French Restaurant Capers

Aligot à emporter - but did he peel his own potatoes?
Aligot à emporter – but did he peel his own potatoes?

French restaurants are currently on the menu in the news. A hapless blogger posted a bad review and was fined by a judge. And as from last Tuesday, restaurants have to indicate if any or all of their meals are “homemade”, i.e. cooked on the premises with fresh ingredients.

Free speech?

Let’s take the blogger first. This Frenchwoman, who runs a popular blog, criticised a restaurant in the Aquitaine region for poor service experienced in August 2013. She entitled her blog “The place to avoid in x town” and then named the restaurant in the title.

The restaurateur claimed that his business was suffering because of the blog post’s high ranking in Google search results. A judge agreed, ordered the blogger to change the title (she removed the post altogether) and fined her €1,500 plus costs.

I can see both sides. The title of the blogger’s post was somewhat ill-considered. And I appreciate that restaurants are suffering in today’s climate of financial crisis and belt-tightening (although that’s even less excuse for poor service).

Conversely, if judgements such as this discourage people from writing what they believe to be true, then we are going to see an awful lot of bland, uninformative reviews. It’s possible to be critical without being scurrilous, but now people might be too afraid to try.

I seldom write restaurant reviews on this blog, which is perhaps just as well, given the above. However, as I have often remarked, it is possible to eat badly or to have a bad “dining experience” in France. In fact, I have criticised an upmarket restaurant on these pages, but I hesitate to draw attention to it now.

Homemade in France

Will the “homemade” meals logo make people more confident that they are getting decent food?

The scheme requires restaurants to identify which dishes are “fait maison“, i.e. homemade, as opposed to bought in. They can display a logo showing a house roof covering a pan lid, or indicate the same thing in words. All restaurants also have to display a definition of “homemade”, regardless of whether their dishes are or not.

Naturally, the scheme will be policed by inspectors, although it’s difficult to see how frequently they could get round the thousands of restaurants in France.

Here again, there are two sides to the argument. If the scheme discourages some restaurants from passing off bought-in stuff as made on the premises, then that must be a good thing for the faltering reputation of traditional French cuisine.

On the negative side, just because it’s “homemade”, a dish isn’t necessarily better – and might be a lot worse – than a ready-made meal or one composed of ready-prepared ingredients. And it’s easy to cheat if said inspectors don’t call often enough.

And what constitutes the definition of acceptable ingredients for a “homemade” dish? I went to the Journal Officiel, where the French government publishes its decrees and it’s enough to give one indigestion on its own. I won’t enumerate the acceptable comestibles here. But you’ll be pleased to know that bought-in wine is allowed – so restaurateurs don’t have to tread their own grapes. Ready-prepared veg are okay, too, except for potatoes. So frites must be prepared from scratch.

A good dining experience

Incidentally, we ate out last night at one of our favourite restaurants – La Grange du Cros near Varaire in the Lot. Thierry does front of house, Rebecca does the cooking. The restaurant is in a converted barn with a pleasant garden where you can take an apéritif. The ambiance is good, the food is tasty and creative without being off the wall, they support local suppliers and the prices are correct (€25 euros per person, including 250cl of wine). 2021 update: the website no longer works, but they have a Facebook page

It’s nice to see they are supported by local French people as well as by ex-pats and tourists. I didn’t read about the “fait maison” scheme till today, so I didn’t scan the menu for the logo. I’m not sure it would have made any difference to me – I know I’m never disappointed there.

Now, I can’t be sued for anything I’ve said above – can I?

You might also like:

Eat well in France: 10 top tips
Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives
Montauban: Changes for Better – and for Worse

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  1. Our local resto hasn’t got round to it yet but I know a lot of the food is ‘fait maison’ as she buys her veg the same place I do. They are so run off their feet in July/August I suspect they don’t make all of it at this time of year, hence the hesitation. Will be interesting to see what happens after the holidays. Afraid we hardly eat out at this time of year as it’s such a hassle.


    • Yes, no doubt the holidays are holding up a lot of restos from posting up about their dishes. We also don’t eat out much in the summer. The service can leave something to be desired.


  2. Thanks for the tip re: La Grange du Cros in a previous column. We have been there twice and it is now one our favourites in the area. Excellent service and food. The owners are very charming. A great place to take visitors for a taste for the real France.


    • Glad to have introduced you to it. I agree it’s a good place to take visitors – nice à deux, too. P.S. I haven’t been bribed to say this!


  3. I read that article about the blogger who was fined yesterday. Whilst her title was perhaps a little harsh, she only told of her (bad) experience. I would hate to see people not reviewing negative experiences for fear of reprisals. It’s not all hunky dory, and negative stuff should be shared. Constructively.

    I yesterday tweeted about a rushed bus driver after I ended up whacking my elbow against the window before I could sit down, just as he pulled out of the stop rather aggressively. And, yes, I added the bus company name. Happy to show them my bruise! It’s still hurting.

    We live in an age where you can easily complain directly to/about places (blog, Twitter, Watchdog). It’s good if it’s genuine, as it raises awareness of poor customer standards (or, on occasion, of people’s own naivety/stupidity). However, as Susan’s example shows, it is also open to abuse. (I’d not seen that piece, but I’m not surprised. I had a few customers like that when I managed summer lets in student Halls of Residence.)

    It’s a fine line and, as always, it depends on human beings. Sadly, too many are now used to ‘free’ stuff (ebooks, anyone?), so it has turned into some kind of ‘right’ to a freebie. Not too hopeful for the future…


    • Sorry to hear about your bus driver experience – and good for you for tweeting it. I hope you complain to the bus company, too.

      I totally agree that people should not be discouraged from exposing bad service, provided they do it in a way that’s helpful for other customers and contributes to improvements, and isn’t just gratuitously rude. I think people who blackmail others into giving them freebies are absolutely shameless. It’s no better than Mafia protection tactics.


  4. My goodness! I don’t know what the blogger wrote but it’d better be pretty scandalous and unwarranted for that sort of reprisal. Sounds absolutely draconian.


    • Apparently, the restaurateur objected to the whole thing but the judge only condemned the author on the title, which, it was claimed, was putting the post at the top of Google search. It is an unfortunate story and let’s hope it doesn’t create a precedent.


  5. I read recently that people in the UK were insisting on receiving freebies from restaurant/hotel owners otherwise they would leave a bad review on TripAdvisor! So the boot can also be on the other foot, for better or for worse.


    • I also heard about the TripAdvisor issue and agree this is pretty deplorable. As I said in the post, I think it’s possible to be critical without being libellous but the French judgement may restrain people from giving an opinion at all.


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