PARIS AND Moscow may be worlds apart, but they have one thing in common: They like to send undesirables to Siberia. In Moscow the commissars do it. In France banishment is pronounced by the restaurateurs, and their favorite victims seem to be Americans. There is even a name for the Gallic Siberia, la salle pour les Americains, though some restaurant owners, whose xenophobia is broad-based, set aside une salle pour les etrangers. Adding insult to injury, there was even a time when certain restaurants, especially on the Cote d'Azur, had separate menus for Americans, with different dishes and higher prices.
The reason for the practice is simple -- and unpleasant. Most of the bourgeois clients of good French restaurants are snobbish. They claim that it disturbs their dining enjoyment to hear some barbaric language, especially English, spoken by lesser beings. They have made their opinion known to the restaurateurs, whose own snobbishness usually ascends with the number of stars they've been awarded in the Guide Michelin. The result is segregated dining.
Unfortunately, even the waiters know that they are dealing with second-class clients, and the service is often, well, second-rate. Pity the poor unsuspecting American. He may be well-dressed, well-behaved, speaking good French and not all that bad-looking. But American is stamped all over him (thank goodness), so upstairs he goes, or to that far-off table near the swinging kitchen door.
Americans who live in France and are well known to the maitres d'hotels report that they are not regarded as "typical" Americans and receive decent treatment. Those most likely to be excluded from the preferred dining room are tourists, particularly the young and those who do not trail the air of wealth. Is the practice universal? Not at all. But it is more common among better-known, pretentious and expensive establishments. Bistros tend to be friendlier and more democratic.
On a recent two-week trip to France and French-speaking Switzerland, my husband and I found ourselves sent into exile three times, once at a formerly splendid bistro, Allard; another time at a popular white-tablecloth fish restaurant, Dodin-Bouffant; and finally, and perhaps most stingingly, at the dining mecca often (and mistakenly) called the greatest in the world, Freddy Girardet. Do not think they are alone. On other trips we found that the incredibly beautiful Auberge de l'Ill at Illhaeusern reserves a just slightly less-beautiful room for foreigners. It happens from time to time at Paul Bocuse. Since its clientele is predominantly foreign, the Oustau de Baumaniere in deep Provence has a more difficult time meting out second-class treatment, but it manages. The list is long.
But not all the great restaurants play this discriminatory game. Perhaps the greatest of the great, Alexandre Dumaine, ruled a rather modest-looking restaurant in Saulieu, deep in Burgundy. Madame Doumaine presided over the dining room with warmth and good cheer. She knew that the love and care her husband put into his cooking could only be appreciated by a relaxed and comfortable clientele. She orchestrated the seating with complete lack of prejudice.
Then there is Jacques Pic's restaurant in the rather grim-looking city of Valence in the Rhone Valley. Tables are always filled, not only with locals, but also with diners who have made the pilgrimage. The dining room is run as carefully and professionally as the kitchen. Everyone is made welcome, Americans included. Last summer our table was plunk among the French, as was that of an American family across the room. They didn't even know that fellow countrymen were on the premises. And as a final tribute, as we were leaving, M. Pic sent a waiter over with a bottle of his house beaujolais.
One of France's most beautiful and best restaurants notably refuses to play this game. The Auberge du Pe re Bise on sparkling Lac d'Annecy greets and treats all guests equally. French customers have berated the hostess, Madame Bise, for that, accusing her of "preferring Americans." "Ah non," she tells them, "I like all my clients."
To help readers detect when they are getting the business, here are three case histories:
Allard, off Boulevard St.-Michel in Paris. Reservation for 8:30 p.m., arrive promptly. There is a mistake, no reservation in that name. We point out to them our name on the reservation list. Ah, but that table has been given to someone else. But we will take care of you, we are told while being ushered into grim room number 2. We join two other couples, Americans. The irony is that when Allard built its new room, old customers insisted on remaining in the original zinc (bar) room. Now Parisians have changed allegiance and the zinc is definitely Siberia. Another American couple joins what is beginning to seem like home away from home. Nobody is asked if an aperitif is desired, which is standard procedure. Finally, a table of Parisians is ushered in. The grande dame queries her host, "Did you ask for this room?" They have aperitifs.
Dodin-Bouffant just off Boulevard St.-Germain in Paris. Reservation made a week in advance. Downstairs room sparsely occupied, but upstairs we go despite the fact that the hostess checked the French label in my coat. Room contains Italians, English, a Frenchman glumly entertaining Japanese businessmen. But I am wrong, I begin to think as a party of four arrives -- three chic Parisiennes and a gentleman. They bristle visibly, sit down and order wine as an aperitif. Gentleman disappears, returns in a few minutes and beckons the ladies. All sweep downstairs, waiter following with opened bottle of wine. So much for paranoia.
How is it in the far upstairs? Tables for two are divided by a scant two inches, making conversations communal. Again, no aperitif query, though drinks are leisurely sipped on the favored first floor. I order one of the house specialties, poisson du jour cru (raw fish). This day it is a salmon, a lovely fatty specimen. It only looks good; I can't taste it. The single flavor to reach the mouth is olive oil, a nasty sea of it flooding the thin fish slices. Only one bite is manageable. The waiter whisks away the still-full plate at the end of the course, never inquiring if anything is wrong. Normally a restaurant is interested in knowing if it may have gone awry. But it's in-and-out on the second floor; leisure and concern is a luxury reserved for those below.
Freddy Girardet at Crissier, just outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. Now we are at the gourmet's paradise. Girardet is hailed throughout the culinary world as without peer. After a disappointing meal a few years ago, we are giving it another try. In the intervening years something new was added -- a second room. Though the main dining room would never win any decorating prizes, the appointments in the new wing border on banal. The room seats 26 diners, 24 of whom crossed the Atlantic to marvel at Girardet's kitchen skills. There is one young Swiss couple--the farmers who provide Girardet with goat cheese. They are nice and simple and useful to him but not deemed worthy of a table in room No. 1.
Here again the waiters know they are serving an inferior breed and behave accordingly. Instead of keeping the white wine in an ice bucket, the sommelier leaves it on the table. When we ask for one, it is instantly produced, being ready in the wings. Neither he nor anyone else ever returns to pour wine. The five waiters argue loudly among themselves as they push the big trolleys of cheese and dessert around the room. At least their explosive chatter enlivens the dull room with a clown-like atmosphere. Interestingly enough, no matter when people arrive, no matter how many courses are ordered (anywhere from two to four), everyone is served cheese and dessert at the same time. If you take no cheese you wait for dessert until the cheese eaters are finished. This bad organization explains extraordinarily long waits between courses. Everything is orchestrated for the convenience of the help. And keep in mind that we are talking about one of the most expensive restaurants extant; and it's cash only, please -- no credit cards.
Does all this matter? Does it change the quality of he food? Yes and no. Of course it does not change the cooking. The chefs don't know where the platters are going. (Or do they?) But it matters very much since you are paying for first-class service and receiving a back-of-the-hand imitation of it. If you are crowded, you are not comfortable. Going out to a restaurant, particularly in France, should be a complete dining experience. It is not just eating. You can assuage hunger pangs at far lower prices. It certainly does take the edge off an evening if you know that you are less than acceptable. Discrimination is hard to swallow, no matter the sauce that masks it.
It can be asked if a restaurateur should not show some favoritism to regular clients. Of course he should. After all, they are his day-in, day-out bread-and-butter. I don't ask for a faithful customer's table, but what about an empty one in the vicinity? I have yet to spill my soup in a public dining room, so should it be assumed that I lack good table manners because I am American? From now on when I am obviously being seated in Siberia, I'm going to get up and walk out, and I recommend that my compatriots do, too. Restaurant owners who have cash registers for consciences will get the point.