City restaurant tours have become much easier with the fashion of small plate eating. This is particularly the case in London where starter sized portions are now possible in many critically acclaimed restaurants and cafés at any time of the day.
In Paris restaurants the lunch menu is still usually offered at a prix fixe, for 2 or 3 courses, and firmly between 12 noon and 3, and then not open again till the evening. So the options for covering a few venues are more limited. However, the Parisians are embracing le snacking in a big way, and opening up small units with a diverse range of cooking, either to be consumed on stools on the premises, or to be taken away. Strangely perhaps, they have never embraced the sandwich bar. Cojean with about 15 branches have been the most successful, but Prêt à Manger are only just now putting a toe into Paris. I talked about this to Rosa Jackson of Time Out Paris Food and Drink a few months ago, and we decided that freshly filled baguettes widely available in good bakeries everywhere, filled that market.
I recently accompanied a tour in Paris led by a colleague, Anne-Claire Paré of the restaurant trend consultancy, Bento . The participants came from a variety of sources including Monoprix, and the Paris railway stations, all sent by their sociétés to find out what current trends were emerging.
I have to admit, I have found the concept of the guided food tour puzzling. Any restaurant or cafe owner worth their salt will increase their knowledge by reading, researching and visiting other stimulating places, a very important part of keeping a business fresh and on, or ahead of, trend. And they will do this alone. However, there is obviously a demand for tours from the corporate sector for their senior management, who simply need to be fed the latest trends, that I have had to review my prejudices.
We started off the day with a very competent presentation from Anne-Claire. This took in all the main global influences in the growing Parisian snacking culture. And then we walked the course around the 8th and 9th arondissements, entering the hallowed hall of Fauchon with its upmarket zipped sandwich packaging, and drooling over the gold dusted cakes in the Russian Pouchkine.
There then followed a string of small shop units, dabbling in global concepts: mini gourmet burgers, sushi, boutique kebabs, Mexican tacos and burritos. All healthy and sophisticated. Bio, ferme (farm) and chic figured often as descriptions. We took in some quirky one-offs on the way too. Oh la Coque! (fun to British ears) was a cute takeaway, selling everything to do with the egg (bio, and from the ferme, bien sûr).
What was refreshing to see was that these did not feel that they were formatted to be part of a big roll out. The owners mostly were on the premises, responding to the Parisians’ need for le Snacking to be rapide. It’s this that makes Paris special in my view. Serving people with food, fast or slow, is a personal experience for the owners and they like to stay involved. Let’s hope none of them do evolve into smart chains. It’s what we go to Paris for, after all: the one-off establishments with a bit of je ne sais quoi.
(I’ve already written about the über-cool Nanashi here, and in any piece on fast food in Paris, this French/Japanese outfit cannot be excluded).