What the French really fear: `le style Conran'

Restaurants in Paris
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The Prime Minister's selection of Sir Terence Conran to design the set for the Anglo-French summit struck a raw nerve in France, among one group of people at least.

France's top restaurateurs are already in a state of nervous excitement following an announcement last month that Sir Terence intends to take them on at their own game, in their own backyard. By the end of next year, the British entrepreneur plans to transform a defunct nightclub on the Left Bank of Paris into a high-price, high snob-value restaurant, in the manner of Quaglino's, Bidendum and Bluebird in London.

A few years ago the announcement that a British restaurateur intended to challenge the natives in the birth-place of haute cuisine would have been greeted in much the same way as a French entrant in the World Darts Championship. No more.

The spectacular success of the Conran restaurants in London has already shaken the French culinary establishment: Paul Bocuse, the best known French chef of his generation, recently invited Sir Terence to come to France to lecture owner-chefs on how to run a modern restaurant.

The Conran formula, combining high quality food with a themed, youthful, anti-traditional style of design and service, is virtually unknown in France. There have been imitations in Paris, which have become fashionable enough, but the traditionalist top restaurants were able to say dismissively, and smugly, that fashion was everything: the food was expensive and poor.

The fear is that the new Conran restaurant will do something no French restaurant has yet done: combine excellent food with an atmosphere which is exciting, relaxed and young. Sir Terence himself threw down the gauntlet (or the oven glove) in an interview with Le Figaro last month. He said the tradition of French cuisine was "extraordinary" but that was "why, in part, it lacks flexibility. In London we have no homage to pay to the past."

The Conran invasion - he is taking over the site of the Alcazar night- club near St Germain-des-Pres, in the heart of the most fashionable district of Left Bank - comes at an especially sensitive time. Several top-class provincial French restaurants have closed in recent years, including two that had the ultimate accolade of three stars in the Michelin Guide.

Even in Paris, the economics of haute cuisine are not what they were: several of the capital's starred Michelin establishments, faced with unsightly rows of empty tables, have joined a scheme, akin to cut-price air travel. You can eat a fixed menu on certain nights for pounds 50 wine included (half the normal price) if you book for your meal well in advance.

The long economic chill, from which France is only now recovering, is partly to blame. But there is also a growing impatience among the well- heeled, young French professional classes with the stuffiness and lack of variety of the top-class restaurants in Paris. Many young Parisians have taken the Eurostar for weekends in London. They return raving about the buzz they feel on the streets of the British capital, compared with the predictability and dullness of nightlife in Paris, which is increasingly dominated by the tourists and the middle-aged. It would be a foolish lie to say that the young Parisians rave about British cuisine: but they do appreciate the diversity of the ethnic food in London (especially the Indian restaurants, which are rare in France).

Their parents' idea of a special night out might have been to go to a restaurant, where the sheer quality of the food and wine was reward and entertainment enough. The architect and restaurant designer Francois-Joseph Graf says that younger, more cosmopolitan, Parisians are searching for something else.

They do not want the chandelier-infested splendour of the old restaurants and hotels, with an atmosphere like a "morgue" or the look of an epic period movie. Nor do they want the "heliport and jacuzzi" approach of the stiffly modern newer restaurants. They want something "comfortable", something "sympathetic and simple".

Jean-Paul Bucher of the Groupe Flo, which owns several successful restaurants in Paris, admits that business is not what it was. He says that he does not fear Conran: "It's only 500 covers a day." Paris is still "unbeatable", he insists, for the quality, variety and professionalism of its restaurants. (Variety, no. Quality, yes. And in terms of quality-price, the French capital is still boulevards ahead of London in its medium and lower price restaurants).

What Mr Bucher concedes, however, is that French high quality restaurants, have not come to terms with a modern world where image and ambience are as important as the food. They are failing, he says, to turn gastronomy, based on gastronomic values alone, into a booming business proposition.

The debate has many echoes of the wider French anxieties about a glitzy and internationalist modern world that seems to have little time for traditional, but inward-looking, French values of qualite de vie and savoir vivre. A thriving Conran restaurant in Paris might, in that sense, be an even greater blow to French self-esteem than the presence of three Britons in the commanding heights of the French fashion business.

One French restaurateur is adamant, however, that none of it matters: London will never overtake Paris as the most glamorous city in the world. "I'm not going to have a Conran complex, " Jean-Louis Costes told Le Figaro. "Just look around [this restaurant]. The most beautiful girls in the world don't go to London to show themselves off, they come to Paris."