Les Routiers – dining concept that is uniquely French
The point of a themed restaurant is that its concept is transferable and marketable.
But in France there is one kind of dining experience that just wouldn’t travel – those small, independent roadside eateries, les routiers.
Leave the autoroute and head into rural France and from 12 until 2pm you’ll find arrays of white vans, trucks and tractors parked up outside inauspicious restaurants.
We’re in south Normandy – a largely agricultural area with small towns between fields of maize and grass pastures.
Halfway between two towns, along a main road, there is an unbranded, two-pump service station with a couple of traditional stone houses either side.
Across the forecourt, a building with a large window and glass door bears the sign Bar – Tabac – Restaurant.
Lunch is in full swing and the restaurant is packed. Roofers, builders, road workers and electricians sit shoulder-to-shoulder on spindly chairs at square tables arranged in rows of three or four.
It’s la pause déjeuner in the unofficial staff canteen of the artisans, workers and drivers of the area.
Behind the bar, opposite the entrance, a woman acknowledges our presence. “C’est pour manger,” I say, as she serves a beer, gives change to a cigarette customer and processes a credit card transaction. “Allez y,” comes the response, with gesticulation. “Installez-vous.” We find two places at the end of a row, and “install” ourselves among les ouvriers.
We exchange nods as the waitress plonks a small bread basket and bottles of red wine, cider and water between us. “Pour l’entrée nous avons rillettes de porc, ou croissant au jambon, et pour le plat escalope à la normande, ou steak frites.”
In this male-dominated arena, she seems to have everyone firmly under control with a finely honed combination of energetic efficiency, authority and charm.
We opt for the savoury croissant, with ham, cheese and a white sauce, with the escalope for the main course.
The starters arrive almost instantaneously and are soon devoured, being extremely good – accompanied by a couple of glasses of cloudy cider, which we have managed to keep within reach.
Our knives and forks are unceremoniously removed from our plates and placed on the paper table-cloth in readiness for the main course, as the waitress clears our plates.
The escalope consists of a flattened turkey breast sautéed in butter, flambéed in calvados and cooked in cider with mushrooms and a reduced cream sauce.
A glance along the table reveals similar escalopes and steak frites, as well as several other dishes – some fish with rice and a pork chop with pasta, both with similarly buttery appearances.
Crusty bread is ripped apart and often being used to help food on to the fork and mop up sauce at the same time.
“Pour dessert c’est mousse au chocolat ou crème brûlée.” Varying size groups are starting to leave le routier, often without paying for the meal. The last of each group signs a little book and receives a yellow copy of the page.
Companies often pay for their employees’ lunch and have an account with the establishment, such is the importance accorded to the institutionalised French déjeuner.
By this time the dining room is mostly empty. The observation of our co-diners at close quarters has slowed our own departure and the task of clearing the detritus of 50 workers’ lunches has begun around us.
We opt for coffee. A stout espresso arrives, the only option being the number of sugar cubes one adds from the stainless steel receptacle placed on the table.
And that’s the point. It’s unpretentious. You’ll not find a latte or macchiato here.
The reality is le routier is not a concept restaurant at all. It fulfils a primordial function anchored in the French tradition of good simple food without embellishment. It’s not haute cuisine with chic decor, nor is it designed to be.
It is an oasis between work and home with a community and network of diverse manual trades people sharing time in a convivial atmosphere.
We pay the €24 bill, say our au revoirs and cross the forecourt. Most of the vans and trucks have gone, and with them the soul of the restaurant.
It’s the clientele and their upholding of French culinary traditions that make the place what it is, and that’s why les routiers, dedicated to serving the transitory gastronomic requirements of the French, wouldn’t work anywhere else.