If you want to a truly inexpensive and quick French meal, serve Croque-Monsieur.
Serve this simple ham and cheese tartine with a green salad and a bottle of simple rose table wine. Gussy it up a little. Make sure the presentation is special. Call it by its French name. Don't call it a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Your guests will be impressed.
They serve this in Paris. They do. I've ordered it, and I've ordered its mate, Croque-Madame, which has an egg on top.
The first time was a cafe near Gare d'Austerlitz. The waiter was appropriately snooty and snarky, right out of a movie.
"He thinks you're a hick because you ordered Croque-Monsier," speculated my husband.
"It's on the menu, " I countered. "If it's gauche to order it, why is it on the menu?"
I suspected it was on the menu so Parisian waiters would have a reason to be arrogant with American diners.
But I ordered it again, this time on Boulevard St. Michel. And the waiter was, well if not warm and welcoming, not snarky.
I made a Croque-Monsieur last night. I ate it with a simple fresh vegetable salad with green and red peppers. I've been eating some version of this traditional French bistro meal all my life.
Croque-Monsieur means "crunch mister" and it's been around since about 1910, according to this article. Add a tomato and it's a Croque-Provencal. I do that a lot. In fact, that's one of my standard breakfast dishes and it has been for most of my life.
Cost: I bought a small baguette for $1.19. I used about half. The rest of the ingredients totaled about 75 cents, so the entire tartine cost me only $1.35 per serving.
Wine Pairing: More often than not, I have ordered a rosé from Provence with this dish. But I've also paired ham dishes with Beaujolais, and I think that's a good choice, too.