French chef and restaurateur Alain Fontaine in Le Mesturet in Paris during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN
French chef and restaurateur Alain Fontaine in Le Mesturet in Paris during the Covid-19 lockdown. Picture: AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN

Paris — The coronavirus took a terrible toll on an icon of French culture — the corner bistro — but it will survive, says chef and restaurateur Alain Fontaine.

“If bistros disappear, it’s life that disappears,” Fontaine told journalists at Le Mesturet, the bistro he has run for 18 years in the heart of Paris.

The bistro is a place where one can “talk nonsense or discuss very important things”, he said, likening the French institution to the Irish pub. Think of it as a “people’s parliament”, he said, quoting Honoré de Balzac, the prolific chronicler of early 19th-century French society.

The numbers were already alarming before the crisis, dropping from 200,000 bistros and cafés at the beginning of the 20th century to a little over 50,000 after World War 2 to 25,000 today, Fontaine said.

The coronavirus lockdown imposed in mid-March was a “disaster” for the sector, he said, noting that bars and restaurants remained open throughout the Nazi occupation of France during World War 2. But he dismissed dire predictions that up to 40% of the businesses would not survive the crisis, saying many would simply change hands.

Unfortunately, however, large restaurant chains will snap up many small eateries, Fontaine predicted, telling members of the Paris-based Anglo-American Press Association: “The vultures are already here.”

Cafés, bars and restaurants were finally allowed to reopen on June 2, though in the Paris region, considered at high risk of ongoing Covid-19 spread, eating and drinking establishments were initially allowed to serve clients only at outside tables.

It was Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo who “saved me” with the idea of cordoning off sections of streets to make room for outside tables, said Fontaine, who is spearheading a drive to win Unesco recognition of the French bistro and café as intangible cultural heritage.

Le Mesturet is able to serve its traditional meals — such as blanquette de veau (a veal ragout) and magret de canard (seared duck breast), recipes Fontaine learnt from his mother — to an additional 40 diners outdoors thanks to the measure.

Eateries such as Fontaine’s have been allowed to spread out along sidewalks and even set up tables in parking spaces and outside neighbouring businesses if the owners do not object.

“Anne Hidalgo knows her electorate,” Fontaine said, alluding to the mayor being tipped to win re-election.

D-Day redux 

The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than 29,000 lives in France, one of the world’s highest reported tolls.

Fontaine said Parisians need to be lured back to the bistro after months of self-isolation and working from home. In addition, he joked, “we need a new D-Day landing” of tourists, noting that 30% of his clientele are visitors from abroad.

France — normally the world’s most visited country — lifted restrictions at European borders on June 15, and the tourism industry hopes foreign visitors will start pouring in again as the summer season kicks off.

Neighbours Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain make up the bulk of foreign visitors, with the US and China not far behind — in normal times.

Fontaine, also heads an association of Les Maîtres Restaurateurs — essentially an association of chefs that insist on preparing all meals on site from fresh, raw ingredients.

If French bistros win Unesco’s nod, the time-honoured institution will join the likes of Mexican mariachi music and Mongolian calligraphy on the list of intangible heritage worthy of being safeguarded for future generations.

But Fontaine is not bothered if the dossier does not succeed next year, which would mean waiting another two years for the honour. If it wins in 2023 it will be right before the Paris Olympics of 2024 — providing an excellent showcase for what he calls an “anchor of France’s art of living”.