How to Eat in Paris with Vegetarians (and Not Kill Them)

In Paris a couple of years ago, an argument about the meaning of "vegetarian" nearly caused an international incident after I told a French friend that a vegetarian who was coming along to dine with us did not eat fish.

"Of course she eats fish," he insisted. "All vegetarians do." He muttered into the phone with the chef who was preparing our meal.

Later that evening, before the parade of dishes started, the chef stopped by to greet us.

"She eats fish, right?" he asked, pointing at our vegetarian friend. When she answered no, the chef looked annoyed. The pile of sautéed vegetables he sent out for her looked shabby next to our glossy roasts and jus-enriched side dishes.

We got the same attitude all over town: My favorite restaurants in Paris made clear that there was no room at the table for my fish-eschewing vegetarian friend.

Dining in Paris with a vegetarian can be a drag, but it doesn't have to be. There are vegetarian restaurants in Paris (including Macéo's excellent tasting menu, and the places in this useful guide from David Lebovitz's blog). But dining exclusively sans flesh doesn't appeal to every omnivore, including me. Also, not every vegetarian tourist is satisfied with the meatless options derived from subtracting elements from a dish. No surprise that on the Chowhound board for France, the question of where a mixed group of vegetarians and omnivores should eat has proved evergreen.

Since I’m a pretty seasoned Paris traveler (who’s somehow managed to acquire a lot of vegetarian friends), I'm no longer making the kind of mistakes I used to. Here’s what I’ve learned to keep everybody happy and well fed:

1. Know your terminology. The French use végétalien (vegan) and végétarien, which matches our definition of vegetarian, though I've since made several French friends who describe themselves as végétarien yet also eat fish. Until "Je suis pescatarien" catches on, make sure to specify if someone eats neither meat nor fish.

2. Breakfast and dessert are your friends. Several of the specialties that make eating in Paris exceptional are meat-free. What’s made trips to Paris spectacular weren't just sit-down meals, but stops at the neighborhood patisserie for breakfast, ultra-rich hot chocolate on heated terraces in the afternoon, and excursions for specialty desserts (such as mango–passion fruit caramels or gemlike pâte de fruits [pictured above] at Jacques Genin).

3. Try vegetarian-sympathetic cuisines. Asian and North African restaurants are bound to have more vegetarian options than your typical checked-tablecloth bistro. At the Tibetan restaurant Le Lhassa recently, we split a hearty potato curry and vegetable dumplings that were a nice break from the norm.

4. Schedule Marais time. It’s a neighborhood that’s great for window-shopping, and also food. In the old Jewish quarter that now swims with swishy boutiques, you can find several falafel shops (my friend has a soft spot for Chez Marianne, pictured at top); tourist-guide favorite Breizh Café, a Brittany crêpe house with buckwheat galettes (pictured at left); and the famed Poilâne bakery's sandwich shop, which has several grilled or cold meatless options, like a marinated artichoke and tapenade sandwich on their to-die-for sourdough.

5. Plot the occasional escape. Tell your veggie travel buddy that you require some "me" time at a café with a book as your only companion. Pretend that the goal of your afternoon is a solo walk to discover les passages couverts, the 19th-century glass-roofed shopping arcades. If you end up in front of a seafood platter at L'Huîtrier instead, who's to know? Lastly, when tired feet and empty bellies lead you to a brasserie where the best veggie choice is a ham and cheese sandwich minus the ham, console yourself with this: At least you're not trying to do gluten-free.

Main photo: Chez Marianne by Flickr member Borya under Creative Commons; other photos by Colleen Hubbard