Simon Kuper in Paris: top spots for presidents and politicos
- Le Bourbon, 7th arr.
- Divellec, 7th arr.
- Café de l’Esplanade, 7th arr.
- La Rotonde, 6th arr.
- Le Stresa, 8th arr.
Foreigners often mock the French working lunch. It can seem a waste of time: an hour out of the day, sometimes with wine, usually to transact very little business. Why not just sort things out with a phone call or a coffee?
But, in France, dining together remains central to politics — and indeed to working life in general. While the central networking sites of the UK’s House of Commons have traditionally been its bars, the Parisian equivalents are restaurants. (And French politicians through history have also dined with constituents at wine-drenched farmers’ banquets.)
Claude Fischler, French anthropologist of food, notes that eating together is an important ritual in all societies, not just France. Anthropologically, he explains, “you are what you eat, so if you both eat the same thing, you produce the same flesh and the same bones.”
Yet universal as the shared meal is, it is a particularly important custom in France. First, the French still stick to appointed mealtimes, notes Fischler. A Parisian restaurant might be half-empty at 12.30pm, full at 1pm, and emptying out by 1.45pm.
Second, sharing food is especially meaningful in low-trust societies such as France. Only 19 per cent of French citizens agreed with the statement, “Most people can be trusted,” compared with 30 per cent of Britons and 42 per cent of Germans, according to the World Values Survey of 2014. French trust in institutions such as parliament, banks and media is also low by western European standards.
So Parisian politicians have always built relationships over food. Only once you have eaten with someone can you contemplate trusting them, says Fischler. (Business is traditionally talked only in the last 15 minutes of the meal.) When the French government fled to Bordeaux in 1940 after the German invasion, power brokers would gather in restaurants such as the now Michelin-approved Chapon Fin to exchange end-of-days gossip.
In Paris, the Fourth Republic (which lasted from 1946 to 1958) was often said to be governed from the Brasserie Lipp in St-Germain. It was from the Lipp that François Mitterrand, the ultimate political gourmet, set off on the night in 1959 when he appears to have faked (for electoral purposes) an attempt by French Algerian rightwingers to assassinate him.
In 1974, on hearing that President Georges Pompidou had died, Mitterrand departed his table at the Lipp at a gallop. When a waiter pursued him with the bill, he ordered, “Send it to the Elysée,” recounts Gilles Brochard in his book Guide secret des tables politiques. But Mitterrand had to wait another seven years to become French president and diner-in-chief.
Since then, Paris’s political dining scene has shifted from St-Germain to cluster more firmly around the political institutions of the seventh arrondissement. There is also action in Montparnasse, the southern quartier that is home to many politicians (perhaps because they studied nearby at the prestigious schools of the Rive Gauche, the “Left Bank”).
But the glory days of six-hour political lunches at Michelin-starred venues like Laurent are mostly over. French politicians are now under unprecedented scrutiny from an electorate that stopped tolerating taxpayer-funded extravagance.
Nicolas Sarkozy arguably destroyed his own presidency the very night he was elected, in 2007, when he celebrated at fancy Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs-Elysées in the company of French oligarchs and other elite figures. His man-of-the-people reputation never recovered.
The Macrons suffered blowback, too, for taking Donald and Melania Trump to the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in July 2018.
So for politicians, as for all other working Parisians, lunches in recent years have become faster and cheaper. The political class now tends to favour restaurants that serve traditional, simple fare. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen takes this furthest, holding court from Chez Tonton, a Franco-Portuguese bistro in the lower-middle-class suburb Nanterre, near the headquarters of her Rassemblement National party.
More women in the profession also tends to mean smaller portions and less wine — though having one glass is a way to mark a meal as a minor special occasion. (Ideally, an MP should always drink the wine of his own constituency, recommends Brochard.)
Paris’s political restaurants are far too discreet to hang up photos of well-known diners, or post them on Instagram. Their staff — who follow the political news, keeping tabs on who is who, and who no longer matters — know to keep their distance when a particularly sensitive discussion is on. Ministers are seated in the quietest corners, and are served quickest.
Politicians nowadays have to worry about fellow diners’ smartphones, and for much of the last year, the weekly sacking of Paris on Saturdays by angry gilets jaunes protesters. One power restaurant, terrified of gilets jaunes, implored me not to reveal that Emmanuel Macron occasionally eats there: the owners will get a call from the Elysée Palace, and an hour or so later the president will stride in, often so fast that diners at nearby tables don’t notice him.
But no matter the constraints, political dining in Paris continues. It’s how France is run.
The power restaurants:
1. Le Bourbon
1 place du Palais-Bourbon, 75007 Paris
- Good for: lobbying politicians en masse
- Not so good for: fine dining
- FYI: hardly anyone comes here primarily for the food. As in almost any Parisian restaurant, it’s good policy to stick to the set lunch menu — €28 for two courses, €38 for three — which is swift and fresh. Le Bourbon is known for its platters of seafood in season. Or come for morning coffee with the parliamentary aides.
This otherwise unremarkable brasserie is made by its location: facing the Assemblée Nationale, France’s parliament.
MPs have been plotting here for decades. It was in Le Bourbon in 1974, for instance, that Jacques Chirac launched his “Appel des 43”: his scheme to stop the frontrunner Jacques Chaban-Delmas from succeeding the freshly deceased president, Georges Pompidou. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Chirac’s choice, got the job.
Traditionally, deputies came here for long boozy lunches, often with pretty young interns in tow, and never bothered asking for receipts. But those days are over. President Macron has passed strict laws to clean up parliament, and nowadays MPs ask for receipts. In addition, a younger generation of diners has arrived.
In 2017, Macron’s new party, La République en Marche, won 53 per cent of the Assemblée’s 577 seats, sweeping out much of the old order. The new lot — including many younger women — have their own eating habits and are still discovering Paris. Nonetheless, once the newcomers become regulars at Le Bourbon — and prey for the lobbyists who don’t need parliamentary badges to haunt the tables — they too are part of Parisian power.
18 rue Fabert, 75007 Paris
- Good for: fish
- Not so good for: looking like a man or woman of the people
- FYI: order the lobster navarin with new potatoes and rosemary reduction sauce; or the grilled turbot with Béarnaise sauce
For 30 years from 1983, Le Divellec (still with the definite article then) was the fish restaurant for political Paris. It was practically Mitterrand’s presidential canteen. He favoured expensive Petrus wines but had them served in bottles of cheaper appellations so as not to cause comment, says Mathieu Pacaud, Divellec’s current chef.
When, in 1994, Paris Match magazine snapped the president outside Le Divellec with his illegitimate daughter Mazarine — revealing her existence to the world — it was a publicity coup for the restaurant.
The restaurant’s proprietor Jacques Le Divellec reputedly served every French president from Charles de Gaulle to François Hollande. But after his retirement in 2013, the place closed. It was later bought by a group including Isabelle Saglio (see the entry for Café de l’Esplanade, below), which installed Pacaud as chef.
The son of Michelin-starred restaurateur Bernard Pacaud, Mathieu grew up in Parisian kitchens. He intends to restore Divellec to its former political glory. A connoisseur of politicians, he knows to place the big names in intimate salons off the main dining room.
When both Hollande and his centre-right rival François Fillon requested the petit salon on the same evening, Pacaud had to satisfy Fillon with a secluded table elsewhere in the joint. (Up-and-coming politicians often prefer to advertise themselves to their peers by dining in full view in the middle of Divellec.)
The younger Pacaud also runs the chic restaurant Apicius, frequented mostly by business people. But politicians, he says, “don’t have any money”, and are now only allowed to claim €50 for lunch, so Divellec offers a set lunch without wine for €49.
Both politicians and business people, says Pacaud, “lived better 20 years ago. Before they didn’t have to fear being caught out. Now it’s much more sober.”
3. Café de l’Esplanade
52 Rue Fabert, 75007 Paris
- Good for: the view from the terrace on a summer morning
- Not so good for: haute cuisine
- FYI: for breakfast, order the traditional orange juice, café crème (Parisian for milky coffee) and croissant or small baguette. The lunchtime favourite is the aller-retour — a large burger served practically raw or underdone. The Esplanade has no Michelin stars. “We are without pretensions,” says the café’s majority owner and manager Isabelle Saglio
On the same street as Divellec, the Esplanade sits at the epicentre of Parisian power. “You never escape your neighbourhood,” says co-owner and manager Isabelle Saglio, “and the seventh arrondissement has been surrounded by ministries and the great political projects since forever.” The Assemblée Nationale, too, is just 10 minutes on foot.
Perfectly for a Parisian elite hang-out, the Esplanade is just off a square named after a far-left Chilean president, the Place Salvador Allende. Its terrace faces the Invalides, the historic retirement home for French war veterans.
The Esplanade’s forerunner two centuries ago was a sort of military canteen. Today’s interior, with its replica cannons and black-and-gold ceiling (featuring some of the same marble used on Napoleon’s tomb across the road), is meant to evoke a traditional French fencing school.
The Esplanade’s power quotient peaks at breakfast. “Politicians used to come here for hours, and drink lots of wine,” says Saglio. “But it’s not the air of the times any more. Now they are more prudent in what they spend. And breakfast is short. The politicians and journalists come from 8.30am, every day that the Assemblée sits. It’s always full to bursting.” Her politicians, she observes, “are well brought up. They never behave in an ostentatious way. They eat simple dishes, not caviar et cetera.”
During election times, many of them like to be seen on the Esplanade’s terrasse. But the political and journalistic bigwigs (often dropped off by chauffeurs) prefer the quieter black-lacquered tables indoors, with their green plush chairs. Especially sought-after are the half-hidden “boxes” furthest from the street or, best of all, the elegant “petit salon”, shielded by a thick curtain.
The café’s minority owner is Jean-Louis Costes, co-creator of the high-fashion Café Costes, frequented by Paris’s beautiful people. The Esplanade is calmer. “The seventh is not a glamorous neighbourhood,” explains Saglio. “It’s beautiful, but it’s not very festive here, there is no loud music.”
4. La Rotonde
105 boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris
- Good for: a glimpse of a bygone Paris
- Not so good for: sitting outside — the terrace straddles a noisy and dirty street corner
- FYI: order the classic dishes of a Parisian brasserie: onion soup, seafood, sole meunière, side of veal and steak tartare
This brasserie’s political heritage goes back to Lenin and Trotsky, both occasional visitors before the Russian Revolution, reports Gilles Brochard.
One imagines the Russians running into regulars Picasso and Modigliani. The latter, a penniless drunk, often paid his bills with paintings. When he died aged 35 in 1920, the Rotonde’s founder, Victor Libion, thinking that Modigliani would become even more obscure in death than he had been in life, retrieved his canvases from the cellar and burnt them on the pavement, recount the brothers Gérard and Serge Tafanel, whose family has run the place for 48 years.
Today, replicas of Modigliani’s works hang above the eternal red plush and mirrors. Narrow your eyes and you could be back in the 1920s. In that decade, Paris’s années folles (crazy years), this brasserie was so famous that when Charlie Chaplin arrived in town his first words were “Take me to La Rotonde,” say the Tafanels.
More recent regulars include the politicians François Hollande, Ségolène Royal and Philippe de Villiers. But the Rotonde’s most famous living customer is Emmanuel Macron. The Tafanels first vaguely noticed him amid a group of young people brought in regularly by an older man, who seemed to be some kind of professor. Later, Macron found a flat in a nearby street and became a regular. One day he handed the brothers his business card from Rothschild, the investment bank. He often came in with his wife Brigitte, and once even brought his parents. He likes oysters, reveal the Tafanels.
During Macron’s time as economics minister, he frequently ate here with his British counterpart George Osborne, who was sufficiently charmed to return later with family.
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The brothers rave about Macron. They cannot understand his reputation for arrogance. He’d eat without fuss at any small table, they say, and would always drop into the kitchen afterwards to greet the cooks and washers-up.
Then, suddenly, the Tafanels’ customer was running for president. On April 23 2017, the first round of the presidential elections, the brothers got a call to say that Macron wanted to bring a few of his campaign staff round that evening for a bite. Later on, Brigitte warned the Tafanels, “If we win, we’ll come with more.”
Phone calls continued throughout the day, and as the polls looked better and better for Macron, the number of expected diners rose: the Tafanels were told to prepare for 40 people, then 50, and in the end, when Macron topped the first round, more than 200 showed up, the group practically bursting out of the Rotonde.
When Gérard returned home, shattered, at about 4am, he turned on the TV to discover that his brasserie had become infamous. Macron’s dinner was being portrayed as an elite bacchanal to rival Sarkozy’s “Night at Fouquet’s”.
Initially, the brothers were outraged — “We are sons of peasants,” says Gérard, and their prices are nowhere near Fouquet’s — but they concede with hindsight that the coverage was great for business. On a recent weekday afternoon, the terrace was packed with tourists. However, that may have been more Modigliani’s doing than Macron’s.
5. Le Stresa
7 rue Chambiges, 75008 Paris
- Good for: seeing power
- Not so good for: getting through the door
- FYI: in season, Le Stresa is known for its truffles. Two pasta dishes are named after actor regulars: the trenette Alain Delon is served with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and rocket, while the spaghetti Jean-Paul Belmondo comes with spicy tomato sauce, olives and garlic
A casual passer-by would hardly notice Le Stresa. Though smack in the middle of the “triangle d’or” of wealthy Paris, the city’s chic business and shopping district, it’s a faintly dingy, family-run little trattoria on a quiet side street, devoid of car valets or paparazzi. Yet it may be the most exclusive restaurant in Paris.
Le Stresa’s front-of-house man Tonio Faiola has the white shirt, unbuttoned sleeves and friendly smile of a small-town trattoria owner. He and his four southern Italian brothers and their nephew do all the work here except the washing up. But ordinary as Le Stresa looks, he admits: “We are a bit of a closed club. Our system is to know our guests.”
You can get a table here only on the say-so of another regular — and almost all of them are men from the elite of their professions, whether it’s fashion, finance, tennis, the arts or politics. They come here knowing that everything said in Le Stresa stays in Le Stresa. When François Mitterrand was president, his councillor, minister, pal and informal gastronomic adviser Michel Charasse used to bring him. Later, another president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy became regulars.
In the front room, with its 1950s decor of plain wood and raspberry-coloured furniture, the tables sit elbow to elbow in a horseshoe. Since you can’t help but overhear your neighbours’ conversation, the Faiolas have mastered the art of who gets to sit next to whom. The house rule: no tables from the same profession side by side. And if all goes well, then later in the meal the hosts will often introduce one table to its neighbour, thus solidifying the Parisian intra-elite bonds. On a cheery evening, the room can feel like a single table — almost unheard of in this generally standoffish city.
Le Stresa’s most private conversations are reserved for the solitary tables at the back, one of which sits under a replica of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a gift from the architect and customer Jean Nouvel.
Discreet homages to the club members’ success adorn Le Stresa’s walls: a Ferrari model signed by champion driver Michael Schumacher, portraits of the sculptor César and photographs by the aristocratic American artist Peter Beard. (Le Stresa’s US clientele — Woody Allen, John McEnroe and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Andy Warhol before them — are not random tourists.)
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