why french restaurants are the best in the world
I couldn’t quite believe my gastronomical good fortunes when we first moved to Clermont-Ferrand, nestled in the volcanic heart of Auvergne.
It isn’t the biggest or most exciting of cities, but it impressed early on when it came to affairs of the food.
You’d expect a few decent eateries with a population around half a mill, but I had to check my standards at the door. These weren’t just ‘nice restaurants’ with ‘good food’ – this was French cuisine, daaahhhling, dished up like no big deal. We devoured stunning three course lunches down the road from McDonald’s, supped five course feasts on the side of the highway – dying a delicious glutinous death in this new world of foie gras, pig feet, entrecôte steaks as big as our heads and the kind of cheese that could start a war.
There were stand out, special meals, but everything that passed our lips seemed to be something like spectacular, and we came to expect great, wondrous things at every meal; mercilessly abandoning any establishment that dare waste our precious stomach space.
Yesterday we visited a local joint that has yet to disappoint, and it got me thinking about what makes a restaurant good – and how our favourite French spots seem to do it better than anywhere else in the world.
Bottomless bread baskets and water as standard
I’m a big believer that there are two places you should be offered water and bread without having to ask for it – a prison cell and a restaurant.
Whether it’s there to keep my stomach amused while I’m waiting for my meal, or it’s going to do the heavy lifting when it comes time to mop up the plate, a bread basket is a basic necessity of life, and forgetting to deliver or refill it is reprehensible behaviour.
And of course there will be wine orders and espresso after, but a bottle of tap water on the table is a no-brainer. Simple stuff – but only the Frenchies seem to see it as standard practice.
Phenomenal wine and knowing what to do with it
French restauranteurs tend to know their sh*t when it comes to wine. I’m going to take a stab and guess that it’s because they drink enough of it themselves to know what’s good. Seriously - pretty much everyone working there is halfway to steaming before the second service.
I’ve had some of the best wine in my life in French restaurants, and that’s only enhanced the experience by, um, I don’t know, about a million percent.
Sauces, not condiments
Ketchup is now in your past. Mayonnaise is just somebody you used to know.
A French meal is not complete without a sauce, a jus, or at least a velouté.
Never dry, never bland; every bite is layered in flavours from each component of the meal, with an incredible soupy mess left behind for mopping (hence the urgency of the bread situation).
An un-sauced, or un-dressed meal to me now is like a piece of cake without frosting: basically inedible.
Doing it for the love of it
Whether it’s a Michelin-starred set-up or a tiny café, all good French food has something in common. Love.
French cuisine takes time, care and patience, from hearty stews to the most delicate choux, and when the love is there, it’s a delight for the eyes and the tastebuds.
Like home – but better
Fancy restaurants have their place, but there’s nothing quite like entering an eatery and thinking for a second that you might have accidentally just walked into someone’s house.
Family-owned joints here have that special homely feel about them; you can hear the kitchen, the staff chat with diners like they’re at a family reunion, the owner greets you with a wine-soaked bisous and the food is like something your mum would make if she were a professionally trained chef. On steroids.
The element of surprise
In my most recent experiences eating outside France, I’ve found that restaurants tend to over-promise and under-deliver with their menus.
Sour this, pickled that, purée of something and organic corn-fed something else. Cooking methods, a full list of ingredients and details on how the chicken got to work this morning – it’s all too much.
I’ve actually been enjoying the surprise of French meals. The menus divulge only the slightest details - they hint and tease, forcing you to give yourself over to the chef, and dive, curiously, into whatever is served.
And sometimes they use big scary French words you can't understand anyway.
Either way, it’s a delightful trip – and I’ve inadvertently chowed down on odd bits and bobs I’d never usually pick…and subsequently licked my plate clean.
There’s something cool about being served a surprise, about trusting the chef, and opening yourself to new things.
Even if those new things usually leave trails of slime on your garden wall. Mmm.