When my Not So Curious husband and I travel abroad, we are fascinated by the restaurants. Not just the food — which we LOVE — but the restaurant experience itself.
I think this fascination started on our trip to Portugal, which was a revelation not only in terms of delicious, sophisticated food, but in the way the restaurants actually looked and the way the service was conducted.
Our recent trip to France just confirmed that we “weren’t in Kansas anymore”.
From the smallest bistro in Paris to the almost Michelin stared restaurant in Cairanne, the restaurant experience itself, in addition to the food, was outstanding and sadly, quite different from what we have experienced in similar restaurants in this country.
First, the size of the napkins. Really. This is a big deal for me, because I am a messy eater! From childhood, you could always tell which seat was mine — the one with the ring of food around the chair. And little has changed in lo those . . . years. You can still tell which seat is mine!
So, having a napkin that is almost the size of a small table-cloth (23″x23″) vs the biggest ones I have bought in the states (20″x20″) makes a difference. The French napkins cover me from chin to you know where. I actually feel that three of them could almost make me a dress.
And lest you think these are some kind of special napkins just for restaurants, they’re not. I bought 8 gorgeous Jacquard 23″x23″ napkins in Bon Marche in Paris. Here’s a photo of the napkins on our dining room table to give you an idea of the size.
And then there’s the thickness . . .
Second, the flatware. None of this flimsy cutlery that is so often found here. Again, uniformly, the cutlery was heavy and substantial. In the lovely Cotteaux et Forchette they actually had cutlery that nested together so that the knife rested in the fork. Very elegant as you can see (well, sort of).
Third, clearing the table. Again, uniformly, the table is cleared when everyone is done. Now this means your plate with any leftover food is still in front of you, but somehow this seems much nicer than the way it is done here, where the table is cleared except for the last person to finish his/her plate, making that person feel somewhat conspicuous.
This may be related to the fact that there is rarely any food left over on the plate — portions are smaller and the food is so good. But I think it also reflects the French love of eating and the idea that sitting at a table, slowly eating and drinking together, is part of the entire and pleasurable experience.
Fourth, noise level. The idea that to have a good restaurant experience requires a noise level that makes it impossible to hear the person across the table is a total mystery to me. We have a great restaurant in our little village and it is quite noisy. Sometimes it distracts from the experience — it just isn’t relaxing. But the owner wants the feel in the restaurant to be “lively” not relaxing, so there it is.
Again, from the tiny bistro, Verre Voie, in Paris with its 10 or so tables right up against each other to the high-end restaurant in Lisbon, Largo, with its plush seats and amazing decoration, the sound level is significantly lower than in many US restaurants. In fact, at Verre Voie, the waiter came over to apologize for the loudness caused by a party of three Australian women sitting close by us. After they’d left, of course.
Lastly, service. This is hard to pin down. The service is just more careful, more skilled, and more conscientious than in most restaurants that we have been in the US. And again, from highest to lowest, there seems to be much more invested in providing great service to patrons.
It may be that in France, “service est complet”. In other words, the price of the meal includes the “tip”. (It also includes the tax.) So wait staff aren’t “working for tips” in some ways, although I suspect that the level of professionalism among wait staff is because it IS a profession in France.
And since eating well is so important, everyone connected with that experience is seen as a professional doing an important service to mankind. Making good food happen!
I’d be curious to know what you all think makes a great restaurant? And how come we don’t have more “great restaurants” in the US?