January 2010: France is officially out of recession, but the economic state of Eastern Europe is making the Euro so precarious that by the time I’d optimistically revised the following, it would be likely to require yet another re-write. (And for us Londoners, the pound sterling is still depressingly weak.)
"If it weren't for my faithful, regular customers, I would be dead," wailed Bernard Picolet, Paris restaurateur. "And do you know who my most faithful customers are? The English.”
That was last September, before the pound sterling went into free fall. Now more and more of them are staying home. English holiday camps such as Pontins, long an object of fun, are enjoying a big revival, and those who continue to go abroad are more likely to munch on a baguette than sit down to a proper meal. In the Paris bistros where we've dined this year, the English-speakers have been mostly American—the top earners, plus a few of those that still support them in the manner to which they are so arrogantly accustomed Thanks to them, the Paris hot spots and tourist traps, unlike the ordinary neighborhood bistros and cafés, are still reasonably full.
“All over Paris—all over France—,” reports the Independent, “restaurant tables are standing empty. The takings of French restaurants and cafés have plunged by 20 per cent this year. Nearly 3,000 restaurants and cafés have gone bust in the first half of 2008—a 30 per cent increase on the same period last year.” And that doesn’t include those whose patrons have retired early because it’s just too hard to keep going and no one wants to take them over.
The best Paris bistros and restaurants are surviving, but with reduced trade. According to the Chef Culinary Network, the most prestigious restaurants have seen a drop in business of about 25% since the global downturn started. Restaurateur Jean Guillaume reports ruefully, “Lunch customers used to order a main course, dessert, coffee and a bottle of wine. Now they're limiting themselves to a main course, tap water, and giving up the rest. Of 75 customers in this lunchtime, none had a bottle of wine.”
Some restaurants are fighting back at the expense of their diners’ good will. At Aux Lyonnais, where Mary and I enjoyed a leisurely dinner with no hard sell, some diners who decline to order an aperitif have been told that their meals “will take a long time to prepare”. “This is a classic ploy,” Says François Simon.
Alas, your faithful correspondent is not immune to such economic upheavals. With the pound in parity with the euro, our Paris trips this year have been possible thanks to my old friend Frank's generosity in offering the use of his pied à terre. Even so, those bargain lunchtime menus have required saving up for. I’ll try to keep my reviews updated with reports from reliable sources, but in the long run they will, inevitably, become history.
But then, so will we all. I’ve tried to document these gastronomic shrines in such a way as to make them a long-lasting vicarious pleasure. Wherever you enjoy your next fine meal, raise your glass and drink a toast to Paris!
POSTSCRIPT: In this recorded conversation with John Talbott in early January, we both expressed a guarded optimism about the future of the Paris restaurant scene:
On sober reflection, I fear that this applies, not to the industry as a whole, but to the ability of the talented few to create a culinary space in which to express themselves. For instance, there are lateral-thinking chefs such as David Tanis, whose private dinner club, Aux Chiens Lunatiques, serves occasional meals to a dozen diners in a private flat. (It’s now inactive; the last communication on his website indicated that he had returned for half a year to Chez Panisse.)
But such inventiveness may fail to rescue many of the quality eating places, whose prosperity depends on that of the economy as a whole, still very much in the descendency. As for the critics, their employment hangs not only on a steady stream of new venues to write about, but on the fading fortunes of the media bosses who sign their cheques. Meanwhile the foodie websites go on arguing to the decimal point the relative merits of Michelin-starred restaurants as if the champagne was still flowing like tap water.