No 'bon appetit' for French restaurant owners

The turnover of top-quality restaurants in France has plunged by 50 per cent in the first three months of this year. As the recession bites, French businessmen, the rich and tourists are eating out far less.

According to one of the main restaurant and hotel trade bodies, even the wealthy have cut back on dining in starred restaurants because they do not want to provoke the anger or jealousy of the less well-off. Meanwhile tourists are nibbling on sandwiches (in some cases home-made) which means that "the street" has become the "biggest restaurant in France".

The income of all French restaurants is estimated to have fallen between 20 and 50 per cent from January to March, with the worst impact on the starred Michelin, and other top price gastronomic establishments.

"Traditional restaurants have been the worst hit and, at the top level, the turnover has fallen by a half," said the Syndicat des Hôteliers, Cafetiers, Restaurateurs et Traiteurs (Synhorcat). "Business meals have been sacrificed to reduce costs but also because of the tense social climate," the statement said. Even wealthy people untouched by the recession had adopted "more modest habits" and "placed numerous restrictions on their own level of entertaining".

One two-starred restaurant in the eighth arrondissement of Paris, which declined to be quoted by name, said last night: "There has certainly been a shortage of clients since mid-February. We used to be booked up for six or seven days in advance. Now we have some empty tables each lunchtime. We are hoping that the peak tourist season, which usually begins in May, will bring some more clients. Will the rich tourists still be rich? We don't know."

A Michelin two-starred restaurant run by the much-feted female chef, Hélène Darroze in the sixth arrondissement has slashed the price of its cheapest lunchtime dish from €32 (£29) to €22. Other restaurants all over France have been struggling to hold on to their clientele by offering much simpler menus as "crisis" prices. The Aventure Exclusive restaurant in the 18th arrondissement in northern Paris offers a two-course lunchtime menu at €4.90 (typically raw, chopped vegetables followed by chicken and rice in mushroom sauce).

"Nobody orders anything else on the menu any more," said the owner, Laurence Pertuit. "Too bad but at least they keep coming back."

More than 6,000 restaurants are estimated to have closed in France last year, even before the recession began to bite deeply. No figures have been issued for the first three months of 2009.

The French government has won permission from Brussels to cut VAT on restaurant meals from 19.6 to 5.5 per cent to help the crisis-hit industry. This change will, however not take effect until next year.

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