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Crisis Prices : The recession has hit France, too, prompting a new generation of restaurants that dish up terrific food and great value. : The French have again reinvented the dining-out experience with restaurants bathed in authentic warmth, charm and style.

September 19, 1993|JUDY FAYARD | Fayard, former European editor of European Travel & Life, has lived in Paris for 18 years

PARIS — Even in Paris, a city not necessarily famous for "reasonably priced" food, there is a new group of small restaurants--most not run by famous chefs--that are making a conscious effort to serve good food and wine at moderate prices, which in Paris translates to $50 per person for dinner including wine, and often less.

The French have always been resourceful about reinventing themselves, especially when it comes to food. In the face of economic recession and the new reality--which is to say that most Parisians no longer want to spend more on lunch than on their children's educations--Paris restaurants have come up with several ways to lure back the reluctant customer.

One approach has been that a number of luxury establishments, hard hit by la crise (or crisis, as the French refer to the recession), have added fixed-price menus, usually only for lunch. The two-star Carre des Feuillants, for example, has a set lunch that costs about $48, and the two-star Arpege has one at $54--both about half of what an a la carte meal there would cost. (The three-star Tour d'Argent has long had a fixed lunch, currently priced at $70.)

Going one step further, so many big-name chefs have opened new, lower-priced bistro annexes that it is increasingly hard to remember which is which. Trailblazer Guy Savoy (of the two-star restaurant by the same name) now has three such bistros called "Bistrot de l'Etoile" and another named "Les Buttes Chaillot," all near the Arc de Triomphe. Two-star Michel Rostang has three spinoffs called "Bistrot d'a Cote," scattered about town. Jacques Cagna has the very popular Rotisserie d'en Face across the street from his Left Bank two-star, Jacques Cagna); the three-star Tour d'Argent has the Rotisserie du Beaujolais next door on the Quai de la Tournelle; and Joel Robuchon, of the three-star Jamin, has the Relais du Parc in the Hotel Le Parc Victor Hugo.

All of these restaurants reflect the back-to-basics menu trend and the return of labor-intensive, rotisserie cooking, and most tally up around $46 per person for a three-course meal, which is now the price demanded by most city-center neighborhood places.

While any effort to keep prices down is much appreciated, there is something just a little artificial about these cookie-cutter, wannabe bistros. With a few important exceptions (including the restaurants Campagne & Provence and La Rotisserie d'en Face that are recommended in this story), they just don't have the warmth and charm of the real thing. The food is often disappointing, and the prices are not as low as they seem to be, once items such as wine, mineral water and coffee are tacked on. (This is the year of the $2.50-$4 cup of coffee in some spots around town.)

But the restaurants listed below are among the new breed of value-for-money establishments that are authentic in their warmth, charm and style. I've been to them all, often anonymously and at least once since they reopened after August closings. They are rightly popular and always packed, so reservations are essential (dinners at La Regalade should be made five or six days in advance, but others can usually be booked within 24 hours of a meal).

The hot new discovery of the last six months, Marie & Fils has become a canteen for the Paris fashion crowd, who arrive late, stay late and do a fair amount of table-hopping. Owner Marie Steinberg, once married to French record industry magnate Eddie Barclay, knows what it takes to make a restaurant work: greenhouse terrace, warm yellow walls, open cases of wine stacked on one side, mirrors along the other so everybody can see everybody else, enough noise, but not too much. The service is attentive and good-natured, the price hovers around $40-$45 a person, including some very nice wines (the Bourgueil, a Loire Valley red served slightly chilled, is a good choice).

The food is extremely and consistently good, smartly simple and generously served. Starters include a salad of pale green young arugula with shaved Parmesan, baby squid salad Provencal, tuna carpaccio or marinated peppers with slivers of fresh garlic. There are always two orthree main-course fish dishes, including a really succulent thick tuna steak dressed with olive oil and fresh coriander. Very rare roast beef is served in thin slices with mounds of mashed potatoes, and there might be filet mignon of pork with a garlic sauce or saddle of rabbit with basil and zucchini. Desserts, for those who still can, are usually excellent.

Despite the huge success of year-old La Regalade, it has steadfastly resisted raising its three-course, $27 fixed price. In the homey setting of an old neighborhood locale, with its original tile floors and zinc bar, chef Yves Camdeborde manages to turn out delicious, interesting, unfussy food with a light touch of his native Bearn, in southwestern France.

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