“A satisfied customer, we should have him stuffed“.
Although I am happy to confirm ferret is fine, Basil Fawlty’s words rang true after my last experience at this restaurant, located 26 rue Mont Thabor in central Paris.
I had been there before and I must admit it can serve acceptable food at reasonable (by Parisian standards) prices. This probably led me to feel a bit cocky and expect, foolhardily, to be treated like a customer, even like a loyal one.
For if England has moved on since the pre-Thatcher years of bland prawn cocktails, France, in some areas, prefers to cling to an idealised past that never really existed.
But let me tell you my experience at this point. It was getting late and I wanted to be back at the office at 2 to catch a conference call. By the time we settled in our seats and ordered at 1:30 (beef carpaccio and chips in my case), I was still under the illusion I was going to make it. By 2 I had finished my plate but still no sign of the chips. At this point I decided to leave to listen to the call in a quieter place and left some change on the table for my companions to settle the bill.
When they returned to the office later, they told me my misadventure had caused a stir. Indeed, one of them had dared to ask for a reduction on my behalf, to compensate for the missing chips. Apparently the reaction was in proportion to his offensive behaviour. He was told surlily I was supposed to ask for the chips (but still got some refund I should point out). My colleagues made their case even more serious by trying to pay with cards (a major offence under a ridiculously high amount in most French restaurants, 15€ usually). I also believe it was implied we would not be welcome there anymore, for, despite being French, we had failed to understand they were doing us a favour by allowing us to set foot in their establishment.
This incident reminded me of a similar one, a few years ago in Normandy. We had been to a restaurant that boasted a few quality labels but were really disappointed with the food (some of which appeared to have been frozen). Back home, I wrote to one of these labels to voice my disappointment. A few weeks later, I got a very angry letter from the restaurateur himself (the label had passed on my details to him!) explaining to me how wrong I was and how bad a customer I was. Plainly, I should have realised the huge favour (again) they did to us. I wish I had kept this letter, for it encapsulated a lot of the things that are wrong with many restaurants in this country.
But why, you ask me? Isn’t France renowned abroad for its fresh produce, its traditional restaurants at reasonable prices?
I’m afraid a few things have changed: prices have gone up a lot for a start. You used to be able to experience a four-course, gastronomic meal in a provincial restaurant for as little as 200 francs (about 30 euros). Now you would probably be expected to fork out 40 to 60 euros for that.
I appreciate living standards and expectations have improved since then. It was probably more acceptable for restaurateurs back then to struggle until their 50s before they could leave for a sunny retirement. Now I think people expect more, and sooner – and who could blame them for that when you look around?
Another factor for high prices might be the cost of labour in France, and especially the total taxation of labour costs (at 49.3%, it is now the highest in the world), or the shorter working week (even though the impact is difficult to assess).
But the most relevant answer might be found in culture, and especially in, as General de Gaulle, that finest observer of French minds, pointed out, a long tradition of yearning for equality while coveting privilege. Add to this the low regard of French people for service jobs (French customers can often be as rude or dismissive with waiters, especially young women) and I think you have the ingredients for the little role play that is performed over and over in many French restaurants.