Is Paris the best place to eat in France?

by on February 10, 2005 at 2:44 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

I have been to France many times, but I have mixed feelings about so much eating in Paris.  Yes so many items are wonderful but could not UNESCO have a few branches in Colmar, Avignon, or the Southwest?

Paris has more fine restaurants than ever before, but cheap food in Paris continues to decline in quality.  Why do we observe this apparent paradox?

Think of two differing ways of supporting quality cuisine.  The first relies on external benefits from a tightly knit network of quality food suppliers.  Restaurants, for instance, might have close links to slaughterhouses, fishing boats, and very wise grandmas.  The second method relies on made-to-order directed artisanal production.  These more expensive food outputs are purely professional in nature and are often funded by tourist demand.  The relevant ingredients are often flown in or otherwise hurried in by expensive methods of transport.  The global replaces the local.

As Parisian real estate continues to rise in value, Parisian food moves out of the first category and into the second.  Food supplies and markets get pushed out to the fringes or out of Paris altogether.  Restaurants no longer can locate in the meat-packing district to receive prime fresh cuts of offal at low cost.  Grandmas are less important as a source of food ideas.

As food markets get crowded out to more distant locales, wealthy tourists arrive in greater numbers.  Neighborhood restaurants become less important and no longer attract the best cooking talent.  Culinary knowledge is bought and sold to greater degree, and is less "in the air."  Labor costs rise with the general increase in prosperity and with French labor law.  In sum, more quality can be afforded than ever before, but the marginal cost of quality rises as well.  Quality, on average, shifts into the wealthier sector of the market.

We might say the following.  More people eat well than ever before, due largely to growing wealth.  But for a given income class, good food is more expensive than ever before as well.

So at the mid-level, quality food can become more expensive and harder to find.  Food networks are now selling their knowledge rather than giving it away for free.  Of course you can still go to the provinces, where land remains much cheaper than in Paris.  A $40 meal in Nice or Elsass is much better than along the Right Bank or next to Notre Dame.

Mexican food stalls are an example of a supply chain that still fits the model of neighborhood production.  But even here the best stalls are now in the suburbs of Oaxaca, not in the city itself.

It is wrong to blame McDonalds for the decline of quality in Parisian bistros.  The spread of McDonalds is in fact the result of a broader syndrome, driven by French economic growth and the compact nature of Paris, which exacerbates land value issues.

So is Paris the best place to eat in France?  Is Manhattan the best place to eat in the United States?  The answer is maybe, depending on how much money you wish to spend.

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