Inspired By NYC, Paris Dumbs Down Its Restaurants

by BILLY GRAY · January 27, 2010

After improbably following New York's lead with a restaurant/bar smoking ban, Parisians are mimicking us again by avoiding starchy temples of haute cuisine in favor of cheap, humble bistros. Will tablecloths follow ashtrays to the Père Lechaise grave?

La GrenouilleThe big story of New York's eating scene over the past decade or so is the sea change that decimated many of Manhattan's French grande dames. Restaurants like Lutèce were relentlessly formal. The upside was perversely pampering service (Alain Ducasse offered glorified footstools for ladies to rest their purses, as well as a choice of seven pens with which to sign the bankrupting check).  The downside was a borderline pretentiousness and rigidness that intimidated patrons who did not know a finger bowl from a spittoon.

Momofuku SsamThese days, the most sought after reservations in New York are for restaurants with chef's tables that put grovelling foodies within reach of cooking deities as they prepare dinner, and closet-sized East Village joints like Momofuku Ssam with tattooed waiters, blaring rock music and communal, picnic table seating. Daniel Boulud has a beer and sausage canteen on Bowery.

Now, the City of Light is taking the hint from NYC's democratic (read: broke) savages. In today's Times, the magnificently named Florence Fabricant talks to André Terrail, owner of the 428-year-old La Tour d'Argent:

"Mr. Terrail said he was also trying to give the atmosphere a more relaxed feel. Neckties are no longer required, for instance, and he has also set up an informative Web site for the restaurant. And he believes that as long as a fine restaurant is not pretentious it can attract younger customers."

What's next? Parisian waiters that greet American tourists with something other than a sneer? Apparently, yes, as these big name establishments also try to court the few fanny-packed visitors left aimlessly wandering along the Seine (tourism in Paris was down 10% last year).

Anyway, one big difference between incorrigible Paris and transitory New York is that the French capital likes to pull a Weekend at Bernie's with its fuddy duddy restaurants rather than deep six them:

"The French treasure historic restaurants and rarely permit them to suffer the sad fate of a Lutèce or Café des Artistes in New York. When an owner retires or dies, family or an outside restaurateur can usually be counted on to step in. 'Great restaurants are part of our patrimony,' [restaurateur] Valerie Vrinat said."

Maybe the biggest problem in Paris is that these antiques let their food suffer. Tour d'Argent currently has just one Michelin star when it used to have the sacred three. (That's another telling difference between Paris and NYC: the stuffy Michelin guide, with its trained, scarily discerning inspectors, is gospel there, while our local chefs still depend on the kindness of the random Zagat rubes.)

But let's not publish haute cuisine's obituary just yet. Dining trends swing like a pendulum, and a backlash to all this downmarketing is inevitable. If the the pattern of trailblazing persists, New York will be the first to bring white glove restaurants back from the brink.

(Photos Courtesy of NYT)