I was told it couldn't be done. Like François Thibault, the Grey Goose creator that gets frowned at a lot before every film I see these days, attempting to eat vegan in Paris was apparently not the thing to try.
"Non" was the answer I envisaged after every vegan request I could make. And to an extent, I can see where this comes from. Consider the fact that many French restaurants and cafes will find it incredibly rude to ask to take a doggy bag of food away with you (where as in the UK it now runs from eccentric to a total appreciation of not wasting that chef's creations). The act of eating in a restaurant, the experience as a total thing- all of that- I can see how that jars with people asking to swap items on the menu or to replace nearly everything on it with, say, leaf salad. It's one thing to finally get a plate of vegan food set down in front of you, but if you feel like you've offended everyone in the restaurant, your boyfriend is masking a cringe of Curb Your Enthusiasm proportions and now you're going to try and photograph it? Well, that's not a holiday, that's just being une douche.
In the UK, I'm getting better at learning when to call ahead and chat to the kitchen to see if they have time to make something vegan, and when I'm just going to have to order the side dishes or leave. I didn't go to Paris for a vegan rail trip- I went, in fact, to try and fit in all the free galleries I could before I turn 26 and have to pay (gah). On the way round, we came across some awesome places to eat vegan. In some other places, you would need to read between the lines of the menu to try and work out if they could bring you a few side dishes instead, or share a plate with your boyfriend who now loves speck, and be content with the bread basket. We're not in Portland any more, but it can be done. I think what I learnt on this trip more than any of my other excursions as a vegan, is that there is a time for tofu, but when you're spending a weekend amidst a culture that celebrates meat and dairy in such a way as France does, you're not going to get a ticker tape parade for asking if there're any vegan croissants going.
Soya Cantine Bio
20 rue de la Pierre Levée, 11e
Soya came recommended to us from our hotel (more good stuff on that below) as a nearby vegetarian place. We headed there straight from the Eurostar to while away some time before check-in. We'd been up since 4.30am and Paris was freezing- I think -2°C that day. Excuse my Harry Potter reference but Soya was like the honest-to-God Room of Requirement for a lunch that was hot and vegan, in a place we could easily sit for two hours. Found in a converted industrial atelier, Soya is pleasingly disguised on the street (see above), so walking past twice and convincing your boyfriend this is, in fact, a vegan Mecca of sorts for the area, is a job in itself. Inside, one large room flooded with winter light, benches, an open kitchen and a blackboard displaying the lunchtime plate are the sum total. I was too tired to drag out my iPhone to photograph our lunch of Chille-non-carne, which arrived as a delicious chilli with tofu, seitan and kidney beans, perfectly spiced, and a bright bowl of yellow rice. Our waiter was super helpful, lingering over the best translation into English of a spice that I think was cumin, (despite my efforts to continue in French!), and from what I saw of the dinner menu, there is a lot to choose from for vegans, and it's all clearly marked. I've since read that at the weekend there's also a great breakfast buffet - although I would maybe drop by and book ahead as everything I've read says it gets busy busy busy. Lunch for two, with two espressos, came to €32, and to be able to eat so well in a capital not known for it, I think that's a bargain.
23 rue des Vinaigriers, 10e
In true tourist style we stumbled across Sol Semilla on the way to somewhere else- I think a 12 Hours-recommended brunch place after the other three places we'd tried were crammed to the rafters. Sol Semilla wasn't that different- we were lucky to get a table, and I guess even luckier to stumble across a vegan cafe whilst on a Canal Saint-Martin mooch. We each ordered the plate of the day again- a mix of hot pulses, chickpeas, mushrooms stewed in cacoa and shredded cabbage, and I added a green juice.
This was very much what I'd call an 'old school' style vegan cafe- superfoods, spices and whole foods are the centre of attention here - - and it wasn't a cheap option- but if you need or want to try somewhere totally vegan in Paris, I'd certainly give it a go. Lunch for two with one green juice came to €38.
55 rue des Archives, Marais
Oh Hank. Hank Burger, or Have-A-Nice-Karma Burger, is my new long-distance romance. After a very long day wandering around Père Lachaise Cemetery, climbing up to the Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre and then somehow meandering all the way down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to Arc de Triomphe, we were, as my Mum would say, pooped. Hank is tucked down a street near Centre Georges Pompidou, and is a vegan's answer to Five Guys, Shake Shack and hell I'm even going to throw Meat Liquor in to the mix, because it is just so damn good. I've never understood the fawning over burgers that's been happening in London for the past five years or more, until I ate at Hank's. Now I get it. I'm five years late, but I get it. One handful full of warming tofu burger goodness, the other full of perfectly salted fries. What must have been almost ten miles of walking under our feet, in freezing conditions, for twenty minutes of heaven.
Hank uses one veggie steak burger you then choose to add all manner of topics and accoutrements to, such as alfafa sprouts, 'mustard sauce deluxe' and pickles, a la Catcheuse, or L'Allumé, with barbecue sauce, red peppers and tomatoes. We each added vegan cheese to ours, and then whole thing is wrapped up, topped off with delicious fries and organic cola, red or white wine, or even gluten free beer (hola! GF buds!).
After somehow managing to order all of that in French (as well as spell my own name- still feeling proud of my GCSE efforts for that), I then heard a sharp 'AVA!' from the woman orchestrating the entire burger joint from one till. She winked at a table for two that was just about to empty out. We'd already resigned ourselves to eating the burgers on the way back to the hotel as the place was so packed, but with zero hesitation (and a total lack of British stalling etiquette) we plonked ourselves down between a little boy asking his Mum the exact difference between veganism and vegetarianism, and four-probably-students delving into mini vegan carrot cakes to finish off their dinner. When in Paris, mais oui? Two burgers plus fries, vegan cheese and organic cola came to €25 in total, and it was the best vegan meal out I've had in months.
OTHER NOTABLE MENTIONS
34 rue des Vinaigriers, 10e
A pizza place also recommended to us by Mama Shelter hotel. We rocked up on a Saturday night to a totally booked out restaurant "for the first time!" the waiter told me in such an excited way it didn't matter that we couldn't share his good fortune. But as they have a vegetarian pizza topping option, I think asking for no cheese would probably be feasible here, and the restaurant itself looked gorgeous.
EAT TOKYO AT PALAIS DE TOKYO
13 Avenue du Président Wilson, 16e
Eat Tokyo doesn't open until 8pm for dinner, so when we turned up at 6pm hoping to catch an early table, we weren't in luck. But from glancing at the menu it looked like there would be some dishes that could be veganised (there doesn't seem to be a copy of it online and it could change between now and the time of reading this, but it seemed promising!) and the herbal teas and beer we had here were perfect to get rid of headaches before heading out once more, so if you're looking for a quiet aperitif location in a great looking bar, I'd definitely recommend it.
19 Rue Lucien Sampaix, 10e
I used the 12 Hours Paris guide a long with my friend Laura's awesome guide to the city. 12 Hours spends a lot of time talking about how great Tuck Shop is, which is now closed. I also had Holybelly written down as a nearby option- and this place was packed with a line down the street by 1pm on a Saturday, but I reckon another time in the mid-week, it would be a perfect coffee-stop off along the way. They do a breakfast menu of porridge and vegemite on toast, and insist on communicating in English on their website, which makes me think they'd also be able to help someone that wants to find out a bit more about having breakfast without eggs etc, even if you can't say it in perfect French!
There's a few other general points that I think would help any vegans feeling a little trepidation about going to Paris. First up:
THE glories of the breakfast buffet
I am a long-term breakfast buffet lover. I've been known to try to convince someone their car has been stolen so we can get down to the breakfast buffet sooner than anyone over the age of 6 should wish to. Why do I love them? Because you can eat plates of food you could never order, and as a vegan that's only ever a GREAT thing.
Case in point: breakfast at Mama Shelter. €16 each may sound like a lot for breakfast, but when it's only downstairs, outside is freezing, and there's Motown playing, it's an easy win. While my boyfriend stacked his plates high with scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon and pancakes, I stuck to fruit salad, cereal, sliced baguette, cucumber and tomatoes. No, there weren't any beans or vegan sausages or mushrooms- but for France, I was pretty happy. The three plates of delicious bread, salad and ginormous slices of melon and pineapple I ate most mornings would never appear on a menu like that, and no, I wouldn't want to eat it every day- but teamed up with soy milk and tea or coffee and as much juice as you'd like (I watched a man do four shots of juice like tequila one morning- I love hotels), and €16 doesn't feel too expensive for a solid start to the day.
The photo above is of the neon-lit toilets at Mama, as I'm convinced they've made the most Instagrammable-yet-impossible-to-photograph hotel in all of history. The lighting across the restaurant, hotel rooms and even the foyer is so damn warm and cosy it made it virtually impossible to take one good photo. However, to set the scene, breakfast is served with sofas, newspapers and softer-than-soft lighting, along with black and white film classics playing in the neon toilets and staff that can't do enough for you. I was a little hesitant to stay somewhere with a big name designer - Philippe Stark- doing something on a budget, (his budget, definitely not mine!) but every corner of the hotel's concept is well executed- from super friendly concierge to rainbow-lit ceilings and notes left on hallway mirrors about the best attractions to try that night in the city. Mama could easily be gimmicky- the super hero masks in the hotel rooms- the beach inflatables becoming a table centre point in the restaurant- but it's more of an adult's Disneyland- making it a lot of fun to stay in, especially in the middle of a freezing January.
VEGAN PRODUCTS IN STORES
The days we didn't do the buffet, I stocked up the night before on Innocent smoothies or chocolate soy milkshakes from the local Bio shops, and then made sure I ate extra at lunch time. I saw so many Bio and organic stores even in our comparative outskirt neighbourhood of the 20e, along with lots of tofu and soy products in every supermarket we went in to. I spotted le lait de soja on cafe menus a handful of times, including at our hotel- which I hope will soon spread across more of Paris. The only place I have to say that I couldn't eat anything but crisps was in the Louvre, where it looked like there was even just one vegetarian option and to be honest, the food seemed pretty bad for anyone.
All in all, there were none of the 'nons' I had expected in Paris. Having spent a few days there, I'd now say aim for one vegan restaurant or cafe a day, and leave the rest up to what you stumble across. Pizza is always a good option if there's nothing else, and the supermarkets seemed better equipped than many I've riffled through in the UK for vegan options. And get to Hank. Promise me you'll get to Hank.