16 December 2009

Restaurants and taxes

Saint-Aignan, pop. 4,000, is home to about a dozen restaurants, including two pizzerias, a crêperie, and a Turkish shish-kebab place. Five "downtown" restaurants — operating in the old centre-ville — are full-service restaurants serving French food.

Saint-Aignan's most upscale restaurant these days is "The Frog Eater."

The most up-scale place is a relatively new restaurant called Le Mange-Grenouille — The Frog Eater. That's a pretty funny name. The menu does include one frog dish — Fricassée de grenouilles au beurre persillé (fricasseed frog legs in parsley butter) — but that's only one I see. Le Mange-Grenouille opened for business just three or four years ago, and it's nicely decorated. There is outdoor seating when the weather is nice.

Here are Le Mange-Grenouille's à la carte choices.

Another Saint-Aignan restaurant is located on the main square, where the food market is set up on Saturday mornings, and is called Chez Constant. I've eaten there three times in just more than six years, including a lunch about two weeks ago. It's pretty good, but the food served there has never really knocked my socks off.

Chez Constant, on Saint-Aignan's main square. Notice the
outdoor table, with ashtray, even in December —because
smoking is now forbidden in all French restaurants and bars.

At lunch a couple of weeks ago, I had the daily special — partly because we were being treated to the meal and I didn't want to order anything expensive. The plat du jour was a lightly curried turkey sauté, with rice. I asked whether it was turkey white meat or dark meat, and the server said the morsel used for the dish was what is called the sot-l'y-laisse in French.

« Le sot-l'y-laisse » means, literally, "the fool leaves it there." It is the little "oyster" of meat near the bird's thigh, on the carcass. It's pronounced [soh-lee-less]. The fool leaves it there — in other words, ignores it or doesn't even know it exists. The irony is that it is the tenderest, most succulent morsel of meat on the bird.

Chez Constant has a nice old bar in the front room
and a big dining room in the back.

Anyway, the curried turkey morsels were good but it was a dish I could easily make at home. I feel more and more that way about restaurant food these days. It's expensive and I can make the same food for a much lower cost at home. The main point of going to a restaurant is to spend time socializing with people whose company you enjoy. And of course restaurants are very useful when you are traveling.

So what's happening with restaurants and taxes in France? Until about six months ago, the value-added tax — VAT in English, TVA in French for Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée, the kind of sales tax you pay here in Europe — was something like 20% on restaurant food. Full-service restaurant food, that is. The VAT charged on fast food, like McDonald's hamburgers, was only 5.5%. I'm not sure why or how the discrepancy came about.

Le Mange-Grenouille's courtyard is set up
as an outdoor dining space in summer.

About 6 months ago, the French government — President Sarkozy took credit for it — decided to reduce the tax on "slow" restaurant food to 5.5% as a measure designed to lower prices for consumers. Restaurants were not required to lower their prices, but were encouraged to do so. Some restaurants said they would rather pay their employees better salaries, for example, with the extra money they would make by maintaining their prices and paying less in taxes.

Now the government has expressed its displeasure at the way restaurant owners have dealt with lower tax. Prices have not come down as much as it had hoped. Are owners just pocketing the profits? There is at least an implied threat that the VAT on restaurant food will be put back to the old, high level. It still seems like it would be fair to tax all kinds of restaurants at the same rates, doesn't it?

Le Mange-Grenouille's set-price menus —11.50 or 14.00 € at
noon, 19.50 € for dinner, with a children's menu for 8.80 €.
If you just have the plat du jour at lunch, it's 8.50 €.

Does the government want a policy that encourages people to eat in fast-food restaurants rather than full-service restaurants? I hope not. I know governments like Sarkozy's don't want to be seen as raising taxes, so maybe they thought that lowering taxes on traditional restaurants was the only way to level the playing field.

Bringing the tax rate on fast food up to the rate paid by other restaurants was probably not ever in the cards, but maybe a compromise rate could have been found. What about 10% or 12% on all restaurant food?

Whether it was intended or not, you can see how consumers might think that full-service restaurant owners and operators are trying to get away with something. They are paying lower taxes now, but not lowering prices. Are they gouging the consumer? At the same time, the big fast-food chains are unsullied — they haven't had to make any changes.

All this can't be good for the traditional French restaurant business. Whether by design or inadvertently, the government appears to be encouraging the growth of the fast-food industry in France. That's too bad.


  1. I agree with you Ken that when you go in a restaurant and you know you could have made that dish yourself, it is not worth paying for it. The whole point of eating out in France (IN THE OLD DAYS), was that you wanted to experience the complicated sauces... dish that you wouldn't have time to make or couldn't find the ingredients for... Why go in a restaurant if you want the same dish you make at home every night? BUT, when you travel in France and you only have acces to restaurant food, you get tired of the heavy meals and you end up craving a simple soup and a salad, steamed vegetables. That was our problem in Tahiti. We spend many holidays there and we got tired every evening of having fish or meat floating in sauce. I wanted to taste the fish without having it covered in butter or cream. A little bit could go a long way.
    Going to France for 1 month every 2 or 3 years, I forget about what is on menus, but I like those little places in the US that serve "light, healthy food". It is harder to find these kind of simple restaurants in France (unless I am mistaken). Also, if you go in a restaurant and you tell them you want the dressing on the side, no butter on this and that, there is a good chance they will give you "the evil eye" and comment "why go to a restaurant then to eat healthy food?". They wouldn't in the US because they are used to people ordering that way. See what you started Ken? My whole point is that french food is really delicious, but you get tired of it when you are on the road. Of course, nobody forces you to eat the whole thing and that is why the servings are small. Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese food... are getting more and more popular in France because they are healthier alternatives... Does all this make sense? (I know I need an editor today).

  2. I forgot to write that yesterday was the "cast and crew" screening for "Avatar". My name is there but it is very hard to see since so many people worked on the movie.
    The special effects are truly amazing.

  3. We love the little sot-l'y-laisse ..no we are not fools, we eat it, but don't tell anyone else..!!

  4. Nadège, it is all very subjective, I know. There are good restaurants and then there are those that are not so good. There are good sauces, integral to a dish, and then there are those sauces that are just dumped on indiscriminately. I've never heard much good about Tahiti, by the way, except as concerns the weather and the warm water. I think what you like is "city food" as opposed to country food, from what you say.

    By the way, try going on the road in America and tell me what you think of the food. Talk about getting tired of food...

    Anne, I won't tell anybody, hehehe.

  5. Recently I heard Sarko on the news swearing that he'd never revoke the new TVA for the restrateurs.
    I agree about eating food in a restaurant that you can't make yourself. That's not easy.
    I'm surprised your little town has so many restaurants!

  6. The only "on the road" food I know in the US is when I worked in Cincinati and took week-end trips in the area and Michigan, and around Dallas and Louisiana. It was "just food", nothing special when it comes to true american food. But I really like the California nouvelle cuisine; it is a mixture of Pacific rim, continental and other exotic food.
    But that is meant to appeal for people who like good food. In my business, if you ask grips and electricians... what their favorite food is, they will answer : "burger with french fries, hot dogs, jello, and a glass of whole milk or coca cola". They are the equivalent to a french man who eats "pate, saucisson and cheese with a baguette, chocolate and a glass of wine". That is very cliche.

  7. Nadege, you are lucky to live in LA where you get such nice fresh food.

    I'll look for you in the credits when I see "Avatar" my DH read the book.

    I hope you tried some 5 way chili at Sky Line when you were in Cincinnati;-)

    Ken, Sarko should have known that the restaurants wouldn't lower their prices. His idea was stupid.

  8. Dedene, I'm not sure how the local economy supports so many restaurants. There are 5 or 6 more across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher. I guess the zoo brings in enough tourists.

    Evelyn, I think Sarkozy was desperate to find a measure that might appear to reduce prices, since he ran on a promise to do just that. Notice on the Mange-Grenouille's menu that some higher prices are marked out and new lower prices are listed.


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?