“You see that restaurant over there? It’s a clandé,” said my taxi driver with a snort, referring to a “clandestine table.” Glancing at the Montparnasse restaurant, a place I know well, there was indeed a narrow band of amber light improbably shining through the window at the top of the thick curtains drawn inside the front door.
“I dropped off a well-known politician there last night, and on the way, he bragged to me about how it works,” he continued. “You get a covid test in the afternoon, and bring proof of a negative result when you show up. You wait across the street and send a text message that you’ve arrived.
“Once you’re sent a password—which changes every day—you go to the back door and ring the bell. Give the password over the intercom, and voilà. The door opens. I don’t see any harm in it. And you, have you heard about these places?”
Il Faut Bien Déjeuner …
Indeed. Four months into the second government-mandated shutdown of its bars, cafés, and restaurants as an anti-coronavirus measure, France is experiencing a small but growing outbreak of often wily and sometimes defiant noncompliance. They’re speakeasies, gourmand-style, and they’re bringing a new type of exclusivity to some of the most coveted tables in France.
One week, it’s Le Parisien calling out the bunch of bad-boy judges who were discovered by cops on bikes insouciantly lunching together in broad daylight on the terrace of L’Annexe, a Paris restaurant on the Île de la Cité. “Il faut bien déjeuner,” one huffed. Yes, one must lunch well.
And the next it’s actor-producer Patrick Bruel being spanked by Public magazine for a hidden sit-down meal at a well-known restaurant in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, which he justified as a small “working dinner.”
This epicurean insubordination isn’t just confined to Paris. Until Monaco announced on January 2 that only residents and French nationals working in the principality would be allowed in its restaurants, it was packed with French visitors desperate for the pleasure of good food, unmasked faces, a restaurant soundtrack of laughter, and cutlery clinking china. (There are work-arounds; for the happy few, a Monaco hotel reservation allows access to a restaurant such as Alain Ducasse’s three-star Le Louis XV, which is open for lunch only from Thursday to Sunday.)
On January 5, several business leaders and a well-known local politician were caught red-handed dining at a highly rated restaurant in Laval, in the Pays de la Loire, and in Nice, restaurateur Christophe Wilson shouted “Liberté!” when he briefly reopened his restaurant, Le Poppies, on January 27. (He was promptly shut down.)
“The only fraud they can reproach us for is that we want to escape the insupportable privation of our individual liberties for an hour or two,” fumed a banker to Le Figaro about the Paris speakeasy he frequents. “What’s the harm in it? It’s my responsibility to accept the risk, and if they’re too many people, I don’t stay.”
As the popularity of speakeasy restaurants has grown, the French government has cracked down even harder, with 559 establishments receiving official warnings between mid-January and mid-February. As punishment for these violations, the noncomplying restaurants will be deprived of the state aid currently meted out to shuttered restaurants for a month, and in the case of a subsequent offense, they’ll be permanently disbarred from receiving the public funds.
Just a Little Dinner Among Friends …
Everyone from President Emmanuel Macron on down implicitly knows that these sad and stressful sanctions strum some of the most vital chords of identity the wrong way. The French may have grudgingly submitted to the nanny-scolding health advisories globalized by the English-speaking countries during the last 50 years, but it’s only because they think they actually know better.
Restaurateur Christophe Wilson shouted “Liberté!” when he briefly reopened his restaurant, Le Poppies.
To wit, pleasure and peril are an ancient and reliably thrilling couple, and this won’t be changed by putting pictograms of pregnant women on wine bottles to warn them off alcohol, grandmotherly speed limits, or indefinitely depriving people of the pleasure of a good meal with friends in the name of a public-health crisis.
“People can’t take it anymore, the curfew, everything closed. C’est de la merde,” said the Paris cabdriver who recently picked me up at one of the city’s main stations when my train arrived two hours after the six p.m. curfew.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench in Marseille overlooking the Vieux Port and eating a sandwich I knew would be awful when I bought it. Several dive-bombing seagulls pecked and pranced on the stone wharf, taunting me to toss it away to their greedy beaks. And then someone spoke.
“Salut, Alec. Ça va?” With his pleated blue mask and sunglasses, it took a second before I recognized one of my favorite young Marseille chefs. We chatted about the lockdown. His restaurant was doing what the French call “click and collect,” or takeout, but he said it was only to stay sane because this work was barely breaking even. Then he added, “Hey, if you’re in town tonight, we’re having a dîner des potes. Not more than eight at two different tables in the garden. It’s 40 euros apiece, with wine. Text me before four p.m. if you want to come.” I said I’d let him know.
Alexander Lobrano is a writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, will be published in June