- Kinugawa Matignon, 8th arr.
- Taillevent, 8th arr.
- Drouant, 2nd arr.
- Laurent, 8th arr.
- JJ Restaurant, 8th arr.
- Epicure and 114 Fauborg at Le Bristol hotel, 8th arr.
Eric Fréchon, the three-Michelin-star chef, remembers a time in the 1980s and 1990s when a business lunch in Paris was practically an all-day affair.
Speaking from Le Bristol Hotel, where he has worked for the past 20 years, he recalls: “When I started in the business, there was the aperitif, the three-course menu, followed by cheese, of course, then coffee, cognac or calvados for a digestif, capped off by a cigar. And they stayed at the table until 6pm.”
Fréchon echoes the sentiments of many a restaurateur and chef in the French capital when he says that the business lunch these days is a shorter, lighter and more sober affair. Greater time pressures, healthier eating habits and more scrutiny of executive spending have all played a part.
“Lunch is still an important moment for the French,” says Thierry Gardinier, who runs the Gardinier & Fils restaurant group with his two brothers. “However, if a restaurant can’t serve lunch in one hour and 15 minutes, then you’re dead. People want less protein, lighter dishes and more vegetables. This is a learning curve for the classic French chef, who used to take vegetables, boil or grill them, and serve them on the side of the plate.”
With wine consumption greatly cut down — or absent altogether — this has drastically reduced the size of the overall bill and eaten into margins, much to the frustration of some proprietors.
“The business lunch does not bring in much money any more because it has changed a lot,” says Laurent de Gourcuff, founder of Paris Society, one of the key players in French hospitality. “If I could, I think I would close my restaurants at lunchtime. I exaggerate a little, but frankly, with lunch even when you’re full, it covers the costs and you don’t make any money.”
Gourcuff, whose group owns restaurants including Apicius, Loulou and Girafe, says that around 80 per cent of his establishments’ clientele at lunchtime are business people, and the average taking is only around €65 a head — compared with almost double that during the evenings, when much more alcohol is consumed.
In the top Parisian dining establishments, the real power lies with the restaurant director, notably Christian Sochon at Laurent, or formerly Jean-Marie Ancher at Taillevent, who retired at the end of 2017 after 43 years of service.
It is their job to know everyone who matters in the Parisian business and political world and draw up the daily table plan to suit. This is a delicate dance of forensic precision. People are seated per their place in the pecking order of power. Their friends and foes, wives and mistresses, must be juggled and placed accordingly — often with changes made at the last moment.
“There are times when someone’s guest arrives and we say to ourselves, ‘Gosh, this person cannot eat next to that person,’ and we change the table plan in a second,” says Sochon. “We have to know how to adapt. That’s our strength: to know our customers, and know their friends and enemies.”
Breakfast meetings are popular with the bigwigs (who typically congregate to drink masses of bad black coffee at 8.30am at the Café de l’Esplanade by Invalides, the Saint James private members club in the 16th arrondissement or the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. This is in stark contrast to London, where eggs Benedict are gobbled up by many a power player at the The Wolseley at 7.30am).
Of course, for the ultimate in French power lunching, nothing beats the in-house private dining rooms at Axa, Hermès or Rothschild, whose cellars (and discretion) are unmatched.
Ris de veau may have been replaced by grilled turbot, a bottle (or two) of Château Mouton Rothschild by San Pellegrino, and a lengthy enjoyment of the cheeseboard shunned in favour of returning to the boardroom for the afternoon, but in France, lunch remains a crucial moment in the power players’ agenda.
“Deals are done around the table, even today, that’s for sure,” says Le Bristol’s Fréchon. “You don’t maintain these relationships behind a computer.”
While the French tech scene is flourishing in the second arrondissement and in the east of the city, the old corporate France of the CAC40 and their advisers remains concentrated around the “triangle d’or” — the area around Avenue Montaigne, Avenue George V and part of the Champs-Élysées. Many of the lunchtime power venues are still clustered in this eighth arrondissement.
And since socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo turned the city into a giant construction site and ground traffic to a halt, it’s just too time-consuming to cross the Seine to the Left Bank for lunch at political favourite Lapérouse, or Guy Savoy at the Monnaie de Paris, unless it’s a special occasion.
1. Kinugawa Matignon
1 bis rue Jean Mermoz, 75008 Paris
- Good for: at €45, Kinugawa’s lunchtime-only bento boxes are perfect for those who are time-pressed or can’t make up their mind what to order
- Not so good for: the acoustics at Kinugawa Matignon mean that the restaurant is rather noisy during a packed service
- FYI: Kinugawa is opening outposts in St Barts later this year and Casablanca in 2020, after opening in Saint-Tropez earlier this year
Back in the day, this restaurant was Tong Yen, a Chinese institution adored by media types, the late president Jacques Chirac and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. It was bought in 2014 by the Blackcode group and transformed into Japanese hotspot Kinugawa Matignon. Tong Yen’s 1960s decor was spruced up by French designers Gilles & Boissier with a contemporary vibe that is warm and convivial.
Regulars are movers and shakers from media and fashion, including executives from nearby Condé Nast, who choose between the sushi bar and the private booths. Classics include the grilled black cod in miso sauce, yellowtail carpaccio in yuzu sauce and Wagyu beef (grilled or carpaccio), washed down with green tea, beer or sake.
Sister restaurant Kinugawa Vendôme draws a crowd from the surrounding banks, law firms and asset managers. One regular visitor used to be Karl Lagerfeld, the late creative director of Chanel. He would allegedly order the sliced beef with ginger to take away, for his beloved cat Choupette.
Also owned by Blackcode and well worth a visit is Yoko Haussmann, tucked at the back of an interior design store, La Compagnie Française de l’Orient. Booking is mandatory to beat the rush of bankers from nearby Rothschild and Lazard, who use it as their canteen. Hanawa on rue Bayard is another Japanese restaurant that is popular with the business community.
15 rue Lamennais, 75008 Paris
- Good for: the service at Taillevent is immaculate and the tables are far apart, perfect for private conversations
- Not so good for: not the obvious place for lunch if you’re with a group of more than four people
- FYI: after lunch, take a short walk down the Avenue de Friedland to the Arc de Triomphe. Pay a small fee to climb the 280 or so stairs to the top and you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest views in Paris
There’s been a changing of the guard at Taillevent, the Michelin-star Paris institution that was created in the aftermath of the second world war and bought by restaurant group Gardinier & Fils in 2011. It’s a formal establishment, just off the Avenue de Friedland, heavy with the secrets of some of the late, great titans of European business it regularly welcomed, such as legendary Lazard banker Antoine Bernheim, Belgian billionaire Albert Frère and former Total chief executive Christophe de Margerie.
“Taillevent is like a discreet club for business people,” says Thierry Gardinier of Gardinier & Fils. “We have fewer politicians coming now as it’s difficult for them to be invited to a top restaurant because they’re afraid of Instagram.”
Last year, Taillevent’s owners hired chef David Bizet from the Four Seasons’ George V to reinvent and modernise the menu. The famous spelt risotto has been replaced by lighter dishes such as langoustine flavoured with citrus, poached sea bass and red snapper, all of which Gardinier says are popular options with patrons watching their waistline.
16-18 place Gaillon, 75002 Paris
- Good for: if you’re looking for a secretive rendezvous, hire Drouant’s Colette salon for three people, where the author Colette allegedly had a tête-à-tête lunch with a different guest every week
- Not so good for: a dry lunch — it’s hard to resist Drouant’s 2,000-strong cellar, where wines from the Rhône Valley take pride of place
- FYI: to mark the centenary of Marcel Proust winning the Prix Goncourt, Drouant has renamed one of its private rooms the Salon Proust
Last year, Gardinier & Fils bought Drouant, a place steeped in literary history. Originally founded as a bar and tobacco shop by Charles Drouant in 1880, it is more informal than Taillevent and is in the heart of the city’s trendy second arrondissement. It draws executives from the nearby asset managers and insurance companies, as well as an artistic crowd.
Just recently, Drouant reopened following a revamp by interior designers Fabrizio Casiraghi. The old-fashioned woodwork of the restaurant’s facade has been restored, while the main dining room is now resplendent with walnut woodwork, lacquered walls and thick fabrics. Some of the restaurant’s original features have been conserved, notably its private salons, a painted ceiling in the main dining room that writer Jean Cocteau liked to call “the sea on the ceiling” and the spectacular Ruhlmann staircase from the art deco movement.
It’s from this staircase that the judges announce the winners of the Goncourt and Renaudot literary prizes every year. Drouant’s signature dishes from head chef Émile Cotte’s seasonal menu include langoustine ravioli, scallops and a veal chop for sharing.
41 Avenue Gabriel, 75008 Paris
- Good for: Laurent boasts one of the most beautiful terraces in Paris, with a delightful garden that has views of the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower
- Not so good for: epitomises the old, Franco-French side of France’s power circles. If you’re looking for a trendy or techie crowd, you won’t find it here
- FYI: the entire pavilion and garden can be hired for private events
Imagine that you’re the chief executive of a CAC40 company and you want to send a message to the world that you’ve made up with your adversary. What do you do? You invite them to lunch at Laurent, a pale-pink neoclassical pavilion just off the Champs-Élysées and a stone’s throw from the Elysée Palace.
Such is this restaurant’s position as the premier establishment for the Parisian political and business elite that news of your rendezvous will be spread around those circles in a flash.
Laurent was a hunting lodge under Louis XIV, a tavern during the French Revolution, and has been a restaurant since 1840. It was bought in the early 1970s by buccaneering Anglo-French tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, who enjoyed the idea of having his own place to eat, and is now owned by French-Algerian businessman Isidore Partouche’s Groupe Partouche.
Laurent is the place where France’s political scene collides with the CAC40. Its longstanding director Christian Sochon recalls a dinner in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon arrived with Sir Jimmy and the entire room stood up to honour the then US president.
Laurent has one Michelin star and receives about 80 covers per service, split across its main dining room and its five private salons upstairs, where deals can be thrashed out in private.
At lunchtime, around 90 per cent of the guests are regulars, and many of them put in personalised menu requests to the kitchen, according to Sochon.
Overall, he says, the emphasis is on discretion: “People know that coming here they will not be bothered. You will never see paparazzi waiting outside.”
5. JJ Restaurant
34 rue de Penthièvre, 75008 Paris
- Good for: if you have a lazy afternoon ahead of you, try the truffle pasta, served out of a giant wheel of Parmesan
- Not so good for: tables are cheek by jowl, which makes for a convivial atmosphere but is less good for private conversations or secret negotiations
- FYI: JJ doesn’t have a website – you’ll have to make a telephone reservation
For those in the know, JJ (named after its owner and head chef Jean-Jacques Taieb) is a cosy gem serving traditional French fare. Handwritten menus are scribbled on blackboards, and the walls and ceilings of this 40-cover restaurant are covered with wooden beams. At lunchtime it’s popular with the legal community, thanks to the number of local law firms, as well as nearby gallerists, while dinner draws a large foreign contingent.
There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re looking for a healthy lunch or heartier fare. “Our approach is to work with high-quality, fresh products and to avoid sauces and camouflages,” says Taieb, who took over the restaurant in 2000 and says he puts on the menu the food that he enjoys cooking.
Feast on seasonal specials such as cep mushrooms or king scallops, or start with roasted peppers and anchovy paste or sea-bass carpaccio followed by entrecôte steak-frites or grilled salmon with ratatouille.
“Today, people are a lot busier,” says Taieb. “They want to eat quickly and well. They also consume much less alcohol — partly because they need to go back to work after lunch and partly because they’re conscious of expenses.”
Photographs and paintings on the walls document Taieb’s other passion: racehorses. Until last year he was also manager of the HSpirit stable.
6. Epicure and 114 Faubourg at Le Bristol
112 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris
- Good for: on a summer’s day, the garden that is part of Epicure is an urban oasis and a peaceful haven for lunch
- Not so good for: Epicure is a bit of a strain on the bank balance: the eight-course menu designed by Eric Fréchon to celebrate his 20th anniversary at Le Bristol comes at a cool €380 per head
- FYI: Le Bristol is perfectly situated to explore the upmarket boutiques and art galleries of rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré after lunch
These two restaurants at Le Bristol hotel are under the stewardship of its longstanding chef Eric Fréchon. “Both are business restaurants,” he says. “The difference between the two is that people typically come to Epicure for an event such as a deal to celebrate, while at 114 Faubourg it’s the canteen for nearby businesses.”
There are regulars aplenty. Some take the private dining room for discreet gatherings. Fréchon estimates that regulars make up 80 per cent of the customers at 114 Faubourg, a luxury brasserie that holds one Michelin star — and 40 per cent of the patrons at Epicure, a three-star establishment.
At the latter, half the starters orders are for one single dish: the macaroni with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras, gratiné with aged Parmesan. In terms of euro per mouthful, it’s probably the most expensive dish in Paris, but it’s worth every centime.
The real habitués go off piste from the main menu and order what they feel like from the kitchen, treating it as their own. Typically, they are people who spend their lives eating in restaurants, so are looking for something simple and light.
Over the years the menus have evolved to include more vegetables, says Fréchon, adding that at lunchtime both restaurants sell a lot of fish. “Fish is the favourite option for business people,” he says. “When people leave a restaurant after lunch they must feel light, because afterwards they have to return to work; they can’t take a nap.”
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