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Flunch Caulaincourt restaurant photo

ABOVE: Flunch Paris Caulaincourt is one of three Flunch cafeterias in Paris. (This one is in the 18th; the others are in the 1st and 3rd arrondissements.)

Fed up with fast food, such as McDo and Quick? Or maybe you're too poor, or just too tired, to enjoy a leisurely dinner at a nice restaurant? Flunch, the French cafeteria chain, has a table waiting for you--at least, if a Spanish tour group or a busload of lycée students from Lyon hasn't beaten you to it.

Flunch has three cafeterias in Paris: one near the Place de Clichy below Montmartre, another in the rue Beaubourg near the Pompidou Center art museum, and a third on the rue Pierre Lescot side of the Châtelet-Les Halles shopping and transportation complex.

We've eaten twice at the rue Caulaincourt branch, which shares a building with Castorama, the French equivalent of B&Q or Home Depot. Here's what to expect:

Flunch is a self-service cafeteria. As you enter, you'll see illuminated lunch/dinner menus above the cash registers. Meal prices during our most recent visit were in the €6,50 to €8 range.

Facts about Flunch:

  • Some meals include a dessert and drink; others don't. If you're planning on having a meal, rather than snacking on the à la carte items in the entrance section, ignore the display cases: Instead, grab a tray and utensils, pick up a roll near the cash registers (you'll be charged extra for the roll), decide which meal you want, and get in line.
  • Tell the cashier what you want, pay, and keep your receipt. (Don't worry if you don't speak French--if you can say "saumon, s'il vous plait" or "je voudrais poulet, s'il vous plait" and point, the cashier will figure out what you want.

  • Once you're inside the dining room, you can head for the appropriate food station (e.g., chicken, fish, or grill). Give your sales receipt to the person behind the counter, and you'll receive a plate with a slab of protein.

  • Next, go to the self-serve vegetable station, where you can top up your plate with French fries, mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, spinach, and whatever else strikes your fancy. (We were impressed by the Mont Blanc-sized mountains of food that some of the locals managed to build.)

  • Don't forget to get a soft drink or beer at the drinks dispenser; you'll also find pitchers, glasses, and ice water at another self-serve station.

  • Dessert is extra with most meals; you can pick up a tart, mousse, etc. on your way in (before you pay the cashier) or buy sundaes, crêpes, and other desserts at the ice-cream station inside the dining room. If you want an espresso, look for a pushbutton machine that accepts euro coins or jetons (tokens) sold by the cashier.

More tips:

  • The tastiest and freshest item on the menu is a grilled hamburger steak (available in two sizes), which can be ordered saignant (rare) as most Parisians prefer. Hamburger steaks are cooked to order, and you may have to wait a while if there's a queue.

  • If you're an American who's used to Big Gulp drink portions, upgrade to an XL size when paying the cashier.

  • A children's menu is available; it includes a drink or yogurt from a pirate-decorated cooler inside the dining room.

  • If you need to use the toilet, take your receipt with you: It shows the lavatory entrance code, which you'll need to unlock the door to the toilettes.

  • Try to arrive at least an hour before closing time. (In the last half-hour or so, the staff is likely to be busier with cleanup than with food preparation.)

  • Don't expect haute cuisine: Flunch is a healthy step up from fast food, but it it's still a cafeteria. On the bright side, you can use your savings to splurge on a real restaurant meal when you aren't exhausted from sightseeing. And by dining at Flunch, you'll get up close and personal with Parisians of all ages, races, and social classes--especially when bumping elbows at the veggie steam table or edging your way into line at the grill.

For more information, including menus, see the French-language Flunch Web site.