In the affordable range of the market, eating establishments that reliably maintain their standards, over the years, are rare in France, especially in its large cities. This is partly explained by French labor legislation, which imposes heavy charges on employers, which weigh more heavily with the passage of time. Another part accrues to voracious tax collectors, who are not lenient with establishments that have long waiting lists and are touted in the press, victims of their own success.
Before long, a successful lower-to-middle end establishment faces a predicament: shall they raise prices, or cut corners to keep costs down? The former works until they are priced out of the market, and the latter destroys their appeal. Many fold and move on. That explains, partly, why so many owners close shop in one neighborhood, and reappear in new livery in another, or emigrate.
I have enjoyed some of the best French cuisine in Luxembourg or Belgium, where I discovered very talented, self-exiled French chefs who had previously established and closed sensationally good restaurants or bistros in France. When thanking the chef at the end of my meal, I often learned that he or she left France because they felt they were not earning enough, after paying the legal entitlements of their employees, and the tax man.
That also explains the phenomenon of once great brasseries having turned into less glorious culinary establishments: owners who made their Flos, Bofingers, Balzars and Coupoles legendary places to eat have found, over the years, that they had to cut so many corners to make ends meet, that it was preferable to sell out to the brasserie/restaurant groups that took over. The latter ensured the survival of the great names, but only with tepid success in continuing the great cuisine. Economies of scale, even if combined with good management skills, does not equate to great cuisine. Nothing replaces raw talent and superb ingredients.
So, what is the visitor to do to find great French cuisine at affordable prices? The good news is that France produces a fresh crop of talent every year, and the regular replacement of once favorite establishments with new temples of French cuisine is a constant, on-going, process. France is blessed with a process of culinary renewal that blesses the country with the appearance of new establishments each year, often created by ambitious young talent that has honed its cooking skills working for super-stars of French cuisine, such as Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, Alan Senderens and Guy Savoy.
The trick is in knowing how to find them. For that, see our earlier post, “Choosing a great place to eat in Paris and France.”