Brits can save France’s moribund food scene
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Charlie McVeigh laments the decline in French hospitality and wonders if plucky Britons might save the day?
It has become a smug trope of our times to bemoan the restaurants of France. In the old days, so the narrative runs, every village had a charming cafe or bistro run by a well-coiffed lady in a floral print dress often burdened by an unshaven chef of a husband, the pair of them brusquely serving authentic regional specialities.
It was a rite of passage for pale Englanders to sit in dappled sunlight under a plane tree and tentatively order the pieds et paquets without quite knowing what it was only to be rewarded with a plate of steaming lamb tripe and trotters. It was something to talk about around the water cooler on one’s return.
Now, the brusqueness remains, often descending into outright rudeness, while the food is disgusting, not even French really and certainly not as good as the fare back in dear old Blighty.
Having just participated in the epic 300-mile Tour de Boutinot, a four-day bike ride from Montpellier to Cairanne via Nimes, Aix-en-Provence and other dusty spots, I can confirm that – based on an admittedly small sample size – the trope may be reality.
Our motley crew of publicans, restaurateurs and vintners were appalled by the service and food at a series of promising-looking restaurants. We all agreed we’d have been run out of town on a rail had we replicated this experience for our customers back home.
It’s no exaggeration to say virtually every dish in restaurant after restaurant had the same garnish, a wilting pile of tired, brown-edged chopped lettuce. Most dishes were overcooked. Service was at times confused and at others surly – occasionally both.
Then came the magnificent exception that proved the rule. After cresting Grand Luberon on day three, we free-wheeled down through sublime, craggy scenery to the small village of Venasque, where we enjoyed a brilliant lunch service at restaurant Les Remparts presided over by a team of formidably efficient but warm-hearted ladies.
The place was packed with locals and smart tourists but no-one blinked an eye at the large party of road-weary, sunburned Brits in Lycra. I had the ravioli with cepes and three Coca-Colas and was never happier. Others bravely threw back a scented, ultra-pale and ice-cold rosé with the aforementioned regional specialities. It was an object lesson in the pure joy great hospitality can bring.
So what can Propel readers glean from our jolly? It strikes me there are vast areas of blank space in France for UK restaurant brands to inhabit. In a country that’s one of McDonald’s biggest markets the UK has barely dipped its toe in the water, although we have FrogPubs and Charles Wells offering a traditional British pub and better beer to a grateful French public, while readers will doubtless point out other examples.
Reading Clive Schlee’s blog, it appears Pret is finding all kinds of fascinating differences in consumer behaviour in Paris versus the UK. For example, only 50% of sales are takeaway in France versus 80% in the UK so Pret is having to take larger units with more seating.
However you can’t tell me French millennials and Generation Z, who are growing up in a globalised online world, wouldn’t welcome the energy, quality, consistency and engagement of many other top British brands, tuned in as they are to the “now” of global pop cultural sensibility.
Could Honest, Bleecker or Byron extend the French love of quick service restaurant burgers into the premium domain? Could Franco Manca convert the French from the ubiquitous (and admittedly dirt cheap) thin-crust pizza to sourdough Neapolitan? Could Pho teach the Gauls about Vietnamese, their equivalent of Indian in terms of popularity? Could an aspirational French kid fall in love with The Breakfast Club’s sentimental spin on the traditional British caff? Most controversially, could the likes of Cote and Cafe Rouge reintroduce the traditional bistro back to its homeland?
I understand arcane property rules and a highly regulated labour market are challenges but if you have the place to yourself, surely you can make hay? And while I’m not one of those who believes the restaurant industry in the UK is oversaturated – rather a victim of poor execution from overly-quick roll-outs during the boom – it must be easier to compete in a market that’s almost without brands.
Meanwhile, we have Big Mamma Group – the bonkers Italian pride of Paris – opening its second restaurant in London following the barnstorming success of Gloria in a failed Red’s True Barbecue site in Shoreditch.
I have heard Robin Rowland and the Tri-Span gang preach this gospel – and other private equity firms – so I guess if the money’s interested this will happen eventually and, at the risk of coming over all John Bull, wouldn’t it be grand if a few plucky Brits took over the French restaurant scene? Next stop? Bringing craft beer to Germany.
Charlie McVeigh is founder of Draft House and a judge on BBC show My Million Pound Menu