Despite the city of light's reputation for street fare like crepes, finding high-quality fast food in Paris can be hit-and-miss. Especially in areas with a heavy tourist presence, the risk of ending up with a stale, gummy crepe or a sandwich prepared and stored with questionable hygiene practices is definitely present. Luckily, Paris also offers some excellent street food options, as long as you know where to go (and what to avoid).
Sandwiches, Quiches, and Bakery Fare
Not all sandwiches are created equal in Paris. At a high-quality Paris bakery, you can usually procure a delicious sandwich, quiche or savory tart for under 5 Euros and you'll also have a variety of sweet goodies to choose from for dessert. You can easily find a Paris bakery on any major street and most sell decent sandwiches and other lunch items.
As a general rule, avoid buying traditional sandwiches from street vendors who are not genuine bakers. You can usually separate the wheat from the chaff by taking a closer look: does the sign say something along the lines of Sandwichs et Boissons (sandwiches and drinks) or Boulangerie (bakery)? Are they selling loaves of bread as well as sandwiches and snacks? You're more likely to get fresh bread and ingredients and better handling of hygiene-sensitive fillings like mayonnaise and tuna from real bakeries.
Crepes and Other Street Food
What if you're really hankering for a good crepe?
There are plenty of delicious, cheap crepes for sale in Paris, but learn to spot the good ones before ordering. Does the vendor keep a stack of pre-made crepes that are then re-heated, or are the crepes made from scratch in front of your eyes? The latter is obviously the much better option (and it's more fun to watch).
Also try to observe ingredients at the workstation—do they look fresh, or wilted and warm? Remember that even salad greens and tomatoes that are not properly kept can result in food poisoning.
You can find crepes all over the city at stands and walk-in restaurants, and you can usually discern the good from the bad by following the above tips. For more specific recommendations, check the list of the best crepes and creperies in Paris.
One final tip on street crepe vendors: Don't assume that because they make their crepes fresh, their other fare is any good. I've seen stale, suspicious-looking sandwiches, hot dogs, or quiches being sold at stands that make decent crepes. Always use your eyes before ordering—don't just look at the menu.
Falafel and Other Mediterranean Specialties
Falafel may not be French, but it's probably the most coveted fast food item in Paris. A string of always-teeming restaurants on Rue des Rosiers in the traditional Jewish quarter of the Marais district have become extremely popular among tourists, and for good reason: soft, thick pita bread is filled with perfectly crisp chickpea balls, and complemented with a variety of freshly cut vegetables, tahini, hummus and hot sauce.
It's a favorite version of falafel, hands-down. Read this complete guide to the best falafels in Paris to learn more about some of the more scrumptious options in the city. L'As du Falafel at #32 is the most popular, but others on the street offer excellent sandwiches as well for around 5 or 6 Euros. You can also sample traditional Yiddish specialties such as babkas or strudel at bakeries like Sacha Finkelsztajn (27 Rue des Rosiers).
Another great Mediterranean fast-food option in Paris is Lebanese food. Paris has dozens of good to excellent Lebanese restaurants, serving delicacies such as schawarma, lemon and garlic chicken (shish taouk), falafel, moutabal, and Man'Ouche: hand-tossed Lebanese pizzas stuffed with soft cheese and zaatar (a thyme, sesame , and olive-oil mixture), or other ingredients.
Sit-down menus can be much more expensive than ordering a sandwich, which are usually perfectly satisfying (and cheap). Particularly for the Lebanese pizzas, I recommend Man'ouché, a simple stand close to the Centre Georges Pompidou at 66, rue Rambuteau (Metro Rambuteau or Les Halles). This list of good Lebanese restaurants in Paris includes ones with takeout options.
Indian and Sri-Lankan Fast Food in Paris
You have to know where to head, but Paris has some excellent and inexpensive Indian and Sri-Lankan fast food. This guide to the La Chapelle District/Little Sri Lanka will show you where to head for delicious hand-made parathas (flatbread), samosas and other fast food from Sri Lanka and India.
Street Markets in Paris
Another great way to procure delicious and cheap fast food in Paris is to go take a stroll at one of the city's open-air markets. Most markets, both of the permanent and temporary variety, have a few stands selling quiches, sandwiches or regional specialties like sausages.
Tourist Trap Areas to Avoid
Some areas in Paris offering an abundance of street food are tourist traps with generally disappointing quality. These include the northern end of Rue de la Harpe near Metro St Michel (Latin Quarter), certain vendors around Place des Tertres in Montmartre (and the streets surrounding the Sacre Coeur), and some stands around the Eiffel Tower. All street food in these areas is not bad—but pay particular attention to whether the fare looks fresh and is being handled and stored properly. Avoid these stands when in doubt.