Indeed, the best and brightest chefs in the food-obsessed City of Light are increasingly migrating from independent eateries to hotel restaurants. The explanation is partially economic. As in New York and London, high rents and labor costs are eating into profits. Chefs are questioning why they should take the risks of opening a restaurant. At the same time, says Derek Brown, the Englishman who runs the Michelin Guide Rouge, which giveth -- and taketh away -- the coveted star ratings, "hotel owners recognize that having great food is another way of offering value."
Have lunch at the restaurant at the Hôtel Meurice (33 144581028), and you'll see exactly what Brown is talking about. No independent restaurateur could possibly match the gilded grandeur of the Meurice dining room, from the ornate frescoes to a huge carved marble fireplace. Waiters glide around in dark ties and morning coats. It's a fin de siècle, Maurice Chevalier-in-Gigi kind of place.
The food isn't bad, either. Make that "memorable" -- thanks to the ministrations of chef Yannick Alleno. Just 35, Alleno is already considered one of the finest younger chefs in France. It takes real expertise to pull off his version of a seafood paella, whose tempura-like sautéed fish seem to fly out of the rice. His carré au chocolat is a perfect cube of chocolate and mint. The food is so delicious you might overlook the stratospheric à la carte prices. At $63, though, Le Meurice's lunch menu is a relative bargain.
For something just a notch less grand, less expensive, and as culinarily interesting, head over to Le Celadon (33 147034042) at the Hôtel Westminster, just off the Place Vendôme. Christophe Moisand, another thirtysomething wonder, whips up dishes such as fresh-bean soup with smoked duck and orange-flavored crème brûlée with whiskey ice cream. The three-course lunch -- complete with excellent wine and coffee -- is $55. Not cheap but worth it, considering the stellar quality of the food and the setting, which could be mistaken for a small, exclusive club.
The hottest hotel-dining spot is L'Atélier (33 142225656) at the Hôtel Pont Royal on the Left Bank. This is the latest creation of Joël Robuchon, a star in the French restaurant galaxy since the 1980s. It's not for everyone: It won't take reservations, making for some long waits, and it has bar seating only.
Robuchon is betting that Parisian diners are hankering after such informality, and the menu reflects that. It offers dozens of tapas-style selections, from clams stuffed with fresh garlic and a mackerel tart with parmesan and olives to squab stuffed with foîe gras and cabbage. With prices starting at $6.80 a dish, you don't feel as if you need International Monetary Fund debt relief at the end of a meal. That would be a welcome trend in Paris dining if it catches on. By John Rossant