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Friday, March 2, 2012

What a Restaurant Should Be Like

France has long been revered for its position in the gastronomical hierarchy. The concept of the modern restaurant originated in Paris in the late 18th century (though other sorts of communal eating establishments had existed long before this). UNESCO even recognized French cuisine on their "World Intangible Heritage" list. Their intention is not to recognize the ingredients or the food itself, but the ritual of the meal which has held such importance in the social lives of the French for so long.

Unfortunately, like many cultural traditions, the long meals in France are becoming less commonplace than they were a generation ago. While a few still take a leisurely-paced lunch break, most only take enough time to grab a sandwich and get back to the office. Eating at the office desk would have been unimaginable in the past, yet many feel they have far too much to do to partake in the daily ritual of a two hour lunch break.

In Paris in particular, people are straying further away from tradition. McDonald's restaurants are seemingly everywhere (there are 1,228 in France) and they have longer lines to get in than almost any restaurant in this city. A lot of the trendy and hip restaurants, while they may serve excellent food, appear to move away from seeming too traditional and give the impression of a restaurant that could be in hundreds of other cities worldwide. The food is important of course, and one would imagine that any good restaurant in Paris is aware of that, but the ambiance and sense of being a part of this long-lived French social ritual is equally important.

When I've talked with people that have traveled abroad, many remember the monuments and museums and other important historical attractions that a locale offers. However, the positive memories that always seem to be the strongest are those where the traveler is allowed to partake in a local tradition, or simply put, live like a local for a day. Whether it be eating a meal with a local family or going to a house party with a bunch of natives, those memories seem to be more gratifying than the throngs of people that one encounters at the touristic venues.

My girlfriend and I celebrated our fourth anniversary this week. As it happens to fall on February 29th, I guess one could call it our first. Since we don't have too many anniversaries, we needed to make this one count.

A few days before, a friend had asked me to make a reservation for her at a bistro, and while looking at their website, I noticed that the owner of the restaurant happened to be from Bozouls, which is a very small town (less than 2,800 people) in Aveyron. My girlfriend was thrilled to hear this, as her grandparents are also from Bozouls. It seemed like a good sign, so off we went for our anniversary dinner.

After being seated, my girlfriend could hardly contain her excitement, as she had brought a photo album of her trips to Bozouls to show the owner. As soon as we saw an opportunity, she slipped over to the counter, asked the owner for a minute of his time, and opened the album. "Ah Bozouls!" he cried. He proceeded to flip through the album and describe every house, it's inhabitants, and what they had done to either restore or ruin the property.

As this was going on, he seemed to forget almost everything going on around him. He excitedly walked us into the kitchen to show us another photo of his parents' house, and then another wall sized map of the town. We spent around 15 minutes talking before he needed to get back to work, as the restaurant was beginning to fill up.

The meal was nothing short of amazing, and in a restaurant where not just the owner, but all of the staff are so passionate about what they are doing, it is little wonder. We finished off our meal with a huge cheese course, and were almost too full to move.

As we went to the counter to pay, I pointed to a bottle of wine behind the counter, telling my girlfriend that the owner has a domaine near his ancestral home in the south. The waiter behind the register saw me and asked if we wanted to try it. There was little chance of us refusing.

After a glass was poured for each of us, he sliced off a large hunk of cheese for us to enjoy while we had the wine, and some more bread. No sooner than we finished that piece, the owner walked over and pulled out a big plastic bucket from under the bar. The bucket contained crème de roquefort that a friend of his had produced in Aveyron. As he spread some of the cheese on some bread for us to try, he said "Well you'll need to have some wine with it" and refilled another glass. A few customers sitting near the register were also treated to some thick hunks of bread slathered with the cheese. Some others asked a question about one of the wines, and were treated to a free glass of wine. Why? Well, why not?

We stayed and talked at the bar with a couple of the servers, and it was easy to see that they enjoy what they do, and took pride in upholding the tradition of a sociable meal for which France has long been famous.

As the world becomes more interconnected with each passing day, globalization is chipping away at many of the important cultural traditions unique to their respective societies. A lot of older Frenchmen say that restaurants like the one I discussed were the norm in their day. The sight of another McDonald's, Subway, or Starbucks being built is a depressing reminder that something as integral to French life as their social life at the restaurant table could be in danger if they cease to take the time to appreciate its importance.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat, in addition to walking around some of Paris' best neighborhoods, take a look into my tours at culinarytoursofparis.com.

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