Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Strict French lunch timetable puts travelers in a bind

Most restaurants in France are open for lunch from 12-2 pm. Few restauranteurs will stretch their hours beyond that. The French don't seem to mind that since they all seem to get hungry at the same time.

When traveling through the country, this causes a bit of an inconvenience for tourists. If you've had a late breakfast and don't get hungry until after 2 pm, you're going to be out of luck when it comes to having a decent meal. You'll be stuck with eating at McDonald's or the French versions of fast food restaurants -- which can actually be a lot worse!

Here's my critique of two of these awful restaurant chains (remarkably, in the homeland of haute cuisine) which we experienced for the first time on our road trip down to Barcelona:

1) L'Arche

This is a cafeteria (often found near highway gas stations, rest areas, or commercial centers) and it doesn't pretend to be otherwise. Menu signage is awful so it's difficult to know what's really available, especially in the hot food section. Most of the hot food is inedible, except for the hot dogs (saucisses) and french fries (frites) which you can't really mess up. The gratins and spinach side dishes are really disgusting -- my cauliflower gratin was mostly bland bechamel sauce, tasting like flour and water, and very little cheese. I salvaged pieces of cauliflower out from the wreckage. The spinach that John got was, of course, previously frozen and overcooked, mushy, discolored -- primed for the trash bin. His main dish was even worse -- some sort of beef roll with unidentifiable beef parts. Traditional French food should stay in traditional French restaurants, not in cafeterias where these otherwise fine dishes are mass-produced unsuccessfully.

John is a daring person, and went to exchange his entire meal for something else. He came back with the hot dogs instead, but unknowingly got the cauliflower gratin, which I hadn't tasted yet. A French man sitting at the next table was unfortunate enough to also select the beef and spinach. He bravely finished most of his plate (he must have been starving) and sarcastically said to his wife, "C'est bon!" (It's good!) We knowingly smiled at each other.

Maylin's fruit salad was not fresh. If fruit salad is not made the day you eat it, it's not very pretty, but Maylin wanted it since she's a fruit fiend. Even she knew it wasn't good when she tried it. I figured the staff kept adding a little bit of fresh fruit to the salad everyday, but the older bits were just getting nastier and nastier. The pineapple chunks literally tasted like they came out of the bathroom.

John's strawberry tart was the best part of our meal. Thank goodness desserts are much harder to mess up.

2) Quick

The name of this French imitation of McDonald's implies the speed at which its products go through your system. It certainly does not have anything to do with how fast you get your food. At this particular Quick, I waited 20-30 minutes in line while the two guys in front kept looking at me and my enlarged chest, and finally took a picture of me with their camera phone! They were trying to be sneaky about it, but it was obvious to me what they were doing. I just quietly seethed with rage, as their wives came over with their kids.

I digress. This restaurant chain tries to do fast food, but does a poor job -- the French consumers don't seem to even realize it. Even though the quality of fast food is not high, the taste has to be way up there -- they don't have that. So what you have is just bad-tasting, low-quality food. Their seasoned fries weren't bad because they were actually seasoned! Maylin chose the hot dog over the fish nuggets, regretfully, for her children's meal. The poor kid. Why do they put spicy Dijon mustard on kids' hot dogs? I just don't understand. I had to suck the mustard off the weiner to the delight of all the males around me -- well, maybe it was just John that saw it.


There are other "fast food" establishments such as Flunch, another cafeteria restaurant (only a little bit better than L'Arche), and Speed Rabbit Pizza, which I don't think I'll ever try, assuming they put rabbit and Dijon on their pizzas. Just kidding. Let's let the French concentrate on their excellent "slow food." I don't mind the wait if I'm going to have something wonderful for my palate.

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