French lead the way to the British brasserie

A dash of Gallic charm bodes well for diners, writes Keith Botsford
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The number of the French able to eat at the top "gastronomic" end of the dining-out market has been in serious decline for years.

This is not merely a matter of cash - there are plenty of rich tourists and more than enough French businessmen on expenses to keep the home fires burning - but is also the result of the joint efforts of the star chefs of the nouvelle cuisine and their propaganda agents, the Michelin inspectors.

For 20 years the nature of French gastronomy almost fell victim to their lucubrations, which proved a gigantic turn-off to a public increasingly unwilling to spend pounds 100 or more (without wine) on a skimpy meal which satisfied nothing but the chef's ego.

The relative eclipse of the top of the market in fact opened up a whole new area for marketing: inexpensive French food, satisfactorily prepared, democratically and unfancily presented, sans flummery, and essentially quick.

So, if even the French are forsaking the upper levels of gastronomy, it is not surprising that we, the once dull-palated, meat-and-two-veg Brits, are heading in droves for the little bistro with its cheerful chequered table-clothes down the road. It was, after all, only a matter of time before French food became officially naturalised. And it makes considerable sense for Whitbread to bid for Pelican, which markets French fast-food in some 100 bars and cafes.

In France, part of the new market went towards the more traditional "family" restaurants with their cuisine bourgeoise, solid and unimaginative, but filling; in these, prices have been steadily falling, to the point where it is now possible, in most parts of Paris, to eat a decent meal for about one-tenth of the price of a visit to a two- or three-star restaurant.

The other development has been the revival of the brasserie and the cafe that serves a form of fast-food at which the French are expert: the splendid grilled entrecote with its pommes frites, the light and fluffy omelette, the grilled fish and so on.

In making a bid, Whitbread will have taken a close look at the brasserie concept and its enormous expansion; it will have realised that British taste in food has also expanded hugely in the past decade, and noted the revolution brought about by the supermarkets with their array of imported ingredients. It will also have seen that eating out is no longer, for couples who work, the luxury that it once was, and that the generation of the Nineties wants its food simple, pleasant, uncomplicated and satisfying.

Gastronomy is also very labour-intensive, which is one reason for its cost, while the theme cafe or brasserie serves many more customers from its kitchen by limiting its menu and using simpler techniques.

To a degree, this revolution has been going on throughout the world: its development here can only be satisfactory - if, of course, high standards are maintained.