La Fin de L'affaire

Tom Parker Bowles laments the decline of those former neighbourhood stalwarts, the French brasserie and bistro, and names the descendants keeping the cuisine alive and well

March 26 2020


So is this it then, la fin de l’affaire? A time to whisper au revoir to the brasserie, bid the bistro adieu? Because these great French institutions – lay churches of l’estomac – could go the way of le dodo, and disappear before our very eyes. Quelle horreur!

It all used to be so easy. Time was, a London flâneur, in search of a decent déjeuner, barely broke a sweat in search of champignons à la Greque, salade frisée aux lardons or steak frites. There was La Brasserie, in South Kensington, London’s petit Paris, filled with irate waiters wearing wonky toupées, and faded, fraying black jackets, ingrained with bitter sweat. How I miss your insouciant sneer, your offish Gallic shrug. At best, their rudeness was on a par with their brethren at Brasserie Lipp, the rudest restaurant in the rudest city on earth. Magnifique! The escargots and gratinée a l’oignon were hellishly hot, so fierce they’d strip the skin from the top of your mouth. Exactly comme il faut. Just like the coq au vin and confit de canard, and the pichets of Muscadet and Merlot. There was a joyous bustle to the place – the sound of succour and bon santé, the clatter of fork and spoon.

Then La Bouchée, a mere Paris-Brest’s hurl away, with its precipitous stairway (that once, after a surfeit of Sancerre, I actually managed to tumble up, rather than down), cramped, candlelit basement, exquisitely crisp frites and soupe de poisson with the lusty swagger of a drunken cur. Oh, and that marmite de poulpe à la Provençale, all soft cephalopod and sunny Niçoise allure.

If you were after something a little more de luxe, then there was Racine, Henry Harris’ billet-doux to French regional cuisine. The classics were all there, but somehow elevated to new heights of edible excitement. Tête de veau, where soft flesh kisses winsome, wobbling jelly; cerveau de veau, beurre noir – brains with burnished crust and a centre like blancmange; lapin à la moutarde – delicate bunny wearing a creamy sauce shot through with an industrial blast of Moutarde de Maille. And French cheese, oozing and pert, perfectly kept, and washed down with a glass of chilled Vieille Prune.

Equally fine, although bigger, was Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, pure bourgeois brilliance with a set lunch for £18.50, including a Dorset crab lasagne in lobster bisque, a dish that straddled the delicate and bosky. And a properly hearty cassoulet à la maison, the sort that not so much requires a postprandial kip as demands it.

Another London classic was Le Café Anglais, Rowley Leigh’s magnificent modern brasserie, with its quenelles Nantua, and choucroute garnie, and plump rognons. Now, it too is fermé. La fin. All closed in the last four years. Why, I hear you cry? Well, it would be too easy to blame Brexit, that awful, ill-thought out debacle, as much travesty as tragedy. Will hard-working Europeans, many who have lived and toiled here for years, be thrown out along with decency and common sense? For a city not only built upon immigration, but one made great by it too, it’s a horrible, desperate shame.

Granted, only Galvin and La Brasserie shut up shop after the country voted for Brexit. The rest had gone, destroyed by London’s ever-escalating business rates and rents, which push out small restaurateurs in favour of bland, joyless chains. No one else can afford such swingeing costs. And it’s not just the traditional French restaurant that suffers; it’s squeaky pants time for the entire UK restaurant industry, at every level.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Five much-loved classics may have shuffled off this mortal coil, but there’s hope from the old-school stalwarts: Soho’s L’Escargot, with its foie gras and boeuf bourgignon; Pimlico’s Poule Au Pot, which you visit not so much for the mainly workman-like bistro food, as for the fact that it’s still there; and the ever-reliable Le Colombier in Chelsea (Chapeau, Didier!), which feels as if it’s been there since the French Revolution, but which only opened in 1998. Oh, and not forgetting Brasserie Zédel, that perfectly Parisian Piccadilly paean to bon temps.

Casse-Croûte, in Bermondsey, and Terroirs, by Trafalgar Square, manage to be both old fashioned and slyly modern, while a very recent re-opening, upstairs at Soho’s legendary French House, sees the great Neil Borthwick taking over the stoves. I ate there in November, and it’s très, très bon. Equally exciting is Racine’s Henry Harris and his new family of pubs, bringing old-school bistro cooking to The Coach in Clerkenwell, The Hero of Maida in Maida Vale, and three more sites across London. His cooking is truly as exalted as the critics say. The truth remains, though, that the dependable French bistro or brasserie are no longer as ubiquitous as they were. Once a London staple, they now need to be sought out.

So it’s time to reignite that old Entente Cordiale – to gird one’s belly, to look beyond the transient and trendy, and embrace one of the world’s great cuisines once more. Vive la France and bon appetit!

Tom Parker-Bowles is a food writer, critic and the author of five cookbooks