02 January 2014

the decline of : la régalade, 75014, 75001, and 75010

I recently called Nicolas Lacase's 10ème Bistro Bellet "a giant defibrillator for the bistrot genre." So it behooves me to explain why I felt the bistrot genre needed resuscitation. Handily, recent visits to the three locations of chef Bruno Doucet's atrophic La Régalade empire have furnished me with exhibits A, B, and C.

The original La Régalade was founded by chef Yves Camdeborde in 1992 at the far border of the 14ème arrondissement. In its day it was ground zero for the bistronomie movement, in which disaffected young chefs were leaving Michelin-starred kitchens and opening simple bistrots where their gastronomic talents could shine at lower price points.

In America, where we tend to class eating establishments all together as restaurants, encountering gastronomy in a bistrot doesn’t scan as such a big deal. The closest American analogue to the shock of “bistronomie” in French culture is probably that moment in the mid-2000’s when, in certain US cities, it became possible to dine very well from food trucks. But where, just a decade on, most savvy diners I know have all grown quite tired of food trucks (except when drunk), Paris after two decades continues to unthinkingly congratulate any classically-trained chef who deigns to cook without the aid of chandeliers. (C.f. the overrated Restaurant Pierre Sang Boyer in Oberkampf.) The still-successful La Régalade restaurants, collectively, comprise the sacred cow of a bistronomie nostalgia cult, whose membership includes throngs of uncritical diners as well as most of the city's established food critics.

So let's get the knives out, shall we ?

My three visits to the three La Régalade locations were like a course in restaurant archaeology. Somewhere, amid the incompletely obsequious service and the fossilised wine lists and the scattered décor, lay the bones of a pioneering restaurant concept.

Service gestures at the La Régalades have lost their original meaning. When I dined at La Régalade Conservatoire in August, staff were still delivering to tables the communal terrine that is the restaurant group's hallmark. 

(I hear that that at this location they now only offer it on demand, presumably as a concession to hotel guests from nations with fussier hygene standards.) But no plates were delivered alongside, nor were we able to flag down one of the rushed, gormless servers to ask for them. Have you ever tried sharing a communal terrine without a plate ? Repeated excavations of the terrine trough make the experience quite literally like archaeology, only dirtier. 

Terrine plates were not delivered at La Régalade Saint-Honoré, either. In fact, the whole terrine-gesture made no sense to me until I finally made it to the original location, where diners' places are set with a small rectangular slate to facilitate sharing of the communal terrine.

Bruno Doucet opened the Saint-Honoré location a full six years after taking over the original from Yves Camdeborde in 2004. The terrine-slates weren't simply forgotten. They were evidently abandoned, as a means of retaining the terrine-gesture while cutting down on terrine expenditure. In the absence of a method of eating the terrine presentably, most guests cut down on consumption. La Régalade's terrine, once a gesture of frankness and generosity, has devolved into the opposite, a dainty little bouquet of awkwardness for each table to stare at.

Whatever relief I felt at being permitted to eat a terrine in comfort at the original La Régelade location in the 14ème was undermined by the clumsiest, most incomprehensibly boneheaded service I have experienced in Paris.

My companions and I arrived on time for our reservation and were sat at the restaurant's circular central table. After ten minutes spent roundly ignored we asked for the wine list, only to be brusquely informed that no wine lists were available; other tables were using them. Ditto the menus. We asked again after another ten minutes, at which point the waiter asked if we'd like to order anything to drink while we waited for the wine list.

This sort of blundering would be forgivable at a restaurant that opened last week. La Régalade has been open for 21 years. It took us 30 minutes to be served wine on a Thursday night.

The service declined from there. They delivered the wrong appetisers to our table and got as far as pouring soup into bowls before realising their error and returning everything to the kitchen. Courses took such time to arrive that there was perhaps only a thirty second overlap during the meal when both wine and food were simultaneously present on the table. A bottle of wine I ordered when appetisers arrived was delivered 20 minutes later, when appetisers were finished. The server had brought new glassware, and then abandoned us while she reset two tables and we finished our dishes without any wine. By the time mains arrived, the second bottle was almost gone, and I was loath to spend any more money on what had become a totally miserable experience.

The wine lists are almost precisely the same at all three locations. They're completely conservative if not undrinkable, each containing the same few quite good bottles at slightly high prices. (Pierre Gonon's muscular, richly pear-fruited 2011 Saint Joseph Blanc was tasting better in August than in December, for the record.)

The menus too bear a striking similarity, a point I remarked when my friend T ordered a squid ink risotto at the 14ème location and we recalled he'd had almost the same dish at the Saint-Honoré location three months before.

Dining at La Régalade is therefore a rather eerie experience. It's like staying in the same hotel chain in three separate parts of the world. The menu is the wallpaper, the same wherever you go.

What does it matter, many diners will protest. The food is good, isn't it ?

La Régalade Saint-Honoré serves the best food of the three locations, in my experience. A veal cooked two ways in a gleaming emerald cress sauce was fulfilling as it was eye-catching.

Service here was also significantly better than the other two locations, but that may have been because we'd only been able to snag a very late table. In any event I suspect it's not just the restaurant's central location that makes it the hardest reservation of the three Régalades. Attention to detail is higher throughout a meal here.

My chef friend G, who I took to La Régalade Conservatoire, brought my attention to the frayed edges of the cuisine there. He pointed out the amateur irregularity of the chives topping the risotto he ordered. (Yes, the same one my friend T took at the other two locations.)

The stridently bad service was on the other hand only too noticeable, as is the leeringly overdone, text-heavy décor by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, whose predominance in deep-pocket Parisian restaurant design is testament to citywide bad taste.

Wilmotte's spaces look like nightclub websites designed by Beetlejuice: jarring stripes and checkerboard patterns, text bursts left and right, and food-porn images in black-and-white slapped up liberally.

When I enter a restaurant, like any other physical space, I want to see tables, chairs, counters, and other familiar surfaces. To instead encounter a suggestive pre-enactment of a restaurant's menu - images of pigs and veggies and lavishly scrawled sub-menus - is to feel the perilous encroachment of the Internet's sensory avalanche on our everyday visual field.

The original Régalade, thankfully, hasn't been tarted up in this way. Change of any kind might induce medical emergencies in its clientele, who are uniformly older and white. My half-Japanese friend T and I, between us, comprise one Japanese guy, and he was the only ethnic minority in the room on the night we visited. The punishing inattention of the service staff throughout our meal could well have been misconstrued. But I'm pretty confident it was simply due to benign idiocy and complacence.

The marinade of my scallops was artfully spiked with lemongrass. My cod was silky and pliant enough, perfectly cooked enough, to make me forget the stringy melted comté needlessly undergirding it.

These were the high points of the meal. But - and this is, for me, the key to the failure of the La Régalade restaurants and of the critics who continue to laud them - good food is not enough.

Good food isn't enough when the service is unforgivable.

Good food isn't enough when the wine list might as well be stocked by a robot.

Good food isn't enough when it never changes, when it doesn't correspond to seasonality, when it's served without enthusiasm or verve or even pride, when the kitchen autopilot is such that the wedge of reblochon served as a perfunctory cheese course at all the restaurants arrives ice cold, like an inedible clod of clay.

Restaurants run by chefs and restaurateurs who retain enthusiasm for their métier are outperforming the Régalades all over town. In the 10ème you have the aforementioned Bistro Bellet, or better yet, Chez Michel, still run by Camdeborde's friend Thierry Breton. In the 14ème you have Le Sévero. In the 1èr you don't have much on the serious bistrot front. But right around the corner in the 2ème there's Yannick Alléno's new Terroir Parisien location, a baldly commercial endeavor that at least has the grace to be more or less undisguisedly so. This is not to mention a few of Paris' truly great bistrots, like Bistrot Paul Bert and Le Repaire de Cartouche, in the 11ème.

The La Régalade "bistrots" have become gestural parodies thereof. But if the bistronomie nostalgia cult continues to insist otherwise, it's understandable. Only those attuned to the creativity, grace, and enthusiasm that can be communicated by an engaged restaurant team will find anything lacking in the Régalade restaurants, which remain places to eat tasty food in. Less-informed diners might still be wowed.

And isn't that the extent of a critic's job, to tell less-informed diners where to get good grub ?

Isn't it ?

La Régalade
49 Avenue Jean Moulin
75014 PARIS
Métro: Alésia or Porte d'Orleans
Tel: 01 45 45 68 58

La Régalade Saint-Honoré
123 rue Saint-Honoré
75001 PARIS
Métro: Louvre-Rivoli
Tel: 01 42 21 92 40

La Régalade Conservatoire
7-9, rue Conservatoire
75010 PARIS
Métro: Bonne Nouvelle
Tel: 01 44 83 83 60

Related Links: 

Poor menu translation at La Régalade Conservatoire, 75010

Wendy Lyn celebrating 20 years of La Régalade.
A 2008 endorsement of La Régalade by François Simon.

Alexander Lobrano applauds the cuisine and even, somehow, the décor at La Régalade Conservatoire.
Even Gilles Pudlowski had bad things to say about the service at La Régalade Conservatoire.
John Talbott gently tsks La Régalade Conservatoire.
Emmanuel Rubin positively reviews La Régalade Conservatoire in Le Figaro. Hard to come down on his endorsements too hard because his reviews typically use words so economically as to communicate almost nothing.

A laudatory 2010 piece by Alexander Lobrano on La Régalade Saint-Honoré at HungryForParis.
Alexander Lobrano cites La Régalade Saint-Honoré as among Paris' best bistrots in a 2011 piece for TheGuardian.
A 2010 rave from JohnTalbott about La Régalade Saint-Honoré.
A 2010 endorsement of La Régalade Saint-Honoré by François Simon.
An endorsement of La Régalade Saint-Honoré by Wendy Lyn of TheParisKitchen.
Emmanuel Rubin positively reviews La Régalade Saint-Honoré in Le Figaro. 


  1. the service doesn't bother me so much as the complete menu stagnation. in the five years I worked in the neighbourhood, not even the specials changed. the écrevisse risotto is a great dish, many of them are, but even eating there once a year I am bored. you wonder where the chef is. I can't help but remember it fondly though, the gruff servers, the doily curtains, the noise. the fact that i'll never get out of there in under three hours but i'll leave heavy and happy with cochonaille. it's a landmark now. maybe i'd rather go to chez michel, but i'm glad régalade originale is still kicking around

  2. Thanks for this. After 7+ years in Paris, I finally made it to a Regalade establishment this summer (Saint Honoré) and I just... didn't get it. The service was offensive. Not even the length (it took us more than 2 hours to get through three courses) but the holier-than-though attitude. The server was offended when I wanted to know which wines he had by the glass (I was the only one lunch-drinking) rather than trusting his choice. They had a special that day with homard bleue, and when he explained (rather condescendingly) in English that it was the best lobster in the world, I lightheartedly joked that I was from Maine and may have a thing or two to say on the matter, he scoffed and uttered something about how it wasn't even a discussion to be had, then went away rather than taking our order, sending some lady back to do it 10 minutes later.

    So this was all bad, but what really got us was the fact that they took SO long to feed us, that they began preparing the restaurant for evening service while we were still on dessert (the soufflé *was* worth it though). The noise of dishes, of hitting the chairs with a dish towel, of sighing everytime they walked past our table... it was just too much. Never again, for me. Oh, and by the way, we had the squid ink risotto too. And this was in June.

  3. "He pointed out the amateur irregularity of the chives topping the risotto he ordered." you're now ready to work for Michelin :)

  4. I went to the original during the Cambdeborde days, at the behest of some friends living in Paris, and with a wine critic friend from SF. Hype was a thing that one could only be dimly aware of at an ocean's remove back then, so I don't know if it lived up to that hype or not, but the food, service, and wine list were terrific.

    A few years later, I went back. Camdeborde had moved on, and while the food remained solid, the service and wine list were already fraying.

    I have, on occasion, eyed the St-Honoré outpost when escaping the Louvre for a little lunch (and when I don't feel up to dealing with La Garde Robe's "service"), but you're making be glad I've never succumbed.

  5. Longtime lurker, first-time commenter, just wanting to let you know how much I appreciate your analyses and insights. Your writing has taught me a lot about the food scene in Paris (and beyond), and although I've never met you, I trust you completely. Thanks for all the work you do and the thought you give to your reviews!

  6. thor: in that part of town, i'd always rather eat worse food with good beaujolais at and kind service at aux tonneaux des halles. i can't really deal with le garde robe for anything more advanced than a quick apéro. it's toaster oven food.

    kim: thanks so much for your kind feedback! best complement i've ever received, i think.

    clem & caroline: i predict that, a million years from now, when cockroaches rule the earth, bruno doucet will still be serving them squid ink risotto.

  7. I love your blog Aaron!
    I shocked but also impressed (at your dedication to the cause) that you spent real money on these seemingly bizarre dining experiences.
    I (almost) wish I could donate.
    Keep it up! xxx

  8. Oh Aaron, you're making me blush!! Haha

    Seriously, glad I finally took the time to say something that I've been *thinking* for a while!!

  9. Hey Aaron, yes it is ! I appreciate your writing and your commentary on everything concerning the restaurant experience, not just the food. More diners, American or otherwise, if the French are too timid or not well travelled enough to distinguish, need to send back food or call out bad service when it is unacceptable. Only then do complacent restauranteurs begin to get the message. Any restaurant that isn't humbled and gracious in having a long line of folks wanting to come and eat there, doesn't really deserve to have any clients wanting to eat there, but some clearly still do. France suffers from too many Earthlings clamoring to visit her. Maybe if that number began to drop off, some would get the message that you can't rest on your laurels forever.