Think of your last holiday in France, and it’ll probably include memories of a morning coffee and croissant in a cosy little bar, or of relaxing and people-watching with an evening pastis, sitting outside a café in some pretty sunlit square. Hang on to those memories.
In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and bars. Now there are fewer than 40,000. Those characterful smoky rooms with dark wooden furnishings, and solitary men sitting at the bar nursing an early morning brandy are an endangered species. All over France, cafés are closing at the rate of about 10 a week. Blame TV, blame the smoking ban, , blame ‘la crise’, blame readily available alcohol in the supermarket. Whatever the reason, many cafés can no longer make a go of it.
Take Laroque. Our town of 2000 or so used to support more than half a dozen bars. Now there are three, and they struggle. Obé – that’s what everyone calls our Obelix look-alike – can’t make a living from half a dozen elderly men who come in most afternoons to nurse a single beer while they watch the afternoon’s horse racing. But he can cook, so he’s reinvented the bar as Table d’Angèle, a successful lunch-time restaurant serving home-cooking, mainly to tradesmen looking for a once-a-week treat to break up a day’s plumbing, building or electrical work.
Down at Le Lounge, the owners have had to have a different strategy: food didn’t work for them. They tried a traditional menu. No good. Then they had a go at offering an eat-all-you-can buffet. When that failed, they tried Italian food. Now there’s no lunch-time menu at all. They make do with weekend trade, when sparkly lights and disco music attract the young people of the area before they head off for the Orient Express, the out-of-town nightclub at the once-upon-a-time station.
The Jingo’s still looking just about OK. It’s on the main road and seems to get a steady enough stream of customers. It may outlive the rest.
But bars can rise as well as fall. When le Rendez-Vous in Léran, the village next door, came up for sale a few years back it was a hopeless case: dingy, unpopular and seemingly beyond rescue. But an English couple who’d never run a bar in their lives bought it and made it the hub of village life. Shirley cooks with imagination and flair – she even has that unknown round here menu item, the vegetarian dish. Marek’s a cheerful and extremely hard-working host who’s always pleased to see you. Quiz nights, open mic nights, a big screen to watch the rugby, a cosy corner with books to read and exchange…. It’s a winning formula, and both French and English from the village and beyond ensure the bar’s kept busy late into the evening, especially in the summer.
And over in Mirepoix, there’s another new café. The Mad Hatter isn’t just another bar. It’s hoping to cash in on the French love affair with things ‘so British’. A nice cup of tea with a scone or slice of ginger cake might not be traditional French fare. But it’s a welcome addition to café society, and yet another way in which the traditional French bar has to change, or sink without trace.