aperitifs, champagne and organic wines. I did not purchase either dessert or a beverage, but if time and money permitted, I would have done so without hesitation.
The Loving Hut
I was compelled to try The Loving Hut after a vegan punk rock girl with an Appalachian Terror Unit shirt, suggested it to me at a show a previous night.
Located only a short walk from the Bastille metro stop, The Hut, like many Parisian restaurants and cafes, had an outdoor patio. Inside were white seats, white tables, hardwood floors and a massive light that read, “Be Veg Go Green Loving Hut,” hung from the ceiling. There were also French copies of the contemporary vegetarian’s must-read-book, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
There were appetizers from different nationalities, I chose the Samosa: “Indian style stuffed pastry with vegetables.” For desserts there was chocolate cake, vegan banana split, red fruit crumble, and cheaper options like sorbet and vegan organic soy milk ice cream. The tofu kebabs were my main dish, and it was both firm and grilled to a crunch, something I recommend if you are fortunate enough to dine at The Loving Hut. The entrees varied in cost, from €13,50 to €6,50, while the appetizers ranged from €5,50 to €8,50.
Some of the dishes were unavailable, such as the quiche and the vegan cheese plate. When I went, it was their first night re-opening, they had been on vacation or a while, and I surmised they had not had the chance to stock up on all of the necessary ingredients. The service was fast and friendly, and the owner was nice enough to search through the trash for me when they by accidentally threw away my map, which I admittedly left there and then returned for.
Le Puit de Legumes
Le Puit de Legumes was another restaurant I was fortunate enough to stumble across. Located in the Latin Quarter of the city, Le Puits had a countryside feel with its green color scheme, wooden walls and main dining area that doubled as a the restaurant’s pantry.
When I arrived, a girl who looked no older than twenty-five years old was the only one working. The atmosphere was relaxed; the customers knew one another and waitress/cook held friendly conversations with them and welcomed others with the quintessential Western European greeting: a kiss on either cheek. After one man heard me speak English to the waitress, he approached me with a smile and said, “Enjoy your meal,” and before leaving bid me a, “Good evening.”
My meal had seitan, lenils, vegetables and rice. It tasted home-cooked, which was most likely a feeling produced by the congenial atmosphere that was worlds apart from the tourist destinations and hostels I had grown accustomed to. I knew it was vegan for sure when the waitress/cook, unsure of what I was asking when I questioned her, “No milk? No cream? No eggs?” brought me back to the kitchen and rattled off the few simple ingredients that were part of my plate.
Falafel in Marais
I had just finished viewing the Arch of Triumph—a piece of architecture that I marveled for quite sometime, as I walked its lengthy perimeter and photographed the vividly engraved architecture—and I wanted a cheap meal that I knew would satisfy me. There was only on solution: falafel. The falafel place I intended to see was located near the Marais section of Paris.
I got off the metro and approached a middle-aged man who was tall with short brown hair and wore a somewhat stylish jacket that only in Paris a man of his age would not look conspicuous in. I asked him for directions, and before answering me he asked where I was from; it was most likely my pathetic attempt at sounding out the street name which I was looking for, that tipped him off that I was no Paris native.
The man introduced himself as Roland and instead of explaining to me how to get to my falafel destination, he said, “I will take you.” Roland was a testament to the fact that half the experience of travelling is meeting other people, whether they be tourists or not, hearing their story and learning from them is all part of the fun.
Roland was from Rome, but spent the last 18 years of his life in Paris working as a computer engineer. He had just quit his job and planned on joining his wife in Munich. This was Roland’s last day in Paris.
As we strolled through the Marais streets, Roland commented on Paris partly as a tourist guide and partly as a man who was reminiscing about a home he was about to leave. “Paris is an open-air museum” he said as he pointed out the beautiful architecture.
When we arrived at the place, Chez Marianne, Roland said, “After eighteen years, I will have a falafel.” He generously paid for my sandwich, which contained fried eggplant, tahini, pickled cabbage and of course, falafel. We then said our cheers and clinked our whole wheat pitas together.
Roland then showed me more of Paris, such as an old house with a courtyard that used to belong to a noble, Paris’s smallest theatre, a free museum about the Seine and he even pointed out to me a tower they used to throw accused witches off of.
Paris is a city you can fall in love with, with its beautiful people, beautiful buildings and beautiful accents. They pull off a style so effortlessly that the words “yuppie” and “Euro trash” never enter your mind as the natives pass you by or make out in public, with their light scarves wrapped around their necks. During any part of the day, at any one of their numerous cafes, Parisians sit and talk while they sip their espresso and take drags from their cigarettes. Their ability to find time for one another and have as much vacation in one year as most Americans will get in a decade, speaks to their ability to know the important things in life. This is not a city for dead souls. Cheers.