How about this for an authentic French meal?
A starter of goats cheese salad, a main course of steak frites (with an absolutely fabulous piece of steak) followed by a cheese platter and rounded off with a crème brûlée dessert. At the end of the meal we’ll have an espresso coffee and during the meal two glasses of pleasant local wine. Well, this was what was on offer last week at our local bistro for an unbelievable €12! This isn’t an isolated example and around our local area of the Loire Valley, just north of Saumur, we are close to at least ten restaurants, which offer us amazing lunchtime feasts. Head down to Saumur and though on the main tourist route, you can still find great lunchtime menus for less than €15.
The secret is to always go for the set Menu of the Day – ‘Le Menu du Jour’, the Dish of the Day – ‘Le Plat du Jour’ or the Workers Menu – ‘Le Menu Ouvrier’. As well as providing great value, you can be assured that the meal is prepared fresh that day. So, choose carefully and you can eat like a king. However, stray off the ‘Menu du Jour’, ‘Plat du Jour’ or ‘Menu Ouvrier’ and onto the ‘a la carte’ dishes and you will end up with a bill that is closer to 35 Euros per head once you have added in wine and coffee.
How do you uncover these great deals and have a great value and great tasting meal?
In a large town just trawl the streets and read the blackboards describing the Menu du Jour and Plat du Jour along with the prices. In more rural areas either head for the nearest village or keep your eyes open as you travel around – some of the restaurants seem to be in the middle of nowhere! When you do find an establishment, don’t judge the restaurant from the outside. Some of our favourites are nothing to look at from the outside, some even look a little run down. One local eating spot has a tobacco kiosk at the entrance end then a traditional bar and the cosy restaurant, which serves exquisite food, is hidden at the back – you’d never know unless you went inside. Discovering these places in all part of the adventure. Don’t discount the restaurants that may look like lorry stops – these can be real hidden gems offering what seems like unlimited buffet starters, cider and wine! Take a look at the number of cars parked outside – there will be a mix of tradesmen’s vans, trucks, large lorries and family cars, reflecting the mix of clientele inside. If the place is pretty full with this mix then you are on to a winner – the locals don’t patronise a poor menu!
Once inside, just stick to the ‘Menu du Jour’ – even if you are presented with the ‘a la carte’ menu. The proprietor is just chancing his or her arm to see if you will pick one of the more expensive dishes. Sometimes you will have to specifically ask about the ‘Menu du Jour’, especially in more touristy locations where the assumption is that you will choose something more expensive! When you are asked for water don’t be afraid to ask for a ‘carafe D’Eau’ or ‘eau de robinet’ (tap water) – bottled water is not mandatory and if you look around the other tables you’ll find the locals, in general doing the same.
Don’t discount some of the more exclusive restaurants, either. Those that position themselves at the upper end of the price bracket still need to bring in the lunchtime diners, so they will also offer a ‘Menu’ or ‘Plat du Jour’. One of the most expensive restaurants in Saumur can costs you an arm and a leg in the evening, but at lunchtime you can have an upmarket starter and main dish of the day for €16 Euros. The wine however, isn’t included in this price!
Eat like the French and you are benefitting from one of France’s great traditions. Whatever a person’s occupation or status a meal at lunch is an important part of the daily routine. No shorter than 1 ½ hours, lunchtime eating starts at an early age in French schools. Many primary school children will receive a starter, a main course and a dessert for school dinner, followed by ten minutes ‘repose’. Only then are they unleashed into the school yard for the remainder of lunchtime. So the pattern is set for life! To ensure this tradition doesn’t die out, in 2009 the French government reduced the rate of sales tax on certain items in the Menu du Jour. Lunchtime dining in France is big business, is widespread and a massive employer and as we can see, great value. So make the most of it and enjoy!
L'Art Obase, Mouliherne, Maine et Loire
Le Boufftard, Hommes, Indre et Loire
Les Menstrels, Saumur www.restaurant-les-menestrels.com
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