Our Man In Paris: A tale of greed, fear and empty tables

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The Independent Online

The most robust and reliable guide to Paris restaurants, Le Pudlo Paris, has just published its 2004 edition with pages dotted with pink warning labels. They read: "At the moment of going to press, this establishment has closed."

The author of the guide is a journalist and gourmet (not an oyxmoron in France) called Gilles Pudlowski. He says that the year 2003 has been an "annus horribilis" for the restaurant industry in the French capital.

Restaurants are the most notoriously ephemeral of businesses, but M. Pudlowski cannot remember a year in which so many good Parisian eating-places have thrown in the tea towel.

In the introduction to his guide (published by Michel Lafon, €18), Pudlowski rounds up the usual suspects: the economic downturn, the war in Iraq, the drop in tourist numbers, and "a kind of unspoken fear of the future". He also blames the Parisian restaurateurs for taking unfair advantage of the passage to the euro almost two years ago to fatten up their prices.

"Compared with London, where the price of eating out is disgraceful, Paris may still seem to be cheap," M. Pudlowski tells me. "But it no longer seems so cheap to Parisians. We are used to going out for a genuine lunch, not filling up with a big breakfast and scoffing a sandwich at midday."

M. Pudlowski mourns the fact that it is more and more difficult to eat well in Paris for less than €30 a head (roughly £20), including wine. His guide awards a "marmite" or cooking-pot symbol to restaurants which offer "value for money" or "gastronomy of quality" for less than €40 a head. He points out that the number of establishments that qualify for a "marmite" in the 2004 guide have sunk by a third.

Many once reasonably priced restaurants were tempted by the unfamiliarity of the euro to push up their prices. They are now, he says, "paying the bill themselves". The top echelon of Paris restaurants is also suffering from customer resistance at a time of economic uncertainty. "It used to be that you would call the Taillevent (a posh €150-a-head restaurant near the Champs Elysées) and there would be no table for days, or even weeks. Now you can ring in the morning and get a table for lunch that day."

M. Pudlowski - whose guide is one of the few to criticise as well as to praise - is especially annoyed at the prices that almost all Parisian restaurants have begun to charge for wine.

"In Italy, the restaurant mark-up is usually one-and-a-half times the vineyard price. In Paris, restaurants are now asking four times, or even six times, the wholesale price. That is just not acceptable," he says.

"If you can find a decent bottle of wine in any Paris restaurant for less than €15 a bottle, I want you to call and tell me."

(If only one had the time to undertake such a noble and public-spirited piece of research.)

M. Pudlowksi is anxious to point out that he is not rubbishing French cuisine. "Paris remains a larder of delights," he says. "It's just a pity that more restaurants are not more sensible about their pricing."

His guide lauds those restaurants that have kept their prices down, and especially a newish restaurant in the 17th arrondissement (get out your pencils now), which he describes as a "Rolls-Royce" of value for money. At L'Entredegue, at 83 Rue de Laugier (Metro Porte de Champerret), you can, apparently, have a lunchtime menu (ie a full meal) for €20, and an evening menu for €28. M. Pudlowksi says that the quality of the food is, moreover, "pure philanthropy".

I was also pleased to see that he gives a "piggy bank" (cheap but good) symbol in his guide to a small restaurant close to my office, where I have occasionally taken distinguished, carnivorous visitors. If you like plain, meaty meals you can eat very well here, only five minutes from the expensive eateries of the Champs Elysées, for less than M. Pudlowski's €30. The restaurant Aux Amis du Beaujolais is situated at the corner of the Rue Berri and the Rue d'Artois in the 8th arrondissement.

National Front takes Manhattan

Marine Le Pen, the crafty, cuddly daughter of Jean-Marie and rising star of the French extreme right, has just returned from the United States where she addressed Republican Women's Clubs in New York and Washington. At Le Paquebot (the steam-boat), the National Front headquarters in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, they joke that Marine was rather startled by the extreme views and intolerance of the Republican grandes dames.

In heartily applauded speeches, Mme Le Pen, 34, urged the Republican women to regard the National Front as their true French friend and forget the leftist, unreliable and America-hating Jacques Chirac. Marine's new-found American admirers should consult the website of the National Front and read what her xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-European dad has to say about the United States.

In his official statement of policy, Le Pen rages against "Anglo-Saxon commercial plutocracy" and the "invasion of our country by American low-culture". A long-standing fan of Saddam Hussein, he also condemns the "criminal and dangerous policy" and "barbaric behaviour of the Anglo-Saxon world" (ie America and Britain) in Iraq. Marine seems to have omitted those bits from her US speeches.

Cancan canÿt compete

How are the naughty fallen. The Folies Bergère, just off the Grands Boulevards in central Paris, claims to be the world's most famous music hall. It virtually invented the striptease in the 1890s, and boasted acres of naked women in the 1920s, long before peep shows and dirty videos were invented. But it's finding it hard to make a living in the casually raunchy 21st century. Its Christmas show is a musical "family entertainment" called Snow White.