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The economy and French restaurants: 2008-9


Dave Hatfield
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Economic hard times: it all depends.

The last few weeks we’ve been largely eating at, if not golden oldies at least silver and bronzes…..

with very interesting results.

First, no matter what’s happening, some are doing quite well and chasing people away.

The King of reservations, is of course, Daniel Rose of Spring, which has a waiting list into eternity (well, that’s a slight exaggeration – Figaroscope said it’s only five months) and since it’s closing February 26th with no sign of opening soon downtown or elsewhere despite what you read here or in Figaroscope, the seats are cherished.

But also, Le Clocher Periere is bursting (because the chef says he’s trying hard to keep costs down as the economy plunges); Le Gaigne was sending folks coming in for their 22 € formula which features great chow, without reservations away, Ze Kitchen Galerie seems to be holding its prices down too despite the acquisition of a Michelin star (and with changing dishes, which pleases us greatly) and l’Idee was full despite its location outside the city limits. And the Table d’Eugene (Sue) now has two seatings at night, it’s that popular.

L’Epigramme, Mon Vieil Ami, Miroir + Lao Lane Xang 2 were almost completely full.

But Jadis – “the Bistro of the Year,” Goumard “the comeback kid” and the revived Bistro 121, on the other hand, were not and l’Assiette was empty for hours until a few frozen locals arrived.

So, it’s a mixed message, puzzled picture, confusing condition from France right now, for me at least.

For those interested in prices (with the exception of one extra bottle of wine consumed while chatting up a friendly chef over an afternoon) these are the bills in Euros for two with wine and coffee but no bottled water:

Ze Kitchen Galerie, 106.30

Mon Vieil Ami, 100.75

Spring, 95

Jadis, 91

Agapes, 89.90

Goumard, 86

L’Epigramme, 82.50

Bistro 121, 80

l’Assiette, 81

Miroir, 79

Clocher Periere, 77.50

l’Idee, 70

Le Gaigne, 68

La Table de Eugene, 68

Lao Lane Xang 2, 38.70

John Talbott

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One Paris restaurateur was quoted last September as saying that his most faithful customers were the English. That was before the pound plummeted by a quarter against the euro. Come the busy tourist season, how many of them will be returning for what used to be, in comparison with London, its gastronomic bargains? For us golden oldies on a pension, it will be a case of Au Revoir Paris.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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This from today's [London] Daily Telegraph goes well beyond the informal bistro next door, serving food from the same up-market kitchen.

Upmarket French chefs used to serving meals costing as much as £300-a-head are having to open fast-food extensions because of the worsening economic situation. . . .

As the credit crunch bites, some of the biggest names are even offering sandwiches to previous big spenders. . . .

Ouest Express offers entire express meals from £10, and ham sandwiches and hamburgers at just over £4 and £5 respectfully [sic!].

Guy Martin, the Michelin starred chef who runs the Grand Vefour in Paris , has also opened a snack food counter called Miyou. . . .

Yves Camdeborde, who runs the Comptoir du Relais, an extremely popular restaurant on Paris's Left Bank, said the takeaway extension was a good way of allowing more people to enjoy food which otherwise might be considered too expensive.

Queues snake all along the pavement outside during opening hours.

What next? Ferran Adria's Bulli-Burgers, side order of foam? Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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This from today's [London] Daily Telegraph goes well beyond the informal bistro next door, serving food from the same up-market kitchen.
Upmarket French chefs used to serving meals costing as much as £300-a-head are having to open fast-food extensions because of the worsening economic situation. . . .

As the credit crunch bites, some of the biggest names are even offering sandwiches to previous big spenders. . . .

Ouest Express offers entire express meals from £10, and ham sandwiches and hamburgers at just over £4 and £5 respectfully [sic!].

Guy Martin, the Michelin starred chef who runs the Grand Vefour in Paris , has also opened a snack food counter called Miyou. . . .

Yves Camdeborde, who runs the Comptoir du Relais, an extremely popular restaurant on Paris's Left Bank, said the takeaway extension was a good way of allowing more people to enjoy food which otherwise might be considered too expensive.

Queues snake all along the pavement outside during opening hours.

What next? Ferran Adria's Bulli-Burgers, side order of foam?

We'll find out tomorrow night on British TV. Helmut Blumerthal is devising a new menu for the 'Little Chef' chain of restaurants (sic) here in England. This could be fascinating.

I don't quite know how to describe a Little Chef to those of you who aren't English, but suffice it to say that the term greasy spoon was probably coined in reference to this chain.

More later on this before we leave for France & home.

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That Telegraph article sounds like bull to me.... Martin's sandwich shop was open before "la crise" as was Camdeborde's sandwich place... another example of a big publication with noone on the ground sensationalizing things...

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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That Telegraph article sounds like bull to me.... Martin's sandwich shop was open before "la crise" as was Camdeborde's sandwich place... another example of a big publication with noone on the ground sensationalizing things...

The details may be over-dramatized, but the Telegraph didn't invent the world bank collapse and the credit crunch. If the Paris restaurant scene miraculously escapes the consequences, it will only be by divine intervention.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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This from today's [London] Daily Telegraph goes well beyond the informal bistro next door, serving food from the same up-market kitchen.
Upmarket French chefs used to serving meals costing as much as £300-a-head are having to open fast-food extensions because of the worsening economic situation. . . .

As the credit crunch bites, some of the biggest names are even offering sandwiches to previous big spenders. . . .

Ouest Express offers entire express meals from £10, and ham sandwiches and hamburgers at just over £4 and £5 respectfully [sic!].

Guy Martin, the Michelin starred chef who runs the Grand Vefour in Paris , has also opened a snack food counter called Miyou. . . .

Yves Camdeborde, who runs the Comptoir du Relais, an extremely popular restaurant on Paris's Left Bank, said the takeaway extension was a good way of allowing more people to enjoy food which otherwise might be considered too expensive.

Queues snake all along the pavement outside during opening hours.

What next? Ferran Adria's Bulli-Burgers, side order of foam?

We'll find out tomorrow night on British TV. Helmut Blumerthal is devising a new menu for the 'Little Chef' chain of restaurants (sic) here in England. This could be fascinating.

I don't quite know how to describe a Little Chef to those of you who aren't English, but suffice it to say that the term greasy spoon was probably coined in reference to this chain.

More later on this before we leave for France & home.

Should have done my homework better yesterday. Here is a link to write ups from the UK papers regarding Little Chef after Heston's rework.

Now, if only he or somebody could come over and rework the French motorway cafe's. They've never quite sunk to the depths the English did, but they could certainly improve.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Adieu Paris

In a recorded conversation with John Talbott in early January (you can listen to it here), we both expressed a guarded optimism about the future of the Paris restaurant scene. On sober reflection, I fear that this applies, not to the industry as a whole, but to the ability of the talented few to create a culinary space in which to express themselves. For instance, there are lateral-thinking chefs such as David Tanis, whose private dinner club, Aux Chiens Lunatiques, serves occasional meals to a dozen diners in a private flat. (It’s now inactive; the last communication on his website indicated that he had returned for half a year to Chez Panisse.)

But such inventiveness may fail to rescue many of the quality eating places, whose prosperity depends on that of the economy as a whole, still very much in the descendency. As for the critics, their employment hangs not only on a steady stream of new venues to write about, but on the fading fortunes of the media bosses who sign their cheques. Those with the best hope of surviving the carnage will be the dedicated but incestuous food bloggers, writing to and about each other.

Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Much the same report comes from Karen Fawcett in Bonjour Paris.

The French are feeling the economic crisis, not as severely as many Americans, who have maxed out on their credit cards and live from paycheck to paycheck. But this is changing fast, since the French economy and Paris are so dependent on tourism. . . . Hotel occupancy is down and were it not for residents of the EU, hotels and restaurants would be singing the blues.
EDIT: There's a massive discussion of this topic over on the UK forum, but here in the French forum no one seems to be interested. Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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  • 3 weeks later...

Today's Figaro Business Section had two side-by-side articles revealing the magnitude of the crisis. The first one, only now in the pdf version, is about scallops and said that while Jan & Feb are traditionally "bad" months, this year is "catastrophic;" 120 tons are winding up frozen. The good news for we frequenters of the supermarkets is that they're going for 3.50 E a kilo and even 5-7 E in the street stalls. The optimists are counting on Easter and long weekends to improve things, Nathalie Bougeard says; although last week 40 tons were tossed out.

Then linked with the sale of the Red Guide Monday, Florentin Collomp reports in an article, also now only in pdf, wonderfully titled "The blues of the great starred chefs," that while Le Meurice, l'Atelier de.... + Ze are weathering the storm, "certain palaces are empty some nights." He suggests that the successful chefs are managing because of their contracts and consultation fees with big hotels. Of note: the 3rd best paid chef is Gordon Ramsay ($7,500,000 in revenues); the salary of a 3-star chef is between 144,000-180,000 E a year "without counting in the 5,000-15,000 E 'extras' a day.") This may not be John Thain-land but it's interesting.

John Talbott

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What does "extras" mean?

Today's Figaro Business Section had two side-by-side articles revealing the magnitude of the crisis.  The first one, only now in the pdf version, is about scallops and said that while Jan & Feb are traditionally "bad" months, this year is "catastrophic;" 120 tons are winding up frozen.  The good news for we frequenters of the supermarkets is that they're going for 3.50 E a kilo and even 5-7 E in the street stalls.  The optimists are counting on Easter and long weekends to improve things, Nathalie Bougeard says; although last week 40 tons were tossed out.

Then linked with the sale of the Red Guide Monday, Florentin Collomp reports in an article, also now only in pdf, wonderfully titled "The blues of the great starred chefs," that while Le Meurice, l'Atelier de.... + Ze are weathering the storm, "certain palaces are empty some nights."  He suggests that the successful chefs are managing because of their contracts and consultation fees with big hotels.  Of note: the 3rd best paid chef is Gordon Ramsay ($7,500,000 in revenues); the salary of a 3-star chef is between 144,000-180,000 E a year "without counting in the 5,000-15,000 E 'extras' a day.")  This may not be John Thain-land but it's interesting.

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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Today in the JDD {I wonder what they’ll call it next Saturday?} Aurelie Chaigneau had an interview with Alain Ducasse announcing the second year of lunch menus at 28 € at 100 Chateau & Hotels, March 16th to May 15th, which also quoted him as saying that cooking was 60% products, 35% technique and 5% talent.

Also, January 25th, in an interview in the Guardian Joel Robuchon said: “the current economic crisis will lead to a revolution…three-starred Michelin restaurants are more …empty because there are fewer...business lunches,"…Now, people…want one main course, one dessert,….We have to adapt to that…This is the most important economic crisis I've faced in my career. Restaurants will close if they don't adapt…banks are not lending…people struggling…no longer want to pay for overly complicated meals. Straitened times call for simpler, more honest dishes and fewer courses…My mantra is 'Eat the truth'. I hate going to restaurants where you don't know [what’s]...on the plate…I tell my chefs that the best plates have a mixture of two or three flavours…Sometimes it…can be advantageous because new ideas can emerge for a new age." In addition, it mentions that he has just introduced a £19 two-course set menu for lunch.

John Talbott

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Is it my misimpression or are there more entrees (firsts) with eggs in them these days. It could be:

1. A trend/fad

2. The economy or

3. The central planning playbook that says this year it's purees, millefeuilles, exotic fruit, pumpkin soup, nougat, clafoutis, etc.

John Talbott

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There's a classic French tale about a famous chef who entertained the King and amazed him with a very simple dish perfectly cooked. Can someone fill in the gaps in my memory?

I believe you are referring to one of the stories from Rouff's La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet.

The king was the prince of Eurasia – a big foodie of the day. He wanted to meet Dodin's chef Adèle Pidou so he prepared a huge feast and invited Dodin-Bouffant (hoping to impress him and get an invite to his). However, instead of impressed, he was aghast with the Prince's excess. Nonetheless, he did invite him round, but decided to serve a humble four-course meal. The main dish was a simple, but incredible pot au feu...

Food Snob

foodsnob@hotmail.co.uk

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One more feather in the wind: Today's Direct Matin and others reported on and increase of 15% in carafes of water to the detriment of bottled water and wine.

As an American - I could never understand spending big money (or any money) on water. On the other hand - I much prefer gin to water (and am willing to pay for it :wink: ). Robyn

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There's a classic French tale about a famous chef who entertained the King and amazed him with a very simple dish perfectly cooked. Can someone fill in the gaps in my memory?

I believe you are referring to one of the stories from Rouff's La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet.

The king was the prince of Eurasia – a big foodie of the day. He wanted to meet Dodin's chef Adèle Pidou so he prepared a huge feast and invited Dodin-Bouffant (hoping to impress him and get an invite to his). However, instead of impressed, he was aghast with the Prince's excess. Nonetheless, he did invite him round, but decided to serve a humble four-course meal. The main dish was a simple, but incredible pot au feu...

That matches the story as I remember it. Thank you -- I've been trying to dredge it up for years.

Postscript: The story is told in baroquely embellished detail by Marcel Rouff in his novel, "The Passionate Epicure". It was reviewed in the New Yorker by Francine du Plessix Gray, who was once a student at Black Mountain College. An incredibly sexy snapshot of her appeared in one of the books about this amazing place; I promptly fell in love with her. :biggrin:

Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I hate to keep being the harbinger or perhaps more accurately - the conveyor - of bad news but this one got my attention - Figaro today reported that the Flo Group wants to close the Bistro Romain chain. Now, like filling station sandwiches, no self-respecting eGullet member would ever admit to being in a Bistro Romain but I, having no shame, will make such a confession. Colette and I were searching out French language schools (didn't do much good, did it?) in the 16th two decades ago, and had no plans for lunch and tumbled into one that (as they all do) offered unlimited lox or beef carpaccio or whatever that week. Now let me admit sin #2, it wasn't all that bad, whatever it was I had two portions of (Colette of course had a salad that cost twice as much). So I say resquiat in pace (after all the name Romain is in their own adverts based on "Roma's influence....and...Inspired from the famous Café Greco in Roma."

John Talbott

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Here’s another prophecy: as raw materials become more expensive, we’re likely to see a widespread shift, not only from the luxury cuts of meat, but from the super-sourced ingredients whose meticulously documented provenance bumps up the cost. Attention will once more be paid to the skill with which a chef does the best he can with what he can afford. There will be a renewed respect for inventive cooks such as M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, who was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:

Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John, what about the notion that if there is deflation and slackening demand, the price of raw materials will fall. Maybe even the Caspian Sea will become nicely restocked with Beluga and Osetra sturgeon eggs.

Smart projection, Robert. But also people out of work may cull/filtch/plumb crustacean beds, fruit orchards, etc.

I keep seeing very nice looking people in Paris combing the market streets for tossed items. The food world hasn't yet figured out that we're in trouble.

John Talbott

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Here’s another prophecy: as raw materials become more expensive, we’re likely to see a widespread shift, not only from the luxury cuts of meat, but from the super-sourced ingredients whose meticulously documented provenance bumps up the cost. Attention will once more be paid to the skill with which a chef does the best he can with what he can afford. There will be a renewed respect for inventive cooks such as M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, who was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:
Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

While it is gratifying to know that you are dining on the best product that can be found, I have always felt that the true test of a chef was indeed the ability/skill/awareness of how to make something extraordinary out of little. And conversely, nothing irks me more than to have the kitchen handle fine product poorly. As in medicine, the first scripture applying to product should be "Above all, do no harm."

eGullet member #80.

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The food world hasn't yet figured out that we're in trouble.

I think you're wrong here (in general - don't know about France). I see evidence of it everywhere both at home and in terms of planning my travel. Closed restaurants (locally everything from our best high end restaurant to Ruby Tuesday). Special discount menus. My golf club has started a new Happy Hour - 50% off all drinks (from well brands to the tippy top of the shelf - the $150 a pop cognac) - and bar food items - 7 days a week from 4 to 7. Etc. And you know what - I think - from what I've seen - that being realistic about the current environment works.

It has actually been kind of refreshing planning our trip to New York this spring (as compared to our trip to Paris last fall). There are some outrageous bargains (like lunch at Jean Georges for a little more than I'd spend for lunch at Maggiono's at our local mall) - but mostly there are just lower costs. Which in turn has resulted in my making more reservations than usual. I'll wind up spending the same amount of money - I'll just get more for my money. Robyn

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