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Why French food is now at the bottom of the List

If people consider that you have some kind of expertise about France, then there is a subject that you will never fail to get questioned about. Forget the increasingly chaotic nature of the Fifth Republic or related political, economic or social subjects – what people really want to know is where they can enjoy exquisite Gallic cuisine. 

19 December 2018
By Nabila Ramdani

I get messages all the time asking me to name the latest ‘in’ restaurant in cities such as Paris or Marseille. Most requests are for a Top Three, while others aspire to details of at least 10, to include a breakdown of best hors d’oeuvres through to what’s new on the cheese course.

 In recent years, such advice has been harder and harder to deliver. Not because of cynicism or apathy, but because much of the food you come across in France nowadays is ordinary to bad.

That sounds like a terrible admission from someone who should display at least a modicum of food patriotism, especially to my home city of Paris, but the situation really is pretty dire. La Liste – a highly respected compilation of 1,000 global restaurants approved by France’s Foreign Ministry and Tourist Board – confirms this.

The latest Liste points to a dearth of decent bistros – the kind that used to be available everywhere, including British cities such as London – and even says that what is available in sensibly priced restaurants can be “lamentable”.

Yes, the restaurant Guy Savoy, situated on the Left Bank of Paris, is top of La Liste, but that will hardly help it get on one of my lists. Michelin currently puts it in the price range of €234 to €415 for a meal without drinks.

Artichoke soup with black truffles may be on the menu, but generally it reads like a glorified list of staples – salmon served with lemons, saddle and rack of lamb, ice cream and biscuits. It would not be too difficult to offer all of this for at least a fifth of the price, while still making a decent profit.

Bill inflation is now quite absurd across the whole range of places to eat. Many Paris bistros, even those with nothing like the prestige of Guy Savoy, think nothing of asking €40 plus for a steak, and €25 for a bowl of pasta.

As in provincial France, you can enjoy a passably satisfying meal, but very little that tastes exceptional. Worse still, the dreaded microwaves whirr and beep away in most kitchens, before pre-assembled dishes are topped with a sprinkling of ageing parsley to dishonestly create the impression of fait maison (home made).

There have been attempts to market select restaurants with fait maison labels, but this is hardly encouraging. It simply proves that homemade food is the exception, and not the rule.

Institutional reasons are behind many of the problems. Business rates and other high taxes, combined with spiralling employment costs, make it very difficult for restaurateurs to hire proper cooks.

The inherent conservatism of the French means they do not experiment with the kind of exotic food you find all over cities such as London nowadays. Arab couscous is one of the most popular dishes in France for historical and cultural reasons (mainly to do with colonisation and associated North African immigration), but there are very few offers of any more exciting plats.

Among those restaurants that are surviving economically, there is a huge reliance on tourists who will only visit once. In this sense, there is no emphasis on building up a loyal local clientele who would expect high standards. Most of the in-and-outers will be foreigners who will be disinclined to complain about establishments they will never go back to. 

My message to them is the same as it is to those of you who will continue to send me restaurant list requests in 2019: don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion.

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