Unless you have been there, sitting on a park bench in Montparnasse, Paris, belly stuffed with three kinds of cheese, most of a baguette, a couple of gougères, arugula, fresh spring strawberries, and an almond tartlette, you cannot know the existential ennui I have felt. There is no greater tragedy than being full in Paris.
What is the point of living? I cry. Why am I here? What am I to do?
I force myself to my feet, aimless. I have no destination, no next stop on the tour. I must occupy myself until my stomach acid begins to break down the milk protein and wheat gluten, making room for a city full of treats that demand be sampled.
But at this very moment, I must deny them.
Can I fit in a coffee? I am already thoroughly caffeinated. Is it too early for wine? Probably not. Can I call this moment “pre-dinner”? Then an aperitif is in order. For me, a glass of fennel-scented pastis or mystical absinthe; the former with a cube of ice and cold water, the latter with a sugar cube balanced atop a glass, water-tortured into an opaque, green-tinted boisson. Had it been right after dinner, I would have insisted on an expresso — yes, the French say and spell it wrong, probably on purpose. Or, peut-être, un whiskey.
I hope that you never find yourself in such a devastating state. You see, eating is serious business in Paris, and it is best if you are prepared. Here is a list of your stomach’s stages so that you will know what to expect when you are expecting to eat the whole darn place.
Stage One: The Bottomless Pit
You’ve just arrived and you are here to eat. You consume meat, dairy, eggs, and wheat without question, and you are not on a diet, at least not now. At this stage, you manage to fit five meals into one day: croissant for breakfast, maybe a crepe around 11, a petit midi or plat formulé for a late lunch (with wine, bien sûr), and an afternoon café gourmand (espresso with three doll-sized desserts in tiny, perfect, adorable cups.) For the finale: a full dinner around 9, with an entrée (an appetizer, maybe some salad to fit in some vegetables, though be warned: not all salades are green), un plat (perhaps some trout meunière like Julia Child?), and then dessert, likely crème brûlée if you are like me and have a scientific interest in finding the best one. For the record, the best I had was at L’Avant Comptoir.
You will literally spend your entire day trying to fit more food into your body, and hope you walk by the Louvre or the Jardin de Rodin on your way. This stage can last from one to four days, or until your body starts to rebel or you begin see the bottom of your bank account. It was at the end of this stage that I found myself in crisis, maxed out in Montparnasse. I recommend a nice long walk to Vert d’Absinthe in Le Marais, but any non-eating-based food tourism is an excellent antidote.
Stage Two: Le Ventre Haute-Priorité (The High Priority Stomach)
Is there a dish you still haven’t tried? You decide, for the good of humanity, to stop filling up on croissants and jambon et fromage sandwichs, and start to be more directed in your food consumption. This is the time you go to David Lebovitz’s favorite place for steak frites (or his favorite place for anything, quite frankly). You eat a good sized breakfast, at home or a croque madame at a cafe, and you wait until you are truly hungry to have lunch at a carefully selected bistro. This may take an hour or more of wandering, looking for the perfect place.
Note: expect that about half the time, the place you aim for may not be the place you end up — it may be closed, it may look not so good, it may not have that thing you wanted. Pas de problème, there are countless other choices.
You might have a café crème (a teacup-sized latte for the price of a large in the United States) to hold you over until your reservation for dinner.
You eat more slowly, and you begin to compare duplicates: this place has the best brioche, that place had crisper frites. This stage can last for quite some time, dependent almost entirely on your budget, but also on your stomach’s ability to eat only protein and starch. For me, it was two days.
Stage Three: Le Ventre Vert (The Green Stomach)
Not green as in ill, but the excess of white flour, cheese, and butter is causing your body to rightly crave a salad, and one without bacon lardons. Okay, maybe a few. You want whole wheat bread and kale. You find yourself ordering only the side salad for lunch (plus wine, bien sûr!), despite subtle but noted expressions of confusion slash disgust from waitstaff.
You start to free yourself from restaurants, buying pears and radishes and mache and eating them at home or on the banks of the Seine. You realize that not even the French eat a plat formulé and dinner every day — they are cooking at home, and you follow suit if you have a kitchen accessible to you. (If you are staying in a hostel, you may be regretting it.) This is also around the time you discover that a solid bottle of wine at the store can be the price of one glass at a brasserie. You start to stay in a little more.
This seems to last about two days.
Stage Four: Le Ventre Tranquil (The Calm Stomach)
You follow your true wants and needs. You have checked most of the boxes on your list. There is no urgency in your food consumption. If you want pizza, you eat a goddamned pizza. If you want to go back and eat at the same place, you go back, without [much] regret for the lack of a new experience. You have inserted enough plants into your body to make you feel on the healthy side of indulgent.
You can stay here a long, long time, I imagine. I have not tested this. One day I will report back to confirm.
Stage Five: The Au Revoir Stomach, Part 1
You seek to check off those remaining items on your list in your last few days. Expect some disappointments, if it wasn’t readily available before, there may be a reason: boeuf bourguignon is not at its best in May. You may run out of time to eat every single thing you meant to, or find that you don’t want to eat six snails by yourself — you only want one, really. You decide to have that thing you loved last time again — and its reincarnation disappoints. You may be sad.
Stage Six: The Au Revoir Stomach, Part 2
You have accepted your imminent departure, and you look back on your journey fondly. So what if your last meal was a dry poulet rôti at an unremarkable bistro. You are in Paris! And it is awesome. You start making a list for next time.
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