I went to eat in my favourite Parisian restaurant the other day and it wasn't there. My occasional lunchtime treat for the last 12 years (usually I eat a sandwich at my desk) had vanished overnight, another victim of the recession and changing French eating habits.
The "patron" had been complaining for months that his trade was falling; that young French businessmen were unpatriotic and shunned long and detailed lunches; that his sons did not want to carry on after him.
In an attempt to boost the flagging restaurant business, President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally persuaded the EU to allow a reduction of the VAT on eating out in France. The changes will not take effect until next year. A lot of red ink will flow through the books of the French restaurant industry before then.
You can still, however, come across the occasional inexpensive gem in Paris. A friend took me to a celebrated theatrical and literary restaurant near the Luxembourg gardens the other day. The restaurant – Au Bon Saint Pourçain, on the Rue Servandon – has cracked, uneven linoleum floors; only 12 tables; piles of books and literary reviews on shelves behind the diners. The food is excellent, old-style, hearty, south-western French nosh, at no more than €30 a head for two courses and wine. This is the favourite eating place of, among others, the actress Juliette Binoche, pictured.
How is trade? "Terrible", said the patron. "All the publishers have moved offices. There are just tourist shops here now. No one seems to eat lunch any more."
He has, however, solved the problem of generational succession which appears to have defeated the patron of my favourite eatery. His two North African chefs refused to work for his daughter on the grounds that she was a woman. He has, therefore, introduced them to their alternative, future boss: his very tall, half-Senegalese son, acquired when he was in the French army.
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