French Restaurants in Tough Times

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The previous two days before this was written, I’d eaten at two places, one of which featured three courses for 16 € and the other two courses plus a glass of wine for 24 € and those experiences plus the chatter in the blogosphere caused me to reconsider what I wrote last month entitled “Paris mid-range restos empty: has the market hit bottom?” Well, the market hasn’t hit bottom and no one knows where that is or when we’ll arrive. (Disclosure: I haven’t held American equities for sometime, so to some extent personally I have no dog in this fight). But back to that piece. In it I posited that as I walked about and ate, I saw empty mid-range places but cafes and bars, etc.,were bursting out into the street and I posited that probably it was just the middle places that were hurting and the top and bottom places were doing quite fine. I was wrong about the big boys. At lunch with a chef whose place is not hurting, I learned that some famous starred places were empty more than once a week, whereas in the past it had been more like once a year. Then I began to notice articles in the French and American press about bar/cafes in France losing customers and even closing – but it was blamed on the smoking ban not the economy. It is interesting that said bars and cafes warned of this but were assured by their American, Italian and UK counterparts not to worry, business might fall at first, but it would bounce back. Wrong again apparently, although how much of the drop off is due to the smoking ban and how much to the “Starbuck’s Effect”, that is, the question: do I really need a second cup of $4 fancy coffee rather than the homemade stuff. One throwaway newspaper in France talked of bars converting to Sports Bars with huge flat screen TV’s beckoning customers in. Then the day I wrote this I saw an article in the weekend by Nicholas Lander in the Financial Times who says that diners are going back “where they have already eaten well or been warmly looked after,” “are spending less on alcohol” and “spending less” in general, giving as evidence that “the queues at the bar waiting for a table are thinner” “companies….sent out instructions to curb spending” and reflecting the title of his article “Why the term ‘restaurant’ may soon disappear” are “doing everything to avoid calling their new openings restaurants. Café, bar, bar and kitchen, bistro, bistrot de luxe, canteen, trattoria, osteria and lounge are now far more common names than “restaurant” because “the word “restaurant” is associated with expense.” He suggests that some restaurateurs are splitting their places into “a brasserie and restaurant, or a grill and restaurant” creating “’cheap’ and ‘expensive’ seats.” He quotes as one case a person who opened a “bar trattoria” a few yards from the mother restaurant, both serving food from the same kitchen and wonders if it won’t “spell the end of the restaurant?” The same weekend, in the Journal du Dimanche, Benoist Simmat quoted a Crédoc study showing that restaurant custom was down 30%, business by 8-15% and that it affected small neighborhood places, brasseries, theme places mid-range and one-stars but not the “grand tables, bistrots and fast food chains.” Which gets me to another brighter view. As I’ve said before, three wonderful trends in French restaurants – the “bistrots d’a coté,” substitution of “trash” fish for expensive ones and the widerspread use of the “menu,” that is, prix fixe meal – were all born during economic recessions or hard times. Should we not expect some equally inventive innovations this time? And finally, did some of these guys see this coming? I have no evidence for this, but why did Christian Constant, Christian Etchebest and Thierry Burlot, respectively, open quite good but less pricey fast food, cantine and wine bar places rather than upper-scale restaurants, like their primary sites are? And one sees more places opening or renovating their places providing common tables – Constant’s Violin surface, Afaria’s tapas table and Petit Panisse’s spread are but a few examples. On verra. These thoughts were prompted by two recent meals at: Petit Panisse 35, rue de Montreuil, 11th T: 01.43.71.37.90 Closed Saturday lunch and Sundays Formulas at 10, 12 and 15 at lunch and 24 and 30 €. Les Terrines de Gerald Vié 79, rue du Cherche Midi, 6th T: 01.42.22.19.18 Closed Sundays and Mondays Formula of two dishes plus wine at lunch for 24 and 30 € at night. Blog: John Talbott’s Paris at http://johntalbottsparis.typepad.com/john_talbotts_paris/ © John Talbott 2008
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