The Hottest Restaurant in France Is an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

My friend Guillaume is always telling me interesting things. Like: there’s a dance called the Madison that many French people think is a regular feature of parties in the United States. Guillaume recently alerted me that a man who was fired for not being fun enough at work got his job back, winning five hundred thousand euros in a landmark case. Last summer, I went to dinner at Guillaume’s, and he mentioned a restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet not far from his home town in the South of France. He had just celebrated his birthday there. There was talk of flaming duck and a chocolate fountain. Guillaume showed me a picture of the crystal-curtained lobster tower—seven layers of vermillion crustaceans, topped by an upright specimen thrusting its claws to the sky, as though it had just slayed a halftime show, amid a cloud of mist.

The restaurant is called Les Grands Buffets. A week or so later, I went to its Web site, and entered my e-mail address to receive a secure link to make a reservation online. It was late July. The next available table was for a Wednesday in December, at 8:45 p.m. “We remind you that this reservation is non-modifiable, you cannot change the number of guests, the date of the meal, the hour of the meal, or the name of the beneficiary,” the confirmation e-mail read. If I wanted to bring children under ten years of age, I needed to submit their names at least three days in advance. (They eat at discounted rates.) I would be refused entry if I showed up in sweatpants, an undershirt, a bathing suit, a sports jersey, flip-flops, a ball cap, or any of three kinds of shorts. The toughest reservation in France, it turns out, is not at a Michelin-starred destination like Mirazur or Septime. It’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet situated in a municipal rec center in the smallish city of Narbonne.

“Our golden rule is that, if it’s complicated, then that’s a good reason to do it,” Louis Privat, the restaurant’s proprietor, said. “Our job is to rid people of their inhibitions.”

Last year, more than three hundred and eighty thousand people paid fifty-two euros and ninety centimes for the pleasure of visiting Les Grands Buffets. Drinks cost extra, but they are sold at a minimal markup, so a bottle of Mercier champagne costs twenty-five euros, about the same as it does in the supermarket. Everything else is unlimited, from caviar to stewed tripe. There are nine kinds of foie gras on offer, and five pâtés en croûte, including one known as Sleeping Beauty’s Pillow, which involves a panoply of meats (chicken, duck, wild boar, hare, quail, sweetbreads, ground pork) and is considered by connoisseurs to be “charcuterie’s holy grail.” The chef Michel Guérard has called Les Grands Buffets “the greatest culinary theater in the world.” Guinness has certified its cheese platter, featuring a hundred and eleven varieties, as the largest known to restaurant-going man. It’s more of a cheese room.

All-you-can-eat buffets are usually associated with a catholic array of foods: California rolls and king-crab legs, baby back ribs alongside pasta bakes and hot-fudge sundaes. However, Les Grands Buffets serves only what it considers to be traditional French food. You will find chorizo at the charcuterie station, but there is no pizza, paella, or couscous, no nems or thiéboudiène, even though more than a tenth of people living in France were born elsewhere. Les Grands Buffets takes a panoramic view of the French classics, ranging from the palace-hotel repertoire (lièvre à la royale, peach Melba) to bourgeois cooking (veal blanquette, bœuf bourguignonne), regional specialties (quenelles de brochet, pissaladière), and rustic dishes (snails, frogs’ legs). “More than a gargantuan orgy,” Le Journal du Dimanche reports, the restaurant represents “a sort of conservatory of the nation’s gastronomy.” The effect is something like a Golden Corral by Auguste Escoffier.

Les Grands Buffets has four dining rooms, sumptuously decorated in different styles. One has an Art Deco theme. Another is a tented room, paying tribute to Louis XIV, complete with an original 1697 map by the King’s engraver. Chandeliers made by the craftsmen who light the Château de Chambord cast a lush glow over lemon trees planted in wooden boxes originally designed for the gardens at Versailles. Tables throughout are set in a grand style, down to the fish knives. Waiters clear plates and serve drinks, instead of leaving guests to a soda fountain, squirting cherry Coke into the same paper cup as Tropicana and Sprite.

Louis Privat, the restaurant’s proprietor, believes that gastronomy is suffering from globalization: everything is the same everywhere, and even some of the most creative cuisine, he says, “has lost its national identity.” In his view, French people, especially the young, need reintroduction to the culture of the table and its associated arts. He sees his restaurant as something like a “Louvre of dishes,” with a pedagogic mission as well as an epicurean one. “Why would you put a tarte Tatin in a shot glass?” he said to me recently, a cloud of despair passing over his face. The bistronomy movement, which in the past thirty years has whisked the cloths off French tables and consigned silver to drawers, is, Privat thinks, a cost-cutting crusade masquerading as a trend. “Our golden rule is that, if it’s complicated, then that’s a good reason to do it,” he said.

“Out of the way—I’m a doctor!” “Out of the way—he’s not in-network.”

Cartoon by Jeremy Nguyen

Pascal Lardellier, an anthropologist at the University of Burgundy, calls Les Grands Buffets “the site of all the superlatives.” Last year, it brought in twenty-four million euros in revenue, which reportedly makes it the highest-grossing restaurant in France. The Sybarites of ancient Greece issued invitations to guests up to a year in advance, so that they would have time to prepare their outfits and jewelry. Fans of Les Grands Buffets also book up to a year in advance, and spend the intervening months dreaming of how they’ll fill their plates. “My husband and I can’t dine out often,” one repeat customer wrote on Facebook, “so we prefer to reserve our leisure budget exclusively for Les Grands Buffets.”

When December came around, I caught a train from Paris and rode south for five hours before arriving in Narbonne, less than seventy miles north of the border with Spain. The city center, with Roman ruins and a fantastically old-school market hall, was within walking distance, but I took a cab toward the outskirts of town. Bypassing gas stations and a KFC, we circled a roundabout, where an inflatable snowman bobbed in the wind. Finally, we arrived at a massive leisure complex built by the local government in the nineteen-eighties. Inside, gray light streamed through a pyramidal skylight, accentuating turquoise exposed pipes. From the lobby, you could enter a bowling alley, an ice rink, a swimming pool, or Les Grands Buffets. The restaurant’s entrance, in cherry wood and gleaming brass, brought to mind the cabin of an ocean liner, plunked down on the set of “Saved by the Bell.”

In the vestibule, floor-to-ceiling cabinets displayed a collection of silver serving dishes. Nearby, what was supposedly the world’s biggest silver fork was mounted on a wall. While waiting for the maître d’, a customer could step on an antique scale the size of a grandfather clock. Lest that put him in an abstemious mood, a golden plaque displayed a quote in Middle French, from Rabelais’s “Gargantua”: “Fay ce que vouldras,” it commanded—“Do as you wish.”

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