Travel: Starved in France

WHEN does service at a restaurant cease to be merely relaxed and become downright slow? And when do you decide it is time to write the whole thing off?

On a pilgrimage to Wilfred Owen's grave, we passed through Le Cateau, which boasts not only a Matisse museum but Le Relais Fenelon, which the Red Michelin gives a two knives-and-forks symbol ('comfortable').

The children looked longingly at the 'frites' van in the main square. Man does not live by chips alone, I said: in France we must try to eat Sunday lunch as the French eat it. The main room in Le Relais Fenelon was indeed comfortable but full. However, the manageress happily accommodated us in an empty second room which also quickly filled.

I should have foreseen trouble when, having sat down at 12.40pm, we waited 10 minutes for a menu and a further 10 for somebody to take our order. The menu was on the expensive side and uncompromisingly French ('what's tete de veau . . . veal's head?, yuk]'). It was a moment for extravagance; I ordered a good bottle of wine and sat back in pleasurable anticipation. At 1.15pm, the water arrived, and 15 minutes later, the wine. 'Why is it so slow?' moaned the children. Don't be in such a hurry - you shouldn't rush meals.

But when our starters didn't arrive until 1.45, things seemed more than relaxed. A French family who had waited 15 minutes for a menu and 15 more for someone take their order got up and stormed out in a fine display of Gallic petulance. We watched them go enviously.

When it reached 2.30 and there was still no sign of our main dish, the frites van began to take on a new allure. The lady of the restaurant seemed unperturbed when I said that we had to go: the fact that she charged us pounds 30 for four minuscule starters, a bottle of wine and two bottles of water probably had something to do with her relaxed attitude (I was too weakened by hunger to argue).

The frites van was, of course, closed by now. Fortunately, a patisserie was open: we scoffed cream cakes in a style Billy Bunter would have admired. By way of consolation, the museum was stunning: it boasts the third largest collection of Matisse's work. He was born in Le Cateau but left as a very young man. Probably got fed up waiting for Sunday lunch.

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