PARIS — A year ago, the in crowd was slavering to reserve tables at the burgeoning list of trendy “design” restaurants here, outposts known for their ultrastylish decors and fabulous clientele — but not always for the quality of their food.
How fast things change. Korovo, whose sleek minimalist decor and Coca-Cola chicken was once all the rage, has gone belly up. Nobu, the year-old, ultrahip Japanese fusion restaurant, has filed for bankruptcy. And reserving a table at the Costes brothers’ newest baby, Etienne Marcel — with an avant-garde interior by artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno with graphic gurus M/M — is hardly the toil it used to be.
So what gives? Leading food critics cite a return to traditional values in cooking. The French, it seems, have wearied of fusion-style cuisine and have become bored with self-consciously sleek restaurant design.
Voila. The bistrot, the unfussy, cherished cornerstone of France’s culinary tradition, is back in style.
“It’s a renaissance moment for classic cuisine,” asserted Jean-Louis Galesne, an influential critic at the financial daily Les Echos and Cuisine de Terroir. “The restaurants making a splash are no longer those style-obsessed places where you can’t get anything good to eat. Regional cuisine and the bistrot are back.”
He continued: “The biggest trend now is that people want to see a lot of food on their plate. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the tiny portions served at the fusion restaurants. I love ethnic food. But it has to be authentic. True authenticity is real cooking.”
Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducassse would appear to have his thumb on the pulse of the moment. His newest Paris address, Aux Lyonnais, which opened four months ago, serves traditional Lyon-style cuisine. Reviews have been strong and the waiting list for a table exceeds a week.
The fashion flock is also gravitating back to the bistrot. John Galliano is a regular at Le Quincy, an old standby in the popular Bastille district, where Gianfranco Ferré is also known to go when in town. Jean Paul Gaultier frequents Casa Olympe, a shoebox-size haunt with a Provençal bent. And just about everyone under the sun remains faithful to the clubbiest of Paris bistrots, Le Voltaire.
“All of those fashionable fusion restaurants got old very fast,” explained Jean Miot, a leading food critic at Paris daily Le Figaro. “The French love to eat — and they love to eat well. The so-called new-style restaurants compromised the quality of their food to concentrate on being trendy. They were more interested in the pretty container than the content of the food.”
Miot lauded Ducasse’s Aux Lyonnais. “He understood what the public wanted. He understood that people got tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes. They want healthy portions of good food.”
Galesne also cited a shift in social values. “When you went to those fashion restaurants, you went to be seen,” he said. “Everyone was craning their neck around to see who was looking at them. That seems bad taste in the current, quieter world. The bistrot’s a place where people linger over food and wine and talk — really concentrate on their company — for hours.”
So where are the critics lingering? Chef Yves Camdeborde’s bistrot, La Regalade, remains their unanimous choice for its masterful mix of invention and tradition.
“It’s really more than a bistrot,” said Miot. “The food is incredible.”
Chez Michel and Le Quincy are called “model bistrots” by Galense. And then anyone lucky enough to snag a table should try Aux Lyonnais.