Low life

A gastronomic moron’s view of a legendary French brasserie

The vitriolic reviewers on Tripadvisor got it wrong — or did they...?

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Before we left for Sunday lunch at the Les Deux Garçons restaurant, Aix-en-Provence, I checked the reviews on Tripadvisor. I’m mildly addicted to Tripadvisor restaurant reviews — I enjoy their Pepys-like unselfconsciousness — and never before have I seen opinion so equally divided between praise and censure. According to the dissenters, Les Deux Garçons is ‘a worst nightmare’, ‘absolutely horrible’, ‘a fraud and a scam’, ‘a theatre of clowns’, ‘the perfect place to while away a few hours — if you are on death row’. The waiters are ‘imperious’, ‘churlish’ ‘stuck-up’, ‘aggressive’, ‘abusive’, ‘absolutely unbelievable’ and ‘the rudest outside Paris’. Michelle from London reported that they had ‘looked down on us because we are Asian’. A Honolulu man’s romantic dinner was spoiled because ‘a Morocan [sic] guy who served us was on speed or some drugs’. A waiter elbowed Sharon from Dubai in the face. Diane P from New York is convinced the maitre d’ stole her credit-card numbers and emptied her bank account. Other complainants reported a live cockroach in the breadbasket and an overpowering smell of urine in general. Many English customers felt not just unwelcome but openly detested. Several claimed to have seated themselves at an outside table and been pointedly ignored, while French customers arriving later were welcomed extravagantly and served promptly. The actual food, according to the naysayers, is ‘vile’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘dog food’.

Les Deux Garçons is internationally famous because it has been a café since 1792 and because the usual famous people have patronised it. Cézanne and his mate Zola used to go there for morning coffee. Cocteau, Churchill and the ubiquitous Picasso have all put on the bib there. This is the attraction. Today’s smoke-free atmosphere, dress, hairstyles, manners, morals, beliefs, language, currency and even the flavour of the snails and the rosé would of course be unrecognisable to Zola, Cocteau or Churchill. Everything changes. Except nostalgia, perhaps. And so one dutifully trots along to these overhyped places hoping for a fleeting whiff of a Disque Blue, or the echo of a lilting accordion, or a glimpse of the old French sexual and intellectual arrogance of yesteryear. But usually in vain.

We had booked a table for two for Sunday lunch. Before leaving the house for this Tours Fawlty I took a glass of Dutch courage. We arrived there on the dot of two, pulled open the door, and found ourselves in a covered outdoor café with heaters. The tables were populated with French unselfconsciously digging in. Otis Redding was sobbing his heart out beneath the cheerful Sunday lunchtime hubbub. Nobody shied at my tweed hacking jacket, knitted tartan tie, and obvious Britishness. The immaculate young Maître d’, caricatured in the reviews as a cross between Basil Fawlty and Ronnie Kray, welcomed us gravely and ushered us into the inner sanctum — an ornate, gilded, mirrored room of old gold and sea green — where he deftly installed us. In here, Nat King Cole was singing ‘Unforgettable’. Again, nobody seemed to mind or even notice that we were British. Certainly not the maître d’, whose exquisite sensibility brought to mind that of Lord Jim, who, Conrad tells us, was ‘faithful like a friend and attentive like a son, with the patience of Job, the unselfish devotion of a woman, and the jollity of a boon companion’. He led us kindly by the hand through the menu. Our French is laughable, but not only did he not hold this against us, he asked us what our English word for agneau is, as though knowing an English word or two would enrich his day, his life. For starters we chose a glass of pastis and a plate of oysters. While the oysters were got ready, I asked him if he’d mind if we upped sticks and popped back outside to the covered café area for a fag? Not a problem, Monsieur. A wonderful idea. He personally supervised the excursion, procuring for us a pleasant window table and a clean ashtray, and rebuffing a waiter’s objection with a look and a word.

‘It’s a trick,’ I said as we lit up. ‘The waiters are all gathered around and gobbing in our oysters as we speak.’

Our meal was protracted and leisurely. I cannot comment on the food quality as I am a gastronomic moron. It was easily edible. A waiter appeared as if by magic if we wanted anything; otherwise they were invisible. Afterwards we sat on, the last to leave, nursing glasses of house champagne served in big sherry glasses. Nobody minded. The bottommost number on the bill didn’t frighten us. The contrast between our experience of Les Deux Garçons and that of the negative reviewers seemed utterly fantastic. The both of us have been doing the military two-step to and from the nearest lavatory for the past 24 hours, and feel pretty ill, but the cause of that might have been anything.

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  • IQC

    I live in France and contribute to Trip Advisor which I think is a pretty good site. Like JC (this one; and perhaps That One, too), I know little of food, except wot I like, but do appreciate attentive yet non-fawning service in what might be called ‘House Courtesy’. Agreeable food, reasonably-priced wine and a comfortable atmosphere are what make a pleasant repas. Good for Les Deux Garcons.

    Agreed that Lord Jim might have made a very good maître d’. And JC might like to bear in mind these words from the book:

    “It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.”

    You, my dear JC, do manage to bring at least some of us into moments of awakening. And I join your many admirers in gratitude for the fact that you share your own such moments with us from time to time. Even from the loo.

    Brian Cloughley

    • balance_and_reason

      Brian,thank you for sharing.

  • AndyJM

    I know this café, it’s a lovely place to sit and have a coffee. I cannot attest to their restaurant menu as I only ever ate a sandwich there from the café menu, but that was a very generous size (half a baguette) not over-priced (I think it was about €7). My one bug bear is the price of a pint of beer – over €7, but that is to be expected, and you won’t find one much cheaper anywhere on the Cour Mirabeau.

  • Ipsmick

    Tripadvisor isn’t to be trusted. As this piece demonstrates.

  • Nick

    There’s nothing more enjoyable than a Rowes Cornish Pasty and tucking it in the Truro equivalent of the Rue de Rivalli (or something like that).

    It’s a lovely quaint square in Cornwall where one can eat their pasty whilst being bombarded by seagulls,sworn at by the drunks and nearly run over by yobs on skateboards.

    Closing time in the evenings is when the square is at it’s most alluring as one can enjoy the punch ups,pools of fresh vomit and the most enjoyable sight of the local police slinging the vermin in the back of the meat wagon.

    Haute cuisine and couture at it’s very best.

  • Mary Ann

    If it were really that bad it would have gone out of business however many famous people have used it in the past.

  • Roger Hudson

    I tried to read the menu on the table’s slate, what is a ‘faux filet’, trading standards would like to know.

    • QED

      Faux-filet = Sirloin (English) or short loin (American).