A rosbif open a restaurant in Paris?

Sir Terence Conran might teach the French a thing or two about dining out, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
When it comes to the art of eating Nineties-style, no man, woman or child is an island. We have come to eat an atlas of food for breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea. In one and the same restaurant, modern diners tuck into food trawled from the world's oceans and cooked in styles adopted from as far afield as Yucatan and Yakutsk. All's fare, it would appear, in the war to win the contemporary appetite.

The idea, then, that Sir Terence Conran, gourmet, man of taste and, above all, francophile, might open a restaurant in Paris is surely an innocuous one. Not so, if you happen to be the patron of a Parisian restaurant.

Sir Terence has recently been sniffing out potential sites, though he is in no great hurry and says he is more likely to open a restaurant in Manhattan before Paris.

Even so, garlic-tainted bile has been rising in the throats of potential Parisian rivals as news of Sir Terence's search has seeped through the world of grande cuisine.

In chic St-Germain-des-Pres, in the heart of Paris, the manager of a popular brasserie says he is pessimistic about the idea. "The Conran style of restaurants, where the food is a mix of ingredients and flavours from around the world, is something," he hisses, "that might be in fashion at the moment; however, in my opinion, if it is well planned and organised, a Conran restaurant may last six months or even a year.

"I'm not sure," he continues as waiters shimmer by, "that the Conran idea will go down well. It does not have a strong enough theme; the principle of mixing different styles of food is not a French one. In any case, there is such a huge choice of different cuisines in Paris that I really cannot see a gap in the market." Well, what did you expect him to say?

Sir Terence, a man for whom Paris has been food and drink for 40 years, is used to the restaurant establishment saying his latest venture will fail. Folly, said the experts, to buy Michelin House, in which today you will find Bibendum, one of the choicest restaurants in London. Folly, too, they crowed, to reopen Quaglino's, the zooty, old society restaurant in London's St James's. Yet, this updated variation on the theme of a voluminous Parisian brasserie is packed to its gunwales day in, day out. Daft, they said, to open a grand, French-style restaurant in the shadow of Tower Bridge. Yet Pont de la Tour has been a glittering success.

Mezzo, Sir Terence's cavernous, late-night Soho "gastrodome", opened last year and was clearly doomed to failure. It would spoil Soho. It hasn't. Instead, Mezzo has brought increased and hungry trade to the area, unable to cope with the bridge-and-tunnel hordes who bear down on its highly wrought interiors on weekends.

It seems unlikely, after these experiences, that rivals will say the same about his up-and-coming eateries in Chelsea (a conversion of the old Bluebird garage, King's Road) and the City of London (an oyster-bar restaurant, based on the one that has delighted generations of New Yorkers at Grand Central station, in the old Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street station).

Can the same Conran magic be exported to proud, chauvinistic and defensive culinary Paris? "Oh, I think so," says Sir Terence confidently. "Paris has some wonderful restaurants, but many of the best are living in the past. If you want to see the future, I'd tell any Parisian to come to London.

"I'd love to have a go at a truly modern restaurant in Paris. I'm not interested in aiming for the very top of the market - Michelin three-star territory - because there you'll find that very superior type of restaurant the French do best," he says. "I don't think they're much fun, even if the food is exquisite, of its sort. And the food is still, too often for my taste anyway, over-decorated and over-sauced. They're also far too haughty. They make me feel nervous, which is silly if I'm being asked to pay pounds 100 a head to eat in them.

"No, I think eating out should be fun. I also like the current English idea of chefs being allowed to experiment day to day. In the grandest Parisian restaurants, tradition tends to rule the roost."

While Parisians are able to indulge in a every sort of food, they tend to eat these in themed or "ethnic" restaurants. They do not expect to find dishes invented on brasseries fronting Bondi Beach to be served in La Tour d'Argent (Henry IV came here for the heron pate in the 16th century) or Alain Senderen's wood-panelled Lucas-Carton, place de la Madeleine.

If they want Vietnamese, they will eat in the city's popular Vietnamese restaurants, and if they want cous-cous, they will plump for perennially popular Moroccan restaurants. In recent years, Tex-Mex food (call that cooking?) has made heavy inroads into the Parisian gullet, but this is consumed solely in kitsch Tex-Mex hangouts.

The barn-like old brasseries - Bofinger, Lipp, Flo, Chartier, La Coupole - that have so influenced Sir Terence continue to dish out reliable, but not especially wonderful, food in gloriously atmospheric surroundings (old ladies spoon-feeding poodles, that sort of thing), but few Parisian restaurants offer the eclectic menus we have come to expect in London.

"I love Paris," says Sir Terence, "but I don't think Parisian restaurateurs can afford to be too smug. After all, what can you say about a city that has seen the rapid spread of a chain of fast food joints called F'lunch? And, if Parisians are not tucking into 'flunch', they have their noses in a polystyrene container hot from the city's favourite restaurant chain, McDonald's.

"If I want to eat in a very grand old restaurant in the grand French tradition, of course, I'll head for Paris. But, that's something I don't want to do all that often. And, I don't think all that many Parisians want to, either. The restaurant world is changing and, I think, very much for the better; Paris shouldn't want to be a museum of haute cuisine, and I don't think, whatever anyone says, it will allow itself to be."

Which means that when Sir Terence Conran opens his first French restaurant, it will be less of a case of sending duck a l'orange to Paris and more a matter of offering Parisians a taste of duck au Conran.

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