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The demise of French food?

greedygirl May 25, 2009 02:48 PM

I just read this interesting article in the London Times about the demise of French food.


I have to say that it chimed with my experiences in France this weekend. We'd popped over the Channel for the weekend, and I was completely underwhelmed by most of the food we had. I wasn't expecting miracles as we were in small places in northern France, but I was hoping for simple food that was well cooked. We got some OK food, some mediocre food and some bad food. And some appalling service.

The bad:
A gratin of crab that contained tinned peas - why?
Veal with sauce forestiere (mushroom) that was congealed
A very overcooked grilled fillet of sea bream
Dreadful bread pretty much everywhere - this is inexcusable in a country with a baker on every corner

The mediocre:
Moules mariniere with gritty mussels and bits of almost raw onion
Well-cooked scallops let down by a pretty tasteless sauce
A cheese plate which came straight from the fridge, with packaged roquefort in a paper wrapper.


  1. h
    Harters May 25, 2009 03:22 PM

    We also popped over the other week and had a very different experience.

    Three dinners around Albert (Picardie):-

    Stonkingly good value couscous at a Moroccan place we know.

    Really good 4 course meal at a village auberge (with a top quality local cheese trolley - about 20 to pick from)

    And a much more indifferent meal at a hotel restaurant where the menu read well but didnt eat too well. That was the place which caters to tourists - packed dining room, not a single French person a far as I could suss out.

    And, GG, the best reason for catching a late ferry back - a superb lunch overlooking the beach at Calais. One of my best meals so far this year. Menu Gourmand at 45 Euro - exchange rate's a killer, innit?

    Even better, got a really good nosh over the border in Ieper. And tourist shite on another night.

    Oh, and off topic for this particular thread, but two good meals around Dover where we stayed overnight bginning/end of trip.

    A damn good eating week.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Harters
      greedygirl May 25, 2009 03:35 PM

      The exchange rate is indeed a killer. There was a market on Sunday morning in the place we stayed but I didn't buy much because it was all way more expensive than in London!

      We also had lunch by the beach but in Dunkirk. A simple brasserie that was packed with French people but the food was meh and we had a ridiculously loooong wait (which meant less time for Mr GG in the museum).

      Particularly disappointing was the restaurant in Boulogne we enjoyed a year ago but on Friday served up shockingly overpriced and mediocre fare (20 Euros for a small seafood starter). And we had to wait an hour for any food and hassle them for a drink! Probably my worst food experience of the year. The mainly French clientele were not impressed either.

      Where was the good restaurant in Calais?

      1. re: greedygirl
        Harters May 26, 2009 05:46 AM


        Retaurant was Aquaraile. Review:

        Was the Boulogne place the nice looking one almost opposite the aquarium thing?

        My notes on the places near Albert (and the Belgian ones) aren't posted on any food site as most visitors there are likely to be military history buffs (and I've posted them to the main UK Great War forum). I recall Mr GG also has an interest, feel free to drop me an email for the resto details if you need them.

        I'm off to have my palate checked out :-0


    2. pikawicca May 25, 2009 04:16 PM

      I'm rolling on the floor -- a Brit complaining about French food? Give me a break. For CENTURIES, the French outcooked the Brits with one hand tied behind their backs. In the last 10-15 years or so, the British food scene has improved immensely. However, strand me in a little village in either country for a meal, and I'm certain that I'll eat better in France.

      11 Replies
      1. re: pikawicca
        greedygirl May 25, 2009 04:22 PM

        Maybe it's ironic, but I'm sad that you can no longer expect a decent meal in pretty much any restaurant in France. And it's not just me that's saying it. The author of the book is an American.

        Plus I am an excellent cook (if I say so myself) and know good food when I see it. Am I not allowed to complain about falling standards in France just because I'm British?

        1. re: greedygirl
          Eat_Nopal May 25, 2009 05:31 PM

          "Am I not allowed to complain about falling standards in France just because I'm British?"


          Your British genes preclude you from truly knowing good food when you see it. Actually, let me reverse course... you said 'see it' not 'taste it' so yes I guess its possible a British person might be able to judge good food via sight, all though that seems incomplete.

          Just kidding. The Brits are learning good food.

          1. re: greedygirl
            pikawicca May 25, 2009 05:39 PM

            I don't give a FF whether the author is an American or not; whoever it is is trying to sell a book. I see no evidence that the standard of cooking is falling in France, quite the opposite. If you're trying to claim that food in general is better in England than in France, you need to have your palate examined.

            1. re: pikawicca
              Roland Parker May 26, 2009 12:38 AM

              I've had plenty of mediocre to average food in France, and excellent food in the UK.

              What it does mean? Nothing, except that it's easy to find good food whereever you go if you do your research, and that it's easy to eat mediocre food wherever you go if you don't. That seems to be the rule of thumb these days.

              I'll add that when I traveled to France twenty years ago, it seemed to be easier to walk into a random restaurant and have a great meal, but that's not so much the case these days. I'm more likely to have a great meal at an unknown place in Italy than I am in France.

              Up till about twenty years ago, the default fine dining in the US was French. It was the preferred choice of the American rich, and in literature up through the '80s the popular concept of a good restaurant was "chez" something. Nowadays I'd have to admit that Italian cuisine has replaced French in the popular mindset, and fine Italian restaurants seem to be doing better than their French counterparts.

              1. re: Roland Parker
                greedygirl May 26, 2009 06:55 AM

                I think that's my point really, that it's a lot easier to find mediocre French food now than it was twenty years ago. France is where I first discovered my passion for food, so I find it dispiriting that it's lost some of its edge. And I agree that Italy is much more consistent these days.

                1. re: greedygirl
                  Eat_Nopal May 26, 2009 09:51 AM

                  Actually... I wonder if your bar has just been set higher than 20 years ago? Here in the States where people have also vastly increased their Gastronomic IQ and appreciation for good food... i also see people develop extremely high expectations that aren't as easy to meet anymore.

                2. re: Roland Parker
                  tuttebene May 26, 2009 04:08 PM

                  I would agree. Having travelled extensively through southern Italy for one month last summer, I only had one bad meal. Can't say the same about my trips to France.

                  1. re: Roland Parker
                    Chinon00 May 26, 2009 04:43 PM

                    In the United States the French Bistro has sort of replaced the French Restaurant in terms of "face time" for the cuisine. They've been fairly popular since the early 90s. Here in Philly we've recently added another named "Parc".
                    I believe that bistros and as you've added "fine Italian" has taken over because they appear more accessible and fun (and new). Le Bec Fin (also in my hometown) was the area's standard bearer of high end French dining since the 70s; maintaining a Mobile Travel Guide 5 star rating. They've recently stepped back to a more relaxed atmosphere. As "Chef" (George Perrier) put it "people don't want to sit and eat for 3 hours anymore".

                    1. re: Roland Parker
                      Karen_Schaffer May 26, 2009 10:34 PM

                      And here I was just commenting that I had had much better luck with random restaurants in France than I had on a recent trip to Italy! Though it's been 6-7 years since I've been to France. Still, there did seem to be an awful lot of mediocre food in Italy, enlivened by occasional highlights, but not as many as I had hoped for.

                    2. re: pikawicca
                      Fritter May 26, 2009 02:59 AM

                      "I don't give a FF "

                      Was that French fry cooked in duck fat or butter?

                      1. re: pikawicca
                        greedygirl May 26, 2009 06:53 AM

                        Well, I beg to differ and I probably visit more regularly than you, living not too far away. And where did I say that the food was better in England?

                  2. s
                    Steve May 25, 2009 05:39 PM

                    I have never eaten as well in the North as I have in the South of France (anywhere south of the Loire Valley). Having said that, every generation in France complains about how the food is not as good as it used to be... but this has been going on since at least the 1950s

                    I'd be interested to know if anyone visiting in the South has experienced a similar downturn.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Steve
                      JanPrimus May 26, 2009 07:00 AM

                      The Book: Secret Ingredients - The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

                      The Page: 46

                      The Chapter: The Afterglow

                      When I returned to Paris in the fall of 1939, after an absence of 12 years, I noticed a decline in the serious quality of restaurants that could not be blamed on a war then one month old. The decline, I later learned, had been going on even in the twenties, when I made my first studies in eating, but I had had no standard of comparison then; what I had taken for a Golden Age was in fact Late Silver.

                      1. re: JanPrimus
                        JanPrimus May 26, 2009 07:04 AM

                        I am no where judging the consistency of FF (that not flying anything)...just pointing out that it goes back a bit further. My only reference point is 1988 for eating in France. A week in Paris and a week in various country side establishments.

                        I will say though that my best meal in Europe was in Livorno, Italy. Totally unexpected meal obtained by walking into random small restaurant. Best meal of my life so far....although my own cooking is catching up :)

                        1. re: JanPrimus
                          Steve May 26, 2009 10:41 AM

                          Love it! Thanks for posting that, Jan. When I've visited friends at their family home in France, there is always a grandparent present (beret, switchblade knife in hand, sawing at the baguette) complaining about the declining quality of bread and cheese. Not always the same grandparent - or the same family - but this has been going on for over twenty years. The sentiment that "there were giants in those days" is part of human nature that applies to many facets of life.

                          1. re: Steve
                            Roland Parker May 26, 2009 11:08 AM

                            There's probably some truth to the belief that certain things were better in the past, especially when it comes to food. In the United States, while people have a much broader variety of foodstuff to chose from, and you could probably count the number of Thai restaurants in the entire country on a single hand thirty years ago, the average everyday meal eaten by a typical American has probably declined in quality. Far fewer people eat home prepared meals and instead opt for fast food, processed food and packaged foods for the convenience, and come to demand the sharp flavors of salt and HFCS that they did not in the past.

                            The other change is the standardization of foodstuff. Governmental regulations makes it difficult to produce non-pasteurized cheeses. Mass farming removed most heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables from the marketplace. Even meat has come to taste bland.

                            The tradeoff, however, is the convenience. We may have fond memories about grandmother's kitchen, but food preparation in those days was labor intensive and unless you had servants, most women cooked! Three times a day! full meals for large families! Plus canning and preserving!

                            1. re: Roland Parker
                              Sam Fujisaka May 26, 2009 04:56 PM

                              Have to disagree with, "Mass farming removed most heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables from the marketplace." All over the world, including today's traditional remote agricultural communities, where surpluses are produced and sold to non-agricultural populations, farmers have always and naturally reduced agrobiodiversity to provide crop outputs from which they could profit.

                        2. re: JanPrimus
                          greedygirl May 26, 2009 09:52 AM

                          Ha! That's funny. I guess people always think things were better in the old days. (Apart from in Britain, when it most certainly wasn't!)

                          1. re: greedygirl
                            Roland Parker May 26, 2009 11:11 AM

                            I never think things were better in the old days, but they were certainly different. Affluent families in the 19th and early 20th century ate remarkably well, and extensively. A well-to-do family at the time frequently spent 25-35% of their incomes just on food, more than they spent on their household help. We have some old account books that show my great-grandmother spent more on her weekly butcher's bill than she paid her housemaid.

                          2. re: JanPrimus
                            Will Owen May 27, 2009 02:45 PM

                            In the 1930s, when my Pa-in-law was a lad, he would visit his French relatives at their summer home, a chateau in Burgundy. At least once during the sojourn the family would take the train to La Mere Blanc, in Vonnas, and eat fabulously well if somewhat simply. When we were all in France a mere sixty years later, staying at the same chateau, we went over to Vonnas and had lunch at L'Ancienne Auberge, the less-expensive restaurant of Georges Blanc, in the same building where his mother and grandmother's restaurant had been. The food was quite nice, and Chef Blanc was suitably cordial when Papa spoke of his boyhood visits, but all I remember was that I had some kind of salmon, and that Vonnas has been turned into Blancland. I suppose it's nice of him to spread his considerable prosperity around, but it's too bad the stunning food seems now to be reserved for the plutocrats in the main hall...

                        3. Chinon00 May 26, 2009 01:28 PM

                          In the West, French cuisine was the standard for a very long time. Relatively recently the masses here have gained access to a wider variety of cuisine both high and low. There's simply more competition across the board these days. So whether French food is declining or not is to me debatable but the rise of other cuisines is not.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Chinon00
                            Harters May 26, 2009 02:22 PM

                            When I was young, the "best" restaurants in my area (north west England) were French. I suspect that it was the same in other areas. Now, a very different state of affairs.

                            You would be hard pushed to even find a French restaurant. Looking in my metropolitian restaurant guide, I see two - one part of a national chain, the other a small place that offers simple reasonably priced bistro dishes. Even the restaurant that calls itself The French isn't anymore (although it's still the Grande Dame of the city). If you want top notch fine dining, you now go to a place serving modern British cuisine.

                            1. re: Harters
                              pikawicca May 26, 2009 04:31 PM

                              Well, but you're talking about "French" restaurants in the UK, not French restaurants in France. There has always been a huge difference between the two. ("Always," in my experience, dates back to 1966 and continues to the present.) I would estimate that I eat an average of 25 meals per year in France, and have since 1968. I have noticed no decline in quality, except for the fact that many bakeries do not bake their own baguettes anymore, but get them delivered. This is deplorable, as the resulting loaf is grossly inferior.

                              1. re: pikawicca
                                Harters May 27, 2009 01:48 AM

                                Well, yes, I was - following on from Chinon00's point that French food used to be the "gold standard" in the west and is , perhaps, no longer. A point I'd certainly agree with from my view in England.

                                I would also generally agree that there has been little decline in the standard of food in France over the years I have visted (albeit a limited number of visits to a fairly small defined area in the north of the country). It has always been very possible to eat shite in France as well as good food and that continues.

                                As always, when out of one's own area, research is the key. Referencing the meals I recently had around Albert, mentioned upthread, it is a town where visitors will not find good food. However, taking advice from other visitors to the area, on a non-food board, turned up a couple of places a short drive away - one would never normally have come across them, let alone know if they were any good.

                          2. Sam Fujisaka May 26, 2009 04:59 PM

                            The French food I prepare has continued to improve! Touche?!

                            1. MMRuth May 27, 2009 02:58 PM

                              This article, from the NYTimes last year was interesting to me, about a little French restaurant in Manhattan that rarely gets mentioned, but apparently is popular with French tourists"


                              "... Chez Napoléon is so old-school that “sometimes I ask tourists from France why they would want to come here, when they could go anywhere,” said Ms. Bruno’s 36-year-old grandson, William Welles, who holds forth behind the postage stamp of a bar. “They say it is getting hard to find this traditional, home-style fare in France.”"

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: MMRuth
                                Harters May 29, 2009 02:27 AM

                                I can see some of the logic here, although whether my argument stands examination is another matter, but here goes:

                                A restaurant in France is going to be susceptible to changing tastes and fashions that exist in that society. It will adapt/update/modernise its menu to fit. It'll mean most places have moved away from traditional dishes (although they may have put a modern stamp on things - I see this regularly in Britain with the "modern British" or "modern European" menu style, cutting through many national.regional stereotypes)

                                A French restaurant in a foreign country is not going to be as susceptible to those pressures and can continue to carve out a distinctive and traditional niche, particularly if located in a large city where there is sufficient demand for such a place.

                              2. haggisdragon May 28, 2009 06:27 PM


                                4 Replies
                                1. re: haggisdragon
                                  pikawicca May 28, 2009 06:32 PM

                                  Not to put too fine a point on it.

                                  1. re: haggisdragon
                                    Will Owen May 28, 2009 08:51 PM

                                    I disagree completely. One of my favorite restaurants - let me say one of OUR favorites, including my French ma-in-law and deeply Francophile pa-in-law, is Restaurant Taix, a doggedly oldfashioned place in LA whose location changed in the '60s, but whose menu predates that move by quite a bit. I am quite sure that if we all went to New York we would find our souls' true home at Chez Napoleon.

                                    1. re: Will Owen
                                      Eat_Nopal May 28, 2009 10:38 PM

                                      You have good taste... my parents used to take me to Taix when I was 9 years old... but it seems to me to have gone down hill over the years. There was another iconic place very much like it in East L.A.... somewhere between the old iconic Sears & the Farmer John factory.... I can't think of the name right now... any ideas?

                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal
                                        Will Owen May 29, 2009 02:29 PM

                                        I will ask Papa; he might possibly know. It's funny, though - when we took him and Maman there he told us the last time he'd been was with his mom around '62, and remembered the interior perfectly. What's funny about that was that in '62 the restaurant was downtown! So he'd never actually been to the Sunset location.

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