Tables pour deux

Photography: MEL CURTIS

You have to admire the French. Just as Spain and Japan emerge as the culinary frontiers, in Paris a new restaurant genre quietly emerges from under the radar. Dubbed "cave à manger", these are places doing double duty as wine shops and restaurants, with emphasis on the wine side. You can buy a bottle to take home, or stay and eat and pay not much more than bottle shop prices; it's like BYO but you buy your wine after you arrive.

Many are tiny, with just a few tables, run by passionate owners who advocate small producers and unfamiliar wine regions. They are more than willing to share their enthusiasm with anyone who's interested - often they serve meals just so they can do that. Some also specialise in natural wines (wines made with few or no chemicals), another phenomenon that has been better developed in Paris than anywhere else. Food ranges from little more than cheese and charcuterie to meals rivalling Michelin-starred tables, albeit with less space between them.

Here's our selection of some of the best. If you're interested in extending your French wine knowledge and want some budget-friendly Paris addresses, these are great places to have in your little French black book.

This lovely 18th-century shop, which adjoins the beautiful Galerie Vivienne shopping arcade, has been an épicerie of sorts since the late 19th century. It sells some of France's most highly regarded (Domaine de Trévallon, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht and Maison Leroy) and more obscure wines (Château de Bellet rosé, Corsica's Clos Culombu), all stacked on wooden shelves, and in boxes on all available floor space. Its horseshoe-shaped wine bar, which operates from noon until 7pm, is a convivial place for a simple lunch or late afternoon grazing. As well as the wines in the shop, it has a regularly changing list of 15 or so wines by the glass, with a brief description of each one, and uncomplicated food. Rödel sardines served in their tin with bread, saucisson, rillettes, salades composées and cheeses are all satisfying. 1 rue de la Banque, 2nd arrondissement, +33 1 42 60 07 12. Métro: Bourse.

La Cave de L'Os à Moelle is the little sister to Thierry Faucher's L'Os à Moelle, one of a clutch of neo-bistros opened by protégés of France's master of the casual diner, Christian Constant. From the street, it appears to be a lively bar and wine shop, with customers spilling outside, but its secret is the tiny mismatched collection of communal tables beyond the bar. Each is set with bread, terrines, aïoli with crudités, and other classic bistro starters and, needless to say, as you pass these dishes among erstwhile strangers, conversation flows. Soup and the main course, perhaps braised chicken with sweet carrots, are in pots at the back of the room, cheeses and delicious classic desserts are laid down one side, and you help yourself. You choose a wine from the shelves and a small corkage is added to what's already a very reasonable price. It's one of the best-value meals in Paris (about $35) and, once the house rules are mastered, thoroughly enjoyable. 181 rue de Lourmel, 15th arrondissement, +33 1 45 57 28 28. Métro: Lourmel.

If you're planning to visit only one Paris market, then the one on Avenue du Président Wilson is a first-rate choice, especially to ogle Joël Thiebault's vegetables and herbs. Cavestève, a thoroughly modern wine shop with a few tables, is a stone's throw away. With its clean lines and good signage, the shop is easy to navigate with just a basic understanding of French wine regions, although after the market, lunch is as attractive a proposition as browsing the shelves. They serve charcuterie plates that include cheeses from renowned affineur Bernard Antony, Spanish hams and seasonal specials. There's a selection of drops by the glass, often from smaller producers, and any of the shop's 600 wines are available with just a $14 corkage fee; a relatively inexpensive way to enjoy treats such as Provence's aristocratic Château Simone and Jo Pithon's lovely sweet Coteaux du Layon. 15 rue de Longchamp, 16th arrondissement, +33 1 47 04 01 45. Métro: Iéna.

Le Verre Volé is a stone's throw from the beguiling Canal Saint-Martin. In the heart of bobo Paris, it has exactly the right amount of attitude and, although clearly a local hot spot, visitors are welcome, especially if you show any interest in wine. The menu is full of classics and free of affectation - it's dust- and drizzle-free territory. As well as charcuterie, typical dishes are fish soup, asparagus draped with lardo, and robust caillettes served with potato purée and a beautifully dressed green salad.The daily dessert blackboard, one of several tucked around the room, is pure comfort, with the likes of rice pudding, lemon tart, and fromage blanc. The walls are lined with hundreds of natural wines, including Jean Foillard's cult Morgon, Jean-Baptiste Senat's legendary Minervois, and Olivier Lemasson's Poivre et Sel, and more blackboards list impressive selections by the glass. 67 rue de Lancry, 10th arrondissement, +33 1 48 03 17 34. Métro: Jacques Bonsergent.

Les Papilles is a wine shop, épicerie, and small and crowded but very special restaurant. Lunch is à la carte, with salads and charcuterie, but the $47 four-course "retour du marché" set dinner menu is the real attraction. It might start with gazpacho, poured at the table over a quenelle of chèvre, crisp lardons, and finely chopped capsicum, cucumber and tomato - high summer on a plate. Next might be braised pork seasoned with thyme, then a cheese course, and finally panna cotta with strawberries. It's serious food eaten in a friendly atmosphere - it has to be if you're to comfortably reach over someone's shoulder to select your Pacalet Burgundy from the shelves. Its rugby-loving owner Bertrand Bluy worked as a pâtissier with luminaries such as Pierre Hermé at Fauchon, and at restaurants including Troisgros and Taillevent - not a bad apprenticeship. 30 rue Gay-Lussac, 5th arrondissement, +33 1 43 25 20 79. Métro: Luxembourg.

Lavinia is enormous, but don't let that put you off. A small band of prowling sommeliers are at pains to explain their favourite wines and share their impressive knowledge. And it's not all high-end stuff. Inexpensive natural wines share temperature-controlled space alongside some of France's most prestigious cuvées - all very democratic. Wines are arranged by region, but overlaying that is an excellent system identifying sommeliers' selections, bio (organic) wines, good-value wines and the like. And there are some great buys, such as Jean-Baptiste Sénat's L'Ours Bleu for $20, Catherine and Pierre Breton's Clos Sénéchal for $26 or Domaine Rimbert's Les Travers de Marceau Saint-Chinian for $13. The first-floor restaurant, which serves uncomplicated dishes such as smoked wild salmon, charcuterie and cheese assiettes, côte de veau, and beef tartare, is open for lunch, and a wine bar operates in the late afternoon and early evening. Naturally, there's a good wine list, with all 6000 bottles available at wine shop prices. 3 boulevard de la Madeleine, 1st arrondissement, +33 1 42 97 20 20. Métro: Madeleine.

Beyond the tourist precinct, in a lively neighbourhood with lots of ethnic eateries, this tiny shop, specialising in natural wines, offers a few lucky diners a table d'hôte dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, and on Sunday a choice of a dozen or so small dishes. At $46 (add an extra $9 for cheese or dessert), the table d'hôte menu, which is written daily, is great value and the food sensational. These are unfussy, robust dishes that are full of life, such as a vibrant gazpacho embellished with a drizzle of fruity olive oil, an open tart of red mullet, its pastry soaked with fish juices and a judicious smear of tapenade, pink-roasted lamb, and a dark chocolate fondant. You pay corkage for wine, which you select from Olivier Camus's collection of some of France's best natural wines. That includes the one he recommended for us: Emmanuel Houillon's delicious, savoury Overnoy Arbois Pupillin, made from the little-known poulsard grape. 92 rue Rébeval, 19th arrondissement, +33 1 42 02 68 60. Métro: Pyrénées.

Further into the suburbs than Le Chapeau Melon, A la Vierge de la Réunion is truly a neighbourhood wine shop, wine bar and restaurant - the sort we'd all love to have around the corner. The food is simple, classic comfort with dishes such as herrings with waxy potatoes, a subtly spicy Moroccan-inspired soup, or saucisse de l'Aubrac on lentils and carrots. The wine selection is small but excellent and it's common to see it used in the food. So Jean Foillard's 2007 Morgon Côte du Py, as well as being in the glass, is also in the pan they poach their prunes in. You have to love any place that poaches its prunes in Foillard Morgon. There are a dozen or so wines by the glass in addition to the selection of bottles, including real treats such as a Pierre and Catherine Breton Bourgueil. 58 rue de la Réunion, 20th arrondissement, +33 1 43 67 51 15. Métro: Alexandre Dumas.

This tiny cave à manger, only a block from Boulevard St-Germain, is a readily accessible natural and organic wine showcase. We love the cheese selection and the excellent charcuterie, which is cut using a shiny red Berkel slicer (what else), and can always find interesting wines by the glass, such as Sébastien Riffault's Sancerre, Gramenon's Rhône reds, or Le Petit Têtu from emerging Burgundy winemaker Jean-Marie Berrux. 9 rue des Quatre-Vents, 6th arrondissement, +33 1 43 54 99 30. Métro: Odéon.

Late last year, Pierre Jancou, one of France's most charismatic and influential proselytisers of natural winemaking, sold Racines, his second Paris venture. The first, sold some years earlier, was La Crèmerie (see above). The word is that Racines's new owner, David Lanher, has retained Jancou's essential pillars of great natural wines and equally delicious, simple food. Hopefully that still includes salads made with vegetables from Alain Passard's organic garden (only $18 when we ate here, a bargain compared with eating them at Passard's three-Michelin-star L'Arpège) and sublime lardo from Colonnata salumiere Fausto Guadagni. There are high-profile natural wines such as Eric Pfifferling's L'Anglore and Claude and Julien Courtois's Loire treasures, but it's the sort of place where, if you ask, you're also just as likely to discover something completely new. The location, Passage des Panoramas, is a joy. 8 Passage des Panoramas, 2nd arrondissement, +33 1 40 13 06 41. Métro: Grands Boulevards.


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