Restaurant Review: La Coupole, Paris Sunday, Nov 3 2013 

Paris is inextricably linked with a host of writers and artists that have passed into legend: creatives from Edith Piaf to Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso to Josephine Baker, have taken pleasure in the city of light and used it as their inspiration. La Coupole is no exception: this Art Deco restaurant, in the unassuming location of the fourteenth arrondissement, has seen all of these famous faces and more meet and romance under its roof. Today it continues to welcome locals and tourists alike – although despite the place’s eminence, it remains surprisingly easy to get a table (alright, so October isn’t exactly high season – but still). So is this ease of reservation a bad omen? Has La Coupole, after years of basking in its legendary status, finally succumbed to a rut of mediocre food and overpriced drink, and bitten the dust?

Not at all. It’s evident that there are many local businessmen who visit the establishment regularly, judging from the welcome accorded to them by staff, and regular local visitors are always a good sign. However, newcomers are certainly not frozen out either: we too were greeted warmly, despite my mother blatantly being a tourist, me being 20 minutes late, and us ordering nothing more exotic than tap water to drink. On the whole, this was most unFrench but most pleasant.

Very French, however, was the food. Having plumped for the two-course €30 menu, we began with a classic of a main course: a beauty of a Hereford steak, served with chips and Béarnaise sauce. Cooked to perfection (we asked for medium rare, and that was what we got), the meat was beautifully tender and flavourful, with a wonderful crust serving to contrast the Béarnaise sauce in both flavour and texture. This dish also represented exceptional value for money: if we had ordered it à la carte, it would have cost €25 by itself.

Dessert, equally, did not disappoint: while my mother ordered the dessert of the day (a layered pistachio and raspberry concoction), I went for another French classic: a fondant pudding made with Guanaja chocolate, served with salted caramel ice cream. While texture-wise it was a little dry (with my opinion likely being influenced by the most wonderful chocolate fondant recipe I have found, by London-based chocolatier Paul A Young), the flavours were undoubtedly supreme.

Staff were swift and courteous throughout proceedings, which was impressive given the size of the place, which has hundreds of covers. We did, however, have time to admire the art adorning the walls and ceilings of La Coupole. While some Art Deco features have been kept, such as the rectangular golden columns, there is also a fair amount of graffiti-style modern art on the walls, which doesn’t appear to be of as good quality and detracts from the venue’s 1920s history. Nevertheless, the surroundings are magnificent, and as far from red-and-black restaurant clichés as you can get.

While some might consider a price tag in the region of €60 for two people as being a little expensive for lunch, you without doubt get value for money: excellent food, bustling surroundings (even on a weekday lunchtime in low season), a unique taste of history, and yes – even efficient and friendly service. Now THERE’S something I never thought I’d say in Paris. Wonder if Hemingway would agree…

102 boulevard de Montparnasse, 75014 Paris

www.lacoupole-paris.com

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Oscar le Restaurant, Paris Sunday, Sep 29 2013 

It has been a strange end of summer in Paris. Just when you think autumn is settling in for good and you have seen the last rays of sun, summer comes back. Last week certainly was very nice, with warm days and fresh nights, so, last Friday, with an upcoming trip to Northern Germany and a conference call ahead of us, we decided to have lunch outside. My colleague, a sun-loving Dane, and I set off towards the place du Marché Saint Honoré but the terraces were already packed. I then remembered seeing a restaurant with seats outside on the nearby rue des Pyramides. We sat down at a table in the shade of the Eglise Saint Roch (while we would have liked some sun on that day, it would be welcome on hotter days), quite far from the other guests so that we were not suffocated by smoke. The distance was also sufficient enough to make the boisterous gentleman’s talk of his wide experience of the Anglo-Saxon world (commonplace in Paris, as French people can be both fascinated and repulsed by their experience in NY or London – few venture beyond) more amusing than annoying. We ordered some tomato pasta, and the risotto of the day. After some time, the owner arrived and apologised because she had mistakenly asked the kitchen for a spinach risotto. With time pressing on us, I settled for the spinach risotto and the owner promised me a coffee to make up for it. While the risotto was a bit too creamy and cooked for my liking, it was nevertheless acceptable and I was told the pasta was equally good. The tap water was also chilled and drinkable.

In total, the bill came to 35 euros and I was a bit disapponted to find out I had actually been charged for the more expensive risotto (the one which I had NOT ordered but nonetheless got). Maybe it was the owner’s Rolex Daytona, or the fact she brought us chocolate even after I had refused coffee, but I did not complain.

Before leaving to buy coffee from nearby Verlet, we reflected on the meal and acknowledged that we would have paid marginally less to be closer to other guests and perhaps eat lower quality food on the place du Marché Saint-Honoré. I never thought I would say that, but you have to be realistic about this area of Paris, which is enjoying unprecented levels of wealth and affluence: among the many tourist traps that litter the place, I probably would return to Oscar.

Bar le Passage, Paris Sunday, Dec 9 2012 

Recently on a cold November day, I met up with two former colleagues for a long lunch at this trendy Paris restaurant, the younger sibling to the prestigious two star Michelin restaurant, Senderens.

The entrance is located in the passage de la Madeleine (just right next to the watch shop where I bought my trusty Longines), where you will have to ring and announce yourself.

After climbing up a set of stairs, we were led to the elegant dining room, from which I was able to enjoy pleasant views over the place de la Madeleine. The food was very refined, not too heavy, including an excellent venison pâté and a nice take on the rhum baba. Service was relatively friendly, with a waiter complimenting me on my wallet and offering the possibility to share a glass of a velvety (but quite expensive at 19 euros) 2005 Gevrey Chambertin from Geantet-Pansiot.

Overall, the level of noise was quite low, which makes it a good location for lunch (36 euros for three courses) or dinner (39 euros for four courses with two starters), provided you reserve in advance.

Le Pur’, Park-Hyatt Paris-Vendôme Sunday, Nov 25 2012 

I was lucky enough to be recently invited for an evening at this fashionable restaurant in one of the most sought-after districts of Paris. After a warm welcome from the numerous staff, I found the other guests (French, Dutch and German people were around the table that night) enjoying a round of drinks. I accepted a glass of Puligny-Montrachet, which proved to be excellent after it had had the chance to warm up a bit (I have found it is quite common  for restaurants to serve white wine too cold and red wine too hot). While everybody was perusing the menu, I looked at the surroundings of elegant decoration and understated luxury – this is certainly not a place where you will be expected to sit within inches of the next table’s diners, as is often the case in Paris. After a rather tasty array of amuse-bouches, the food arrived. I had gone for abalone with a red pepper chutney and disappointment started to sink in: the taste of the sea food was overshadowed by the chutney, which tasted frankly unrefined to me, with the wrong balance of seasoning and herbs reminiscent of tinned food. The Puligny, however, still proved eminently quaffable, as did the red 2001 Hermitage “Petite Chapelle” from Jaboulet I had chosen from the impressive (but overpriced) winelist: at €155 a bottle, this mature Hermitage seemed to make a lot more sense than the recent Côte-Rotie at the same price. Other Rhône valley wines under €100 may prove a good option, such as Stéphane Montez’s Saint Joseph. I was back on the Puligny for my main of veal sweetbread cooked with seaweed butter, which proved equally disappointing, as the richness of the sweetbread was not counterbalanced by any sharper ingredients. Perhaps I was a little biased by this point, but I was also not taken by the cheese. I left after a pre-dessert amuse-bouche and a (also disappointing) coffee, but I have to admit the desserts looked good (as experienced with Ferret on one occasion for tea).

On the whole, for a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the most prestigious hotel chains, I would say this restaurant fails to deliver, especially at the rarefied level of prices it commands (at least €300 for two). My boss, a regular, agrees, while a collaborator, who was lucky enough to enjoy a romantic dinner there, told me she had never experienced food this nice. Given the prices involved, and unless you happen to be staying at this hotel or enjoy celebrity spotting, I would not even recommend trying to find out who was right: there are plenty of other options to enjoy a quiet and luxurious night in this area of Paris, such as for instance the restaurant at the nearby hotel Scribe, managed brilliantly by Sofitel.

  • 5 rue de la Paix 75002 Paris
  • +33 1 58 71 10 60
  • paris-restaurant-pur.fr/

Tapas in town Monday, Nov 5 2012 

one of the many tapas options available to us

I was lucky enough to go to Barcelona for work recently (oh, I know…HOW tragic), and so with this came the inevitable sampling of various tapas, from the classic patatas bravas, and manchego on toast, to the less frequently spotted stuffed mussels and deep fried cheese. Of course, this was frequently accompanied by the famed Iberico ham, and lashings of sangria, and all at competitive prices to lure in the unsuspecting yet willing tourists. Given the location in a tourist area, and the subsequent English-speaking waiters, I suspect you’d have to head a heck of a lot further south for a truly authentic tapas experience.

But this is not to say that I did not have a good time, or enjoy tapas any less as a result. So hence this Saturday, when my husband and I stopped off at a hotel at La Défense after an afternoon of exhibitions and shopping for a drink and snack, I said yes to his suggestion of tapas (even though deep down I suspect I’d gone in with cake in mind). Tapas is reliable. It’s convenient, bite-sized, and usually tastes good, waking you up with a range of exotic flavours.

We have visited the Sofitel at La Défense at tea-time on several occasions and always been happy with our experience. As a primarily business venue, it’s normally very quiet at the weekend, meaning that staff are able to be extremely attentive, and that service is politer and more discreet than just about anywhere else we’ve been to in Paris. This Saturday was no exception, and we were able to take our seats in our favourite corner –  surrounded by books, looked down upon by subtle lighting and accompanied by low-volume mood music in the background.

Sofitel offer the usual range of overpriced sodas and cocktails, but we went for the freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juices instead (which, in fairness, are not cheap either, at €11.50 each). The tapas itself was better value, at €10 for a generous sharing plate. We were also brought chilled water at no extra charge and were offered plates as well as napkins.

When the sharing plate arrived, we were impressed as always with the presentation. Typically, too, the term ‘tapas’ was used loosely, with an international twist put on the traditional Spanish dish, but this was a delight rather than a disappointment. What you can see in the photograph is 4 spring rolls, 4 deep-fried prawn drumsticks, and 4 smoked salmon blinis, served on a bed of salad. On the side were a bowl each of soy dipping sauce and sweet chilli sauce (and frankly, I would eat the latter with a spoon if I could, so perhaps that tells you just how nice it was…or just how much I love sweet chilli).

All of this, accompanied with a book on Tuscan cookery borrowed from the bookshelves that encircled us, made for a perfect bit of relaxing downtime after elbowing through the crowds at the Canaletto exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André.

The price of this peace was arguably less relaxing at €33 for all of the above – but had we been in time for their happy hour, this price would have been slashed by half, making access to one of the few oases of calm in the Paris area even better value for money.

Sofitel Paris La Défense, 33 Voie des Sculpteurs , 92800 Puteaux, France

(+33)1/47 76 44 43

http://www.sofitel.com/fr/hotel-0912-sofitel-paris-la-defense/index.shtml

 

Tea-licious: 1T Rue Scribe Sunday, Apr 8 2012 

We don’t often go out for tea these days: as with a lot of things, the price of doing this has severely escalated in Paris and ruled out many previously favourite venues. However, on this occasion we treated ourselves (or, specifically, I treated him: when a man has just bought you a Salvatore Ferragamo handbag for your birthday it only seems right), and took ourselves off to the tearoom 1T Rue Scribe, which is within the ground floor of the Hotel Scribe, just near the Paris Opéra and the Boulevard Haussman.

Unusually for a Saturday afternoon it was not too busy, although at only just 4pm it was hardly the teatime rush hour. We were ushered upstairs to a table where the familiar sight of plush seating and shelves of books greeted us. Sadly, the tables nearest the bookshelves were taken, so we settled down with the weekend copy of the FT instead while we perused the menus, opting for their teatime deal: for €18 each we could indulge in a “creation du chef” and a perfumed tea. I went for a tea (available for purchase here, among other retailers) that was intriguingly titled “fête des lanternes”, a green tea with notes of mirabelle (a sweet, plum-like fruit), while him indoors chose a cherry-blossom concoction named Kyoto. On being introduced to the dazzling array of desserts available (which changes daily according to the whims of the chef), we both chose the same thing: a hazelnut and chestnut cream cake with whisky and chocolate.

While service was a little slow at times, this didn’t hamper our enjoyment of the experience in the least: it wasn’t exactly warm outside last Saturday in Paris and we were quite happy to while away time in the warm, calming atmosphere, reading and people-watching. And when our order arrived it was rendered all the nicer by the fragrant teas served in authentic Japanese tea services (handleless cups and heavy teapots included), and the sheer luxury of the desserts. Beautifully presented, the light-as-a-feather nut cakes (fashioned into a sort of globe shape) gave way to alcoholic cream in a way that meant the individual flavours were detectable without any of them hitting you in the face. The bronzed ball on top of the cake was hollow white chocolate and it finally sat on a square of good quality dark chocolate that struck just the right tone and balance.

Being a part of a Sofitel hotel, it’s hardly surprising that 1T Rue Scribe ticks all the right boxes (as does its sister restaurant within the hotel, Le Café Lumière, which is an equally pleasurable experience) – but frankly, given its premium location and the general reliability of the Accor chain, this comes as no surprise. There’s really something there for everyone, including light meals if you don’t really have a sweet tooth, and other hot and cold beverages. The atmosphere throughout the hotel’s ground floor (including the toilets) is calm, cultured and luxurious, and staff are never anything less than attentive (without being overbearing, of course). Openness and intimacy are effortlessly combined and there are good views over the Place de l’Opéra.

In terms of value for money, I was surprised to find through a brief Google search that there are actually plenty of places in London where afternoon tea for £15 (which is essentially what you have at 1T Rue Scribe) is on offer, usually consisting of even more than is offered at 1T – a selection of pastries, sandwiches and cakes as well as your choice of tea. This is true of highly desirable locations in London that are as prestigious as Paris’ Opéra area, such as Oxford Street, Kensington and Knightsbridge, and even include L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (in Covent Garden), which offers afternoon tea for £14 per person (in Paris you are looking at twice the price). So even if €36 for two is not outshining other London venues, it is certainly competitive and in line with the current market. In Paris, it gets even better, as the price and atmosphere offered here is among the best value in the city (one of our previous haunts, 1728 on the rue d’Anjou, used to be affordable, but will now set you back at least €30 each for a tea and dessert. This pattern is sadly becoming endemic across Paris). Now that I’ve been reminded of how good it is, and of its high value for money in the City of Light, I would definitely return.

Hotel Scribe, 1 rue Scribe, 75009 Paris

http://www.sofitel.com/fr/hotel-0663-hotel-scribe-paris-managed-by-sofitel/index.shtml

The Little Paris Kitchen…in St-Germain-en-Laye Friday, Mar 30 2012 

We’ve been glued these past two weeks to new series The Little Paris Kitchen, starring Rachel Khoo, who opened Paris’ tiny restaurant in her very own studio flat in the 19th arrondissement. Even though the restaurant is now sadly closed so Rachel can work on other projects (like this TV show!), she clearly still loves Paris (after coming to France to study at the Cordon Bleu cookery school, she is still here 6 years later) and delights in taking advantage of the freshest ingredients and in getting to know local dishes (before putting her own twist on them, of course).

One of those “traditional-with-a-twist” recipes featured on her show so far is the recipe for croque-madame muffins. Croque madame is basically a ham and cheese toastie with an egg on top, and in Rachel’s version, the entire crunchy cheesy melty goodness is packed into muffin tins and served as a dinky snack (although in Paris it’s typically more of a lunchtime thing to eat croque-madame, we made these to expand on our English breakfast one morning!).

Even though I plan to buy Rachel’s book in due course, I have to admit that I did copy this recipe down using her commentary in the programme, as we just couldn’t wait to try it straight away. Here’s Rachel’s attempt on the left, and here’s ours on the right.

Not bad eh? Proves the recipes are really quite idiot proof, and you can try them yourself at home as a taster of her cooking by following my directions below (shamelessly copied off iPlayer):

To begin, take as many slices of white bread as you are making muffins (so 6 slices for 6 muffins). Cut off the crusts then flatten them with a rolling pin (you can flatten multiple slices simultaneously by stacking them or by laying them side by side. Brush them with melted butter (you’ll need about 2tbsp butter for 6 slices) and then squash into a muffin tin any way they’ll fit (a silicone tin is best).

Preheat the oven to 180°C while you make the filling. Cut ham into generously-sized pieces and cover the bottom layer of your “bread muffin case” with ham (not too many layers now! You need all the space you can get).

Croque madame muffins, St-Germain-en-Laye style.

Make a béchamel sauce using 2tbsp butter, 1tbsp flour, and 200ml milk, whisking constantly and adding the milk gradually to avoid lumps. Add salt, pepper, and a small amount of nutmeg and mustard to flavour the sauce. Set aside.

Next, take one egg per muffin. Crack each egg carefully over a cup or small bowl to allow some of the white to drain out. This is because if you leave all the white in the egg then the muffin will be overfull. Put the yolk and remaining white of the egg into the bread muffin case, then cover with béchamel sauce.

Finally, grate over some Cheddar or Comté, and put into the oven for 15 minutes if you like your egg soft/runny. Add an extra 5 minutes for a firmer egg. To this end, don’t leave your muffins in the tin once cooked, as they will continue cooking! Remove all the muffins from the muffin tins the moment they are cooked and put onto plates (the best method of removing them is to take two tablespoons and make a sort of “claw” with them with which you can lift the muffins to safety and deliciousness).

Et voilà!! A tasty, (semi-)healthy and definitely filling snack for any time of day 🙂  Now to go and buy the book…

A week in Paris Sunday, Jan 29 2012 

On a rainy Tuesday night this week, I made my way towards the Michelin starred restaurant Jean, in the former bohemian district near the rue Saint Georges in Paris. The interior looked spacious and warm and I was led to a comfortable banquette near the window. The two other guests soon arrived and, while exchanging the latest gossip, we started to study the menu. We asked the waiter what was offered as part of the 50 euro menu but finally decided to choose from the expensive carte.  I went for the roasted pigeon, accompanied by a lovely glass of 2006 Roc d’Anglade (16 euros!). It was followed by a baba au rhum of the same standard: good but not as exceptional as to command such prices. In total, the bill came to a hefty 240 euros for three.

The ambience was very pleasant though, with reasonable noise levels. Staff were helpful and some nice extras were offered (amuse-bouche, mini-starter, petits-fours) but I would demand something more special for this price level of food.

Later in the week, come Friday night, we were out and about in the achingly trendy 2nd arrondissement, at the lively Au Rocher de Cancale. Specialising in seafood, this sociable venue (so sociable that it was difficult to get through the door!) also offers a wide variety of meat dishes (such as duck, and traditional burgers) and salads, as well as appetisers inspired by mountain cuisine and Thai food to name just a few. The only one of our party to order an appetiser (cheese ravioli) attracted looks of envy from the rest of the table, and others dug straight in to share, while the rest picked from a plate of cheeses, charcuterie and salad that we’d ordered, which was well-complemented by a red wine from Graves.

Service was patchy on this busy Friday night, with servers often too busy to welcome arriving customers well or bother to check their reservations. Food seemed to take a long time to arrive, and when it did arrive, the quality was mixed: while the duck was cooked perfectly, it was spoiled by its maple syrup sauce, which lacked any sort of seasoning or mixing with other ingredients, meaning it just swamped the meat with its lack of refinement, and we have had far better chips in England which actually taste like potato.  However, others at the table liked the chips, so it’s perhaps just a matter of taste. The meat in the burger was merely average, and for the same price you can have a better burger in chains such as the Novotel.

Given the disappointment of the main course compared to the appetisers, dessert seemed a rather appealing option…rendered all the less appealing by being the only one in your party who’s considering ordering. A shame, as there’s nothing more hateful than being the only one eating dessert among a large party, and the dessert menu contained several temptations (such as salted caramel tarte tatin, and red fruit tart with pistachio ice cream). When divided up, the bill came to between €25 and €29 each for a main course, adequate coffee, and a share of the charcuterie plate and 2 bottles of wine between a party of 7. We would perhaps consider visiting again, but you need to be wary: price is acceptable, but service could definitely be improved, and quality is variable too.

After all of that we were glad to be eating homemade fare chez nous for the rest of the weekend, which culminated in a Shropshire pie and an English date pudding. Yummers is not the word.

Restaurant Jean, 8 rue St-Lazare, 75009 Paris – 01 48 78 62 73

Au Rocher de Cancale, 78 rue Montorgeuil, 75002 Paris – 01 42 33 50 29

Restaurant Review: Les Tontons Wednesday, Oct 26 2011 

I went to Les Tontons one weekday lunchtime to kill time and mark books in a more agreeable setting, as well as just generally having a more upmarket lunch than I usually have. I had reserved in advance, but it turned out there was no need: apart from a few old blokes sitting at the bar, there was nobody else there when I arrived (at 12.30, if I remember rightly). The proprietor also greeted me by my first name (which I had put into the online reservation form at TopTable.com), which, I assure you, is highly unusual. This therefore foxed me a bit, but at the same time I also quite liked it.

Chosen for its affordable, traditional menu and its proximity to my work, it’s true that Les Tontons is on a busy road, so perhaps not the most tranquil setting. However, the sun was shining and you do get a view of the Parc Georges Brassens, which is just across the street. I went for their set menu, which, if I recall correctly, came to just €18. It may have even been less than that (I’ll let you know if I ever manage to dig out the receipt). It also accepted a restaurant voucher (or “ticket resto”) or two that I had in my purse, so also handy for those working in the area (though to be fair, most places do take these).

I plumped for the “main and dessert” option and ordered a carafe of tap water to go with it. I didn’t have to wait too long at all and service was generally attentive, except towards the end of my meal, where I ended up going to the bar to get my bill (not sure whether this is standard practice in these kinds of places, though). While I was waiting, though, I got to admire my surroundings: the traditional French decor was enhanced by Bugsy Malone-style crime scene photographs, and quotations from French luminaries scrawled across walls. Traditional with a twist – just what I like.

I had ordered a ‘bavette’, which is basically the flank cut of beef, and like in any half decent French restaurant, I was asked how I wanted it cooked (and, furthermore, when it arrived it was cooked exactly to my taste). It came with a basic green salad and some adequate chips, but the star of the show was really the “sauce au poivre” which, although rather liquidy, proved excellent for dipping the meat into. I chased all of this down with a reasonably-priced, yet still just average glass of Côte du Rhône.

Dessert was less promising: the cherry tart was more cake than cherries and the colour of the sauce that came with it was practically luminous, which did not do much to instil confidence. Indeed, the disparity between the quality of the main course and the quality of the dessert was really quite surprising. I followed it up with a coffee: as mentioned in previous posts, this is generally a mistake due to my ongoing love affair with my Odea Go. Perhaps as expected, it too was mediocre.

As mentioned, I had to go to the bar for my bill, rather than having it brought to my table (the restaurant had filled up significantly during the time of my meal). The bill was settled swiftly and with quite uncharacteristic friendliness, but the shine was taken off the thing by the fact of small bowls of Haribo being placed along the bar. Nuts or mints give a better impression and are more appropriate accompaniments or ends to a drink or meal. But Haribo? Really?

At €18 for a main, dessert and glass of wine, I’d say this came in at great value – especially for a Parisian venue. While perhaps next time I would not bother with dessert (a first for me – believe me!), I would definitely return for the warm atmosphere, convenient location, and excellent bavettes.

73 rue de Brancion, 75015 PARIS

01 45 33 87 22

Restaurant review: Cosy Sunday, May 22 2011 

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.

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