Margaret and Dick   


September '10: Slow food

I have not-very-fond memories of dining at one of the hottest restaurants in Atlanta soon after it opened.  I had recently returned from France and was still jet-lagging, so a friend and I reserved for 5:30.  At 7:00 I was savoring the last glass of a good bottle of wine.  The waiter swooped in and removed everything from the table except the glass in my hand.  A moment later, the maitre d’ stood above me and drummed his fingers on the table.  Hot table or not, I never returned.

Is restaurant service worse in France, as so many American tourists report?  Or is it another example of the vast cultural divide between the two countries?  I recently had many opportunities to discuss the differences between French and American restaurant service with my Atlanta “Pandora” girlfriends who spent a week at Le Monastère, a hotel that offers the best cycling vacations in France (and therefore the world) and that introduced us to Limoux and cycling in 1996. 

We Americans have very specific expectations from our restaurants.  Prompt service.  Bread and butter.  Ice water.  Split checks.  Quick succession of dishes, check, then outta here.  The restaurateurs respond by staffing and pricing accordingly.  And (ka-ching) by turning tables.  Everybody’s happy.

When I first came to France, I thought the French were like Americans but with a different accent.  Next I went through a period of wondering whether the two cultures had anything in common at all.  Now I don’t notice the differences, maintaining two versions of “normal” in my head until a clash of cultures brings the differences into focus again.

When you rent an apartment or hotel room in France, it’s yours until you surrender it, provided that you pay your rent on time, or almost.  A French restaurant follows the same rule of hospitality:  your table is yours until you surrender it.  You can linger over your post-prandial café, thrash out differences with your spouse, or read your book as long as you like.  If a French waiter brings your check before you ask for it, you can express righteous indignation at the implied rush out the door.  At some point in the wee hours the owner might plead that you take your philosophic discussion elsewhere, but it would be done with apologies and as a last resort.  One seating per night is the norm, and the restaurateur expects you to enjoy a leisurely meal with time between courses to digest and discuss the mysteries of the universe.  Frequent readers of our Limoux stories know that four-hour lunches are not uncommon.

Last night Dick and I tried out a local restaurant that had been described by North American friends as having inventive food but slow service – our kind of place!  The chef had just returned from Paris where he had auditioned for Top Chef (yes, the TV show) France, which gives a hint about his aspirations.  For now, his restaurant is a two-person operation:  monsieur alone in the kitchen, madame handling all service.  There were sixteen diners at six tables.  Timing was predictably slow  – seated at 7:30, order taken at 8:00, departure at 10:45 – but we left with fine memories of creative cuisine, shocked that such fine quality could be found in Limoux for such a reasonable price, and we’re looking forward to our next visit. 

I suspect that those who specialize in hosting North Americans tourists in France have developed ways to avoid collisions of fast and slow culinary cultures.  The chosen restaurateurs are perhaps instructed to serve quickly.  As a guest of Le Monastère, I’ve enjoyed amazing feasts that were finished in two hours flat.  Alone with Dick at the same restaurants, we linger over simpler meals for three hours.  Some American friends in Limoux send guests to a good pizza-and-salad joint for best results.  Let them experience France ‘lite’ and enjoy it rather than think they are being ignored by the waitron at a restaurant.

Under my guidance, the Pandoras tired of slow food.  Our last meal together was in an Irish pub (!) in Provence, where the food was mediocre but prompt, the beer was good, the waiter was cute, and a good time was had by all.  The Pandoras have already reserved a week at Le Monastère for 2012 and are already counting the days (644) until their return.  Salad-and-pizza or serious restaurant, ladies?  Your choice.

(Many thanks to Pandora Jill for the photos!)

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