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Vegetarian Dishes in Traditional French Cuisine

French restaurant

Having been both vegetarian and vegan in France, I can assure you that dining out is a lot easier for those who eat egg and dairy products like cheese and cream. And although Italian, Chinese, Indian, or Middle Eastern restaurants tend to have more meat-free dishes available, you don’t have to bypass traditional French establishments to find vegetarian-friendly fare. You don’t even have to plead with your waiter for alterations or substitutions in most cases, as there are plenty of traditional French foods that are actually vegetarian, even if they don’t use that label. Here are a few examples of classic vegetarian starters and main dishes you’ll find in traditional French restaurants and brasseries.

Vegetarian Starters and Soups

There are often more vegetarian options on the starters (entrées) menu in France. If you’re going to order several of these instead of a main dish (plat), be sure to let your server know if you’d like them served together and/or at the same time as everyone else’s main dish (a good server will figure this out on their own so you don’t feel left out; a bad one will awkwardly serve you all of your starters at the beginning and leave you sitting there with an empty plate when others are eating their main courses).

French Onion Soup (soupe à l’oignon or gratinée à l’oignon): It doesn’t get any more traditional than this! Nothing like a warm bowl of this comforting classic on a wintry Parisian day. It’s made from caramelized onions simmered in vegetable broth, topped with a toasted baguette slice and melted cheese, such as Gruyère or Comté. This is pretty easy to find in traditional French bistros and brasseries, especially in Paris, such as Le Grand Colbert near the Palais Royal.

Eggs with Mayonnaise (oeufs mayonnaise or oeufs dur mayonnaise): Hard-boiled eggs served cold with a generous dollop of homemade mayonnaise, often garnished with fresh parsley or chives. This starter fell out of favor for a few decades (at least in Paris), but is back with the renewed popularity of brasseries and ‘bouillons’ returning to menus of simple, affordable classics. Note that it’s also still possible to spot a little wire rack of hard-boiled eggs still in their shell on the zinc countertop of traditional cafés (my friends visiting from the US last week pointed one out to me in surprise at a café in the Marais, Le Pick Clops).

Oeufs mayonnaise and French onion soup at Bouillon Petit Vavin
Oeufs mayonnaise and French onion soup at Bouillon Petit Vavin.

Tomato Tart (tarte à la tomate): This savory tomato tart is made with a flaky pastry crust, covered with a thin layer of Dijon mustard, and topped with ripe tomatoes and a blend of herbs such as thyme and oregano. My French sweetie makes the best tomato tart at home, of course, but you should see this on restaurant menus in the summertime. A slightly different version of this is the tarte tatin à la tomate, a hearty and delicious upside-down tomato pie that I’ve only ever seen on the menu at Café Les Philosophes in the Marais.

Green Lentils (lentilles de Puy): This is another seemingly simple dish the French excel in seasoning to perfection with onions, carrots, celery, and herbs like thyme and bay leaves. There are many kinds of lentils in France but the green ones from the Puy-en-Velay are the first European vegetable to be awarded an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée, or Protected Designation of Origin), just like wine, to verify its quality. Lentils may be served hot or (most often) cold, and might include a poached egg on top. Don’t confuse it with “pétit sale aux lentilles”, which is cooked and served with pork, usually bacon or sausage.

Leeks with Vinaigrette (poireaux vinaigrette): A simple and traditional starter of ender, steamed leeks drizzled with a (usually mustard-based) vinaigrette dressing, sometimes dressed up a bit with a sprinkle of nuts and a poached egg on top.

Celery Root Remoulade (céleri rémoulade): Another simple, often inexpensive starter found in old-fashioned French brasseries and bouillons (traditional workers’ canteens, now known for inexpensive and unfussy French food). It’s basically a salad made with thinly sliced celery root, tossed in a creamy rémoulade sauce made from mayonnaise, mustard, and herbs.

Endive Salad (salade d’endives): Traditionally a light, crisp salad of Belgian endives, paired with Roquefort cheese, sometimes topped with a few walnuts and apple for added texture and flavor. There are many variations on this, especially in fancier bistros who want to be creative, so be sure you understand what all of the ingredients are (in case they sneak in some bacon or other meat).

French Green Beans (haricots verts): These can be starters or served as a side dish. The traditional way to cook them is sautéed with garlic or shallots and seasoned with salt and pepper, although sometimes there will be additional ingredients like poached egg or bacon (lardons), which would be mentioned on the menu. They may be served hot or cold, as you’ll find at the famous Café de Flore in St-Germain-des-Prés. I’ll admit that I didn’t know green beans could taste good after growing up with the canned, boiled variety in the US. If you feel this way, give the French version a try!

Grated Carrots (carottes râpée): I almost left this off the list because I’m not a fan of the pile of grated carrots swimming in vinaigrette dressing. But they are indeed making their appearance again in Parisian brasseries, and at least there’s no risk they’ll be overcooked, because they’re served raw (which, if you’ve been overindulging in French cheese, might be a welcome addition of crunchy fiber to your digestive tract).

Potatoes (pommes): When in a pickle, there’s almost always potatoes on the menu in France. Sure, you could go for the fries (pommes frites), but the tender sautéed baby potatoes (often seasoned with rosemary) known as pommes grenaille are amazing. You should also try at least one decent purée, a smoother and creamier version of mashed potatoes, at least once while you’re in France. Note: You almost never see the full name, pomme de terre, used on a menu, but if it’s in the dessert section it’s an apple.

Creamy Soups (velouté): I wanted to make sure to give a little shout out to the category of French soups known for their smooth, creamy texture (velouté means “velvety”). They’re typically made by puréeing cooked vegetables with cream or milk, to achieve the desired consistency. Popular versions include velouté de potimarron (a type of winter squash similar to pumpkin), velouté de champignons (made with a variety of mushrooms, such as button, cremini, or wild mushrooms), and velouté d’asperges (with fresh, green asparagus). Velouté soups can be served hot or cold, and are often garnished with fresh herbs, croutons, or a drizzle of cream. These soups are typically enjoyed as a starter or a light meal, accompanied by slices of baguette.

Note that, like in many French soups, they might use chicken stock as the base, so check with the waiter if that’s a concern.  

Vegetarian Main Dishes

Ratatouille: Let’s all pretend we knew about this traditional Provençal dish before the Disney film about the rat came out. 😉 Served as a starter, a side, or a main dish (depending on the dish size), ratatouille is a vegetable stew made with eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes, and seasoned with herbs like thyme, basil, and oregano (aka herbes de Provence). It’s also suitable for vegans. You really should only eat this in season (and normally no decent restaurant would put it on their menu in winter), when tomatoes are at their peak ripeness, although I often cheat in the winter with Picard’s frozen ratatouille (which has no additional rogue ingredients, and tastes infuriating better than the ratatouille I try to make fresh myself, d’oh!)

Omelet with Herbs (omelette aux fines herbes): While omelets in the US are typically a breakfast item, in France you’ll see them on the lunch menu, especially in traditional Parisian cafés. A classic French omelet is usually cooked with a mixture of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. There may also be mushrooms and Parmesan cheese, such as the traditional omelet served at Les Deux Magots Café in St-Germain-des-Prés.

Vegetable Quiche (quiche aux légumes): A savory pie made with a flaky pastry crust and filled with a variety of ingredients bound together with eggs and cheese. The famous Quiche Lorraine is made with bacon, but it’s also quite common to find ones made with mixed vegetables (usually carrot, zucchini and onion), or sometimes with spinach (épinards), mushrooms (champignons), or leeks (poireaux). You can often find quiche sold by the slice in bakeries at lunchtime (they’ll usually ask if you wanted it heated up).  

Warm Goat Cheese Salad (salad de chèvre chaud): When I was a vegetarian back in my student days in Paris in the late 90s, this was my go-to dish in most Parisian cafés (I didn’t have the budget to eat anywhere fancy). The basic version is usually presented as a few slices of toasted bread topped with melting medallions of warm goat cheese, served on a large bed of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, and the usual mustard vinaigrette dressing. Fancier versions might have mixed greens and more ingredients in the salad (including green beans, cucumber, maybe even some grated carrot).  

Cheese Soufflé (soufflé au fromage): This light and airy dish is usually made with a cheese-flavored béchamel sauce, whipped egg whites, and grated cheese, such as Gruyère or Comté. Normally making perfect soufflés is an art unto itself, so you’ll find it in restaurants that specialize in it rather than just any French brasserie. One of the most famous in Paris is the aptly-named Le Soufflé near the Tuilleries Gardens, but I recommend Le Récamier near Le Bon Marché for the adorable setting in a hidden alleyway.

Gratin Dauphinois: Thus is a creamy potato dish originating from the Dauphiné region in southeastern  France. The main ingredients are thinly sliced potatoes, milk, cream or crème fraîche, garlic, and nutmeg, baked to golden perfection in a casserole dish in the oven. Some variations also include grated cheese, such as Gruyère or Comté, although purists argue that the original recipe does not contain cheese. Like ratatouille, it may be served as a side dish, but it’s hearty enough to be served on its own.

False Friend Warning: Look out for something called “fromage de tête”. It translates to “head cheese,” but is not a cheese dish at all, but rather a meat-based terrine made from the head of a calf or pig.

Vegetarian Regional Specialties

Crêpes: With the countless crêpe stands found all over Paris, especially in the Latin Quarter (where students enjoy them as a cheap meal), it’s easy to forget that these thin French pancakes are a specialty from Brittany, or “Bretagne” in French, a region in the northwest of France.  Buckwheat, or “blé noir” (black wheat) in French, was a hardy, nutritious crop that could thrive in the region’s poor, rocky soil, making it an essential food source for the Breton people. Buckwheat crêpes called galettes were traditionally savory and filled with ingredients like cheese, eggs, ham, or vegetables. As wheat flour became more widely available and affordable in the 20th century, sweet crêpes made from wheat flour gained popularity, served with sweet fillings like sugar, jam, or chocolate. In my student days I probably ate at least one banana-Nutella crêpe a day from the stands along the Rue Mouffetard , but if you want to enjoy authentic Breton crêpes it’s best to eat them in a crêperie such as the gourmet Breizh Café (several in Paris, including the Marais) or, my personal favorite, Des Crepes et des Cailles on the Butte aux Cailles (13th arrondissement).

Piperade: This is a sweet and spicy dish you’ll find in the Basque region or in Basque restaurants in Paris, featuring a smoky sauce of tomatoes, sweet red chilies, green bell peppers, onions, and garlic. Sometimes it’s served with eggs cracked directly onto the vegetables or poached eggs on top.

Quenelles: These light, dumpling-like creations are a specialty from Lyon, made with flour, eggs, butter, and water. Formed into sausage shapes and cooked in a pan, quenelles are typically covered with a variety of different sauces (vegetarian options include béchamel, cheese, tomato, Provençal, and mushroom). Every time I’ve seen them in Paris they’re served with fish (brochet) or crayfish (écrevisses), but if I ever make it to Lyon they’re on my list.

Aligot: Made by blending mashed potatoes, garlic, butter, and fresh tome (an unsalted curd cheese made from cow’s milk), this comfort food from the Aubrac region dates back to the 12th century when it was made by local monks to weather the long winters. I tried a bit of it for the first time while visiting friends on their rural farm in Auvergne, and can vouch for its stick-to-your-ribs quality!

La Socca: A culinary specialty from Nice, la socca is a large, thin tart made with chickpea flour and olive oil, sprinkled with pepper. I used to eat these hot from the street vendors at the Cours Saleya market in Nice when I lived in Antibes back in the early 2000s. Some people compare them to crêpes, but la socca is normally just chopped into pieces eaten on its own, not stuffed or served with other ingredients. It’s really more of a street food than something you’d find in restaurants (but if you did, it would only be in Nice or surrounding towns on the French Riviera).

Raclette and Fondue: These are two popular cheese-based dishes popular in the French Alps. Raclette involves melting a wheel or large piece of semi-hard raclette cheese, either by holding it close to a heat source or using a specialized raclette grill and scraping it onto plates (the French verb racler means ‘to scrape’) to be enjoyed with potatoes and vegetables, or charcuterie for non-vegetarians. This isn’t to be confused with fondue, a communal dish where diners dip pieces of bread, vegetables, or fruits into a pot of melted cheese. The cheese fondue mixture typically consists of grated cheese, such as Gruyère and Emmental, melted with white wine and sometimes flavored with garlic, nutmeg, or kirsch (cherry brandy). Essentially a cold-weather food, you’ll find these served at the Christmas market stands in Paris, but also at restaurants in Paris specializing in Savoyard cuisine such as Les Marmottes near Les Halles.

Almost French?

With globalization and constant changes in taste, it’s actually rare to find restaurants in Paris serving what might be considered a 100% “French” menu. Italian dishes such as risotto, pizza and pasta are common (especially the popular penne à la Arrabbiata, pasta with a spicy tomato and garlic sauce). Some of the most popular restaurants in the Marais are the falafel joints on or near the Rue des Rosiers. And even the most traditional French restaurants are highlighting at least one vegetarian – if not vegan – option on their menu these days. At least in Paris! 😉

One of the most reliable online guides for finding vegetarian restaurants or restaurants with vegetarian options throughout France is the Happy Cow (filter by type of cooking if you want only French cuisine options).

I’d love to hear about your own experiences finding non-meat options hidden among traditional menu options when dining in France.

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