Paris Boulangerie & Patisserie Guide (7 Tips to Make Your Paris Trip Delicious)
After seeing family and friends (of course), the part of a trip to Paris that I most look forward to is visiting the myriad bakeries and pastry shops (boulangeries & patisseries) that the city has to offer. However, over the past decade I've noticed a trend of "industrialization" and franchising of bakeries that has dramatically reduced the quality. To be sure, there are still shops that make products unrivaled by anything you could hope to find in the States. Unfortunately, there are also enough imitators around now that you can just as easily spend your hard-earned money on a pastry or croissant that is far worse than the ones sold at your local Costco.
So how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? It's actually not too difficult if you're a bit observant. Here are some tips to help you on your quest:
When to Run Away
If you ever walk into a boulangerie that clearly doesn't have an oven, run away. Don't walk. Run. Also, if all the baguettes or pastries are identical, that's an obvious sign that the place is outsourcing it's production.
The corollary to this is that if the layout of the bakery makes it possible to glimpse the baker hard at work rolling and kneading dough, you can feel much better about getting a great product.
Price is Unrelated to Quality
Price has almost nothing to do with quality...within reason, of course. There are many neighborhoods in Paris, called arrondissements, and the chic 16th sports prices that are sometimes 3 times what you might pay in other parts of the city. I've had great croissants, baguettes and pastries all over the city, so don't think that by restricting yourself to a more upscale area every baked good will be delectable. As an example, the best macaron I've ever had in my life was a salted caramel flavored piece of perfection I purchased from an adorable Chinese lady at a pâtisserie near the Ledru-Rollin Metro station. Special note: If / when you find an amazing sweet or savory treat, write down the name of the bakery and the street you found it on (and share it in the comments selection below, please). I was in a hurry and I forgot to do that when I bought the macarons, and I still haven't been able to go back. Rookie mistake!
Part of the fun of discovering Paris is to experience the distinct neighborhoods, and the bakeries and pastry shops serves as the center of gravity of each arrondisement.
Do What the Locals Do
Watch where Parisians are buying their bread. This strategy works well when selecting restaurants as well. I would say the reason I walked into at least half of the bakeries I've been to was that I saw someone strolling down the street with a baguette or croissant. If there's a line out the door, it's an even better sign.
And don't just stop observing once you enter the establishment. Keep an eye on what people are buying, and what they're not. Bakeries and pastry shops specialize in a few products but typically make all of the favorites. Some are experts in baguettes, others in sweets, and still more in savory delights.
If the bakery is close to where you're staying, you may have time to try a variety of treats, but if it's not, play it safe and order the products that look like they see the most turnover. I was in St. Germain des Pres the other day, and because I was paying attention to what others were purchasing, I bought the most amazing loaf of poppyseed bread. So good. I wouldn't have even considered buying it had it not been for the sweet elderly lady in front of me with her Parisian scarf and sack, expressing her excitement that she arrived while they were still warm.
Get Off the Beaten Path
Rents are high everywhere in Paris, but especially on the "main drags" in touristy areas. Only large chain bakeries can afford to set up shop in such places, so walk over to the side streets. These areas tend to be more residential, and the bakeries and patisseries cater to the locals who live in the area. After you find a nice location, take your food to a nearby park and enjoy the very Parisian pastime of people watching.
Search for Specialty Items
Look for specialty items. If there's something in the display you've never seen before, there's a good chance it's worth trying. As I mentioned, most bakeries provide the staples: baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolat, eclair, etc. That can make it difficult to compare the quality of one to another without trying them. But if there is something unique, chances are it's worth experiencing.
Never, ever, buy a baguette or croissant from a supermarket. Often, they are worse than similar products from American supermarkets. That isn't to say there are no products worth buying at supermarkets, because there definitely are, but more on that later.
A Word on Chains
There are chains, and then there are chains. Paul, for instance is everywhere, from train stations to rest stops. I think they're even in the US and UK now. If you're eating there, the gourmandise is my personal favorite. The products won't blow your mind, but I've found them to be consistently good wherever I go.
There are also several chains of 3 to 5 bakeries across Paris owned by the same proprietor. Even though they may all share the same name, the quality can differ vastly. My suggestion is to try and go to the mothership whenever possible. Don't discount these establishments outright though, because they are successful for a reason. Take Le Moulin De La Vierge, for instance. The most buttery, decadent croissants, ever. You'll need to keep some napkins with you because of all the buttery goodness. I'm not exaggerating; they were so good just fresh from the oven that we ended up turning back to buy more. In fact, I've worked myself up so much that after writing this I'm going to hop on the metro and get some more. I'm addicted.
I hope these observations I've made over the years are helpful to you. I've listed a few of my favorite bakeries in the comments section below, but use these tips and discover your own hidden gems. And when you find one, please share!