Lyon's Starred Restaurants Strive To Keep Patrons

Chefs seeks a balance in adhering to high standards despite France's flagging economy

STARS are dimming across France, some are even going out - but the phenomenon is less the concern of astronomists than of gastronomists.

France's troubled stars are not in the sky, but in its restaurants, in some cases among the most reputed. And the disturbance they are experiencing is not atmospheric, but economic.

The economic downturn that has the French clutching their purse strings and prompted them to vote heavily for the right in the recent national elections is also affecting the country's dining habits.

Where the hustle of the 1980s had already taken its toll on the French executive's typical two-hour-plus lunch, the gloom of the early '90s has produced a preoccupation with cutting back. Even France's new premier, Edouard Balladur, greeted new government employees on their first day of work with a Spartan two-course lunch.

And all the cutting - whether on the family budget, on CEO perks, or on the national deficit - has caused a drop in the patronage of France's expensive tables.

As Christian Millau, director of the well-known Gault-Millau restaurant guide, noted recently, the economy is letting French restaurateurs know, and not so subtly, that it is no longer feasible to lay on the table a bill totaling 800 francs ($145) per person.

The message came home to Le Duc d'Enghien in the Paris region, which despite its two Michelin stars and three Gault-Millaut "toques" turned off the stoves for good in March. In Lille in the north, two of the city's premier establishments, Le Restaurant and Flambard, closed recently after the number of business lunches and dinners fell off. The story is similar in many French cities.

Here in Lyon, a city that is internationally known as a culinary center, and whose tradition is kept alive by such legendary chefs as Paul Bocuse, the situation is somewhat less bleak. Foreigners still visit Lyon expecting to plunk down a good chunk of their food budget to experience what has made the city's gastronomic reputation. The locals have a long tradition of dining out regularly and tend to remain faithful to a favored chef.

Still, no one can ignore the signs of the times. At two highly regarded yet very different Lyonnais tables - Leon de Lyon in central Lyon and La Tour Rose across the Saone River in the medieval Saint Jean quarter - steps are being taken to watch the budget of both the restaurant and the diner, while making sure that quality is not affected.

"We're a business, and we have to keep an eye on the economic downturn, but we also have to remember that the Lyonnais are demanding, difficult, and connoisseurs when it comes to fine cuisine," says Jean-Pierre Lacombe, chef-owner of Leon de Lyon. "Chefs in other regions cringe when someone arrives at their restaurant announcing, `Careful, I'm from Lyon!' but that's what we live with all the time."

At La Tour Rose, chef-owner Philippe Chavent says the only effective measures are those that result in boosting patronage, because "the ingredients, even when they're the best, aren't really that big a part of our overall costs."

What is expensive is the staff it takes to run a fine restaurant - 35 employees at Leon de Lyon. And just as in other business sectors, recent emphasis has been placed on keeping the staff productive.

BOTH restaurants have smaller, less-expensive bistros adjacent to draw diners who have neither the time nor the budget for a $100 meal.

At Mr. Chavent's Comptoir du Boeuf, just across the street from the main restaurant, a traditional Lyonnais lunch of boeuf bourguignon and fresh pasta costs under $20. Right next door to Leon de Lyon, the Petit Lyon serves lunches featuring quenelles and other Lyonnais specialties in a family atmosphere and with an average cost of about $20 - one-fifth the cost of an average meal in the main restaurant.

"We came up with the Petit Leon as a way to hold on to our team," says Mr. Lacombe. "If at Leon we only serve 15-20 people at lunch, we couldn't justify keeping the 35 employees we nevertheless need."

Both chefs have experimented with different ideas for drawing more lunchtime clients to the main restaurants. Chavent simply knocks 20 percent off the lunchtime tab (the same menu is offered for lunch and dinner) and he says "the word gets around." He tried a $30 lunch menu, but found it attracted few new diners - "Most people would end up choosing a la carte anyway" - while actually putting off others. "People didn't like the idea that there was this special offer to eat at the Tour Rose at a discount."

Leon de Lyon does offer a 250-franc ($46) prix fixe lunch, however, and finds that it serves its purpose. "It's our way of doing a little advertising," says Leon maitre d' Paul Barral. "People try us for lunch at that price, then they want to return some time for dinner."

In addition to the Petit Lyon, Lacombe and a partner have opened several small and relatively inexpensive restaurants on Lyon's rue Merciere - formerly a street of low repute that has now been transformed, largely as a result of Lacombe's initiatives, into a popular dining and pedestrian shopping area.

And in the innovation department, Chavent offers a 50-percent reduction to students during a "week of taste" in October.

"The idea is to develop a new generation of fine diners," he says, "rather than just throwing in the towel to the onslaught of McDonald's."

What neither Lacombe nor Chavent has quite figured out, however, is how to draw back the steady stream of business diners, especially at lunch, that for so long were a pillar of French high-end restaurants.

"At one time they made up 80 percent of our clientele," Chavent says wistfully.

The truth is that with changing business practices, the regular two-hour, four-star lunch may never return. Fortunately for chefs like Lacombe and Chavent, however, France will always have a place for its culinary stars.

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