After months of closure, French restaurants have finally reopened, with new social distancing measures in place – Anthony Peregrine went to test the brave new world of gastronomy
TThe restaurant owner adjusted the glasses under his flexi-glas visor and smiled with slight despair. “We expected a few,” he said, “but we got the whole world. “
The sweep of his hand took over the terrace of the Burger-et-Ratatouille restaurant on the Place du Marché aux Fleurs in Montpellier. Under the trees and the low lights, each table and each place was taken. 150 people in all. Other people were standing around, waiting for the tables to be vacated. The hubbub was as cheerful as a hubbub can be.
“We are overwhelmed, but in a good way, even if we could have done without the beer pump. Then our man rushed over to get us the bottle of wine he forgot to bring. A subdued liveliness ran like a current through the surroundings.
The neighboring terraces were also battered. The squares, main trails and narrow, scurrilous streets of the historic center throbbed with people – T-shirts, shorts, summer dresses – rediscovering the pleasure of meeting, eating and drinking in the heat of an evening of the South. After 10 weeks of detention – and dead city centers – the reopening of bars and restaurants yesterday delighted the seventh city in France.
Barely back from the Mediterranean coast, Montpellier is often described as the most popular city in France – elegant, monumental and intelligent, sensual and insurgent, with students by truck and Latin blood who roam the labyrinth of the old city. It is fueled by culture, exuberance and friendliness – all of which require the heat to remain at sunrise.
By closing this, the lock had frozen the city in a suspended animation. “It all started again as if we had never stopped,” explained the guy who served us our beers while taking aperitifs (if you can call a pint of beer an “aperitif”) on the Montpellier site to see and to have. Place Jean Jaurès. “It’s just like a normal Tuesday night. Maybe even better. “
Obviously, this was not entirely true. Restrictions were in place. The patio tables were slightly more spaced than before, but not so much that it seemed odd. As elsewhere in France, restaurant owners and coffee shop owners have been given the green light to extend their terraces beyond normal limits – to compensate for the loss of revenue implicit in table spacing. Some merchants had allowed these café terraces to expand in front of their own shop, out of solidarity and also because, as we have said, the reopening of bars and restaurants would invigorate the city centers and would therefore be good for their own company.
The restaurant staff wore masks or visors, which would have been distinctly unusual and quite disturbing before the pandemic. “They’re really annoying,” said Benjamin Dalotel from the nearby Tontons Flingueurs restaurant. “Not only that, but customers also have a hard time hearing us. But few customers, or strollers, have affected the masks – which are, in theory, mandatory in restaurants and on restaurant terraces until you sit at your table, when you can unmask. Almost no one seemed too concerned about these restrictions – although everyone on the tram that took us to the center wore their masks.
Instead of salt and pepper on the table – currently prohibited – there were bottles of hydroalcoholic gel, to be used before and after touching the menu cards … because the Burger-and-Ratatouille had not yet had time to set up a QR code system for consulting the smartphone menu.
It wasn’t all hunky dory either. Despite the avalanche of customers the first night, the restaurateurs still had a two-and-a-half-month hole in their accounts. The fear is that, despite continued government assistance, this will dispel a significant number of particularly reduced concerns. Even our man at Burger-et-Ratatouille did not know how things were going to evolve. “We are sailing by sight, through the fog. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Come back in a month and ask again.
In addition, everyone had listened to the news on the radio or television – so we knew that the virus was still with us. He killed 107 people in France yesterday, more than 14,000 of whom are still in hospital. And the Minister of Finance, Bruno Le Maire, was everywhere in the media to remind us that France’s GDP was likely to drop 11% this year.
But, frankly, neither health concerns nor economic misfortune were propagated yesterday on the squares, the streets and the terraces of Montpellier. A new optimism has been generated by the reopening of beaches, campsites and museums. The hotels have also resumed their activities. But the most visible is the joyful recolonization of their city by a Montpellier zillion. The Mediterranean need to go out and socialize around busy tables had been suppressed for too long. Last night it finally erupted again.
That said, it took a while to load the table. Four of us had reservations for 8:30 p.m. “You will not be alone,” said the owner as we joined the crowd on the patio. Then he brought us glasses, water and menus. Then we didn’t see him for an hour. The orders taken – salads, burgers, salmon, ratatouille – we then spotted him, as well as his team, loading among other tables for another 20 minutes. We were finally served closer to 10 p.m. “Sorry,” said our man. “We are a bit rusty. “
“It really doesn’t matter,” I said, and I meant it. Like everyone outside and last night, we were slightly euphoric – and we could have gone home happy not to have eaten at all. It seemed that, at least for the moment, we had defeated an enemy – and were absolutely on the same side as our restaurateur.