Our Man in Paris: A restaurant that's a cut above the rest

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The Independent Online

There is a restaurant in our quarter of Paris that has served the same main dish, day and night, with no other choices, for 44 years. It is known all over Paris, and the world, but no one calls it by its real name. It is not in any of the posh restaurant guides. It has been savagely attacked in one of the most prestigious of them (quite unfairly). The restaurant refuses all reservations but customers – both Parisians and tourists – queue happily for up to an hour for a table.

There is a restaurant in our quarter of Paris that has served the same main dish, day and night, with no other choices, for 44 years. It is known all over Paris, and the world, but no one calls it by its real name. It is not in any of the posh restaurant guides. It has been savagely attacked in one of the most prestigious of them (quite unfairly). The restaurant refuses all reservations but customers – both Parisians and tourists – queue happily for up to an hour for a table.

Let me repeat that. Parisians, the world's rudest, most impatient, most demanding, most queuophobic people, stand in line, without complaining, and await their turn to eat in a restaurant that offers them no choice.

Like Asterix in the cartoon series of the same name, the restaurant seems to have stumbled on a magic formula. In truth, there is no magic formula, except good, simple cooking, reasonable prices, a convivial atmosphere and the sauce. I will come back to the sauce later, but I will not be able to tell you very much.

The restaurant is called Le Relais de Venise (The Venice Inn). It was an Italian restaurant until Paul Gineste de Saurs, a struggling wine-grower from the South West, bought the site, in Porte Maillot, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, in 1959. He saw no reason to change the perfectly good neon sign, so he hung another one underneath it, saying "Son entrecôte".

For the past 44 years, all that the Relais de Venise has served, lunch-time and evening, is entrecote steak and chips and the house sauce. You get a salad starter and a choice of 20 desserts, but the only choices of main meal are saignant, à point and bien cuit (rare, medium and well-done).

The restaurant is known to its customers as l'Entrecôte, or l'Entrecôte Porte Maillot, but it should not be confused with a chain of copy-cat restaurants of that name.

Gineste de Saurs died in 1966. Since then, Le Relais de Venise has been run by his daughter, now an elegant, imposing woman in her late sixties, who likes to go by her husband's names – both Christian name and surname – Madame Thierry Godillot.

"My father knew nothing about restaurants or cooking," Mme Godillot told me. "But he was faced with a situation where he had to do something to save the family vineyard. He had the idea to do something very simple, something that would offer just one dish. Everyone told him that he was crazy and that it could not succeed. This was long before anyone in Paris had heard of fast food or steak restaurants. Anyway, 44 years later, here we still are."

The no reservations rule is, Mme Godillot insists, part of the restaurant's success. "Personally, I would never queue for anything, but here the queue has become part of our legend, part of our character. There are people who have come to me and said 'We are celebrating our wedding anniversary and we first met in your queue'. There are others who were unemployed and found a job by talking to the person next to them in the queue."

The queue, says Mme Godillot, promotes a rapid turnover of tables, which allows her to keep her prices down. It costs €20.5 (£14.50) for the steak and starter. For that price, you get something almost unheard of in Paris – generous second helpings.

If you allow reservations, Mme Godillot says, people always come late or turn up with fewer people than promised. Tables stand empty. In Le Relais de Venise, on a standard night, each table is used four or five times. The queue usually takes 20 to 30 minutes, but you can wait just as long, even if you have a reservation, in other Paris restaurants.

The success of Le Relais de Venise (271 Boulevard Péreire, opposite the RER station at Porte Maillot) has infuriated some members of the French food police. The gourmet guide, the Gaultmillau, ran a campaign against the place for many years. Le Monde has asked why people "obstinately" queue for such ordinary food.

Haute cuisine it may not be, but the meat is succulent and the sauce is delicious. I asked Mme Godillot what the sauce contained. She waved her hand, like the druid in Asterix being asked for the recipe of the potion magique. "Oh nothing much," she said. "Just butter and spices and herbs. It is a recipe which my father got from somewhere..."

The team that brought you Amélie, the most successful French movie of recent times, with 35 million seats sold worldwide, is reassembling for the first time this autumn. The director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the actress Audrey Tautou, are to work together on a movie about a young woman who is attempting to discover what happened to her fiancé, killed in the trenches in 1917. The film, produced by Warner Brothers but to be filmed in France and in French, is based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles – literally "A Long Sunday's Engagement".

Amélie was criticised by some in France for giving an excessively cheerful and sentimental view of the country. The new movie will be much darker. The young man loved by Mathilde (Tautou) has been sentenced to death for desertion and placed in front of the German trenches with his hands tied behind his back.

Overheard on a Paris-London Eurostar. Loud, urbane, sixtysomething American tourist to her husband: "That woman was just wonderful. She reminded me so much of my mother."

Laid-back, sixtysomething husband: "Yeah? What a shame."

Urbane tourist: "Yeah, I really, really liked her." Pause. "Think how much I would have liked her, if she hadn't reminded me of my mother."

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