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Found: good food at fine value in France

By Julian Archer / March 20, 1984

Varennes-le-Grand, France

They could be called distant French cousins to the American truck stop. They are the restaurants in the Relais Routiers guide, and their hallmark is inexpensive but fine-quality food.

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To find these ever-popular eating places, the traveler should keep an eye out for a rather ubiquitous circular sign that dots French roadsides: Emblazoned in white over a red and blue background are the letters, ''Les Routiers,'' announcing the truck driver's answer to the establishments in the better-known Michelin Guide. Even without seeing the sign, one can spot them easily, for they are the roadside restaurants surrounded by a crowd of cars and trailer-trucks. The ''Routiers'' symbol on a restaurant marks it as one of the elite among French roadside stops because it has succeeded in meeting the triple standard of warm welcome, good food, and value for the money established by the Relais Routiers Guide.

The idea for a truckers' guide was born in the 1930s when a young journalist, Francois de Saulieu, thought that if tourists and travelers could have their restaurant and hotel guide, why not truckers? He set out in 1934 on a trip around France to locate the best places catering to truckers, usually finding them and determining their popularity by the extent of oil spots in the road nearby. He published his findings in a truckers' newspaper, and by the eve of World War II his list had grown to 2,000 entries. The war put an end to it, but after the war the idea was revived. Then, in 1967, two of Francois's sons, Bertrand and Thierry, undertook to publish the list in guidebook format similar to the better known Michelin and Kleber guides. Today it is found beside its older brothers in bookstores all over France.

Since my wife and I first walked into a Relais Routiers, we have been devotees of these welcoming establishments. Though by no means look-alike restaurants, they do have, throughout all of France, a similar layout and ambience. There are usually two brightly lit dining rooms - one, with oilcloth and paper table coverings, preferred by the truckers; and the other, with table linen and cloth napkins, preferred by travelers. One rings with the animated voices and camaraderie of truckers, the other buzzes with the more subdued conversations of families and couples.

Though being a Relais Routiers carries a commitment to offer a full meal at a reasonable price - for 1984 set at a maximum of $5.50, service included - it does not mean that the traveler will miss out on some of the more refined dishes in French cuisine. On a recent trip to the south of France we decided to stop at Varennes-le-Grand near Chalon-sur-Saone, which has two Relais Routiers not more than 100 feet apart. We wanted to see the effect of neighborly competition on the menus. At the Hotel de la Gare, where we ate going down, we selected a bouchee financiere, puff pastry filled with seafood and covered with financiere sauce; colin meuniere, hake fried in butter; and beef tongue with a piquante sauce, accompanied by spinach with garlic croutons, then cheese and dessert. On our return trip we sampled the Relais du Commerce. The quenelle, sauce nantua was superb, as was the veal stuffed with sausage accompanied by a generous serving of fresh green beans. And there was a good selection of cheeses followed by homemade ice cream. Though salad was not included in the menu, we asked for it and it was graciously provided without a supplementary charge.