How can one eat in Paris, with no time for dinner, no time for shopping in the day, and a hankering for a big bag of cherries?
I eat a lot of raw vegetables and fresh fruit. Most days, I munch through at least half a pound, 250g, of raw baby carrots. I’ll eat a yellow or red pepper like it was an apple. I’ll eat cherry tomatoes like they were grapes. I eat raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, pluots, plums, peaches, pears. Once I asked a crêpe vendor to sell me a banana without the crêpe. He was completely unable to calculate the value of a solo banana and finally insisted that I take it for nothing.
This can be difficult to maintain away from home. In the USA, often lunch is brought to the room. There’s generally a leafy salad, but it’s hardly the variety or volume that I crave. There’ll be muffins and cookies during the day, but not hide nor hair of a huckleberry. The cafeteria in Paris generally has apples, pears and clementines, but they aren’t always good. In the evening, many French restaurants don’t even feature a salad or a list of side dishes. There may be a courgette in the kitchen, but it is to appear as a few jewel-like slices beneath your protein. No peas, no beans, no greens. A larger Paris hotel may have a bowl of apples at breakfast – but I generally don’t do hotel breakfast. I’m not really in the mood to eat first thing, and I object to paying €14 (US$20) when all I can manage is a yogurt and a pain au chocolat. I shouldn’t be eating a pain au chocolat every day anyway.
In the USA I generally have a rental car, and supermarkets routinely stay open until nine or ten at night. I can usually find time to get some produce and stash it in my bag. In London finding a store you can walk to is simple. If you search on Google Maps for Tesco Express, Sainsbury, Waitrose, M&S Simply Food, chances are you’re not far away from a small supermarket that is open late and may even be open twenty-four hours a day. These chains may be a social evil that drove locally-owned grocers out of business, but they do the job if you want to buy a pound of grapes at 8 pm.
In Paris this is not the case. There are wonderful street vendors for fruit and veg, and of course Carrefour and Auchan must be somewhere in the city. Unfortunately, if you have to leave your hotel at 7 am to get to the office, and get back to your room at 7.30 in the evening or later, these options either are closed or just aren’t nearby. If you arrive on a Sunday, merde, everything is closed.
What you need is an alimentation générale.
An alimentation générale is a small convenience store that opens late. They are typically run by immigrant families or first and second generation French-born citizens. I have always found the shopkeepers friendly, easily amused, chatty if you have a bit of language in common. The store usually has surprisingly good fruit, some vegetables, a chiller cabinet with dairy products, general groceries, wine and spirits.
Google will not help you find it. When you know the magic words, you might, if you are lucky, find one by asking the hotel staff – if they own and live in the hotel. Employees of a hotel, most likely, will not be of help. The wrong magic words will net you nothing – if you ask at the reception where you can find a supermarket, a supermarché, a small supermarket, a convenience store… probably you will get a blank look, and even if by chance they know of one, you will probably get misinformation about whether they are open or closed. You will need to go and look for it. There are four alimentation générale stores that I use in and around Paris (of course there are hundreds, these are just the ones that are on the routes I take). Hotel staff could not help me find even one of them.
A few months ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I went and asked the receptionist if there was somewhere I could go and buy fruit. “No, no, not on a Sunday.” I was pretty sure I had been to a local shop on a previous trip, and ten minutes later I was paying for apples. Children were playing on the pavement outside, parents were arriving and greeting each other with hugs. When I got back to the hotel with my two grocery bags, I expected the receptionist to pointedly ignore me. Foreigners aren’t supposed to prove you wrong. But she had the good grace to look surprised and said “Oh, was it open!?” Not “I’m so sorry I told you the wrong thing.” That would be expecting too much.
An alimentation générale near your hotel is a treasure.
If your hotel doesn’t have room service and you need to go and work, and you have no time for dinner but you need to eat too, you can grab a cheese and some crispbreads and you can survive until morning.
If you abstained from dessert at the restaurant but want something sweet to finish the night, you can buy a punnet of raspberries or a bag of cherries and eat them on the way back to your hotel.
If you, like my husband, are convinced that every cold water tank in every hotel has a couple of dead rats floating in it, you can buy a big bottle of Evian for your room.
Now you can survive in Paris, even on a Sunday night in the boondocks.