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Three-Star Heaven: Europe's Top Restaurants

Per Henrik-Mansson
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

(continued from page 1)

Some restaurateurs need all the skills of a world-class diplomat to satisfy their clients, particularly if ventilation is a problem. Eddie Khoo of Ménage à Trois in central London had just decanted a $450 bottle of Château Latour 1961 and was offering a glass to a client when, at the next table, a patron was lighting up a Montecristo No. 1 he had bought for $7 from the restaurant's list. The Latour man asked the Montecristo patron to put out the cigar because he couldn't taste the wine, but the cigar man refused, recalls Khoo. "So the Latour guy threatened to walk out. I gave the other guy some 1914 Armagnac and moved him to the bar. The cigar smoker finished half the bottle before he left. That's how complicated it gets when you have cigars and no ventilation."

Khoo banned smoking in the restaurant temporarily. Remodeled recently, the restaurant will allow cigars in a high-ceiling salon being refurbished as part of the project. Like Khoo, many other European restaurateurs are unwilling to give up on cigars despite the hassles. Instead, they are turning to special smoke rooms or other alternatives as they try to come to grips with growing pressure from customers and legislators for smoke-free areas.

In January 1991, Belgium became the first country in Europe to require all restaurants, bars and cafes to set aside nonsmoking areas. On January 1, 1993, the amount of space that must be reserved to nonsmokers increased from the current 33 to 50 percent, according to Patrique Doncq, spokesman for the Belgian-Luxembourg Tobacco Industry Association. While the law doesn't require separate rooms for smokers and nonsmokers, the restaurants must build often-expensive ventilation and smoke extraction systems so the nonsmoking areas are effectively smoke-free.

While seen as a nuisance by the restaurateurs, the law enjoys popular support. "The Belgians are rather antitobacco," says Doncq, "and the people think that these regulations are not that bad." But the legislation has reinforced the rights of both nonsmokers and smokers, and this has created some problems. "People are more aggressive since both the nonsmokers and the smokers feel they have the law on their side." The trade group Doncq represents runs a nationwide advertising campaign with the message, "Smoker or not, let's be courteous."

Until the European Community passes legislation restricting smoking in public places, a development many observers consider inevitable, the smoke-free issue is being tackled piecemeal on the continent. In Italy, the Ministry of Health proposed two years ago to restrict smoking in many public places, including offices and restaurants. But for the time being, cigar lovers can still light up in peace because no law has passed yet, according to Jean-Paul Truchot, director of the Paris-based Tobacco Documentation and Information Center (TDIC). In Spain, only Catalonia has passed legislation banning smoking in all public places except in areas specified for smoking. In Germany, hotels and restaurants have adopted self-imposed restrictions, but there are no laws requiring smoke-free areas. In Great Britain, the government proposed in 1991 a Code of Practice that recommended smoking be prohibited in restaurants catering to youths, like fast-food places, and limited in buildings visited by the public; the document also urged restaurant managers to "make efforts to cater to the interests of the nonsmokers."

This brings us to France. As of November 1, 1992, France followed Belgium's example and imposed nonsmoking areas in restaurants. The decree, which is an amendment to the Evin Law passed two years ago, bans smoking in cafes, hotels and restaurants and all other so-called public places, according to TDIC. Smokers may light up in these places but only in specified smoking areas. The new law is a hot topic of the day among French restaurateurs, and some chefs have challenged the decree in court. (The case is pending.) A smoker lighting up in a smoke-free zone can be fined $130; a restaurant not offering a smoke-free area, $1,300.

Alain Senderens of Lucas Carton, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, loves cigars and calls the new law "intolerable." Says Senderens, "It is terrible that they limit our pleasure in that way. A cigar is gastronomy. It is part of the meal. Just like a cafe allows you to digest, a cigar continues the pleasure of the meal." His favorite match is old Madeira with a Ramon Allones, perhaps the Coronas Gigantes, a 7 1/2-inch double corona. "Aromatically, an aged Madeira is better than a Cognac or Armagnac. A Cognac or Armagnac with a cigar is like fire on fire. A cigar needs a drink with rounder alcohol. A mature Madeira has complementary aromas of cigar, old leather, like a horse saddle," says Senderens one afternoon as he draws on a Punch Punch de Luxe, a gran corona he describes as a perfect mid-afternoon cigar after a late lunch.

But like France's other restaurateurs, Senderens had to adapt to the new smoking law. Creating a separate room for nonsmokers was impractical at Lucas Carton, a one-room, 35-table restaurant located in a turn of the century building. Instead, the restaurant asks customers when they call for reservations whether they want to sit in a smoking or a nonsmoking area. Then, according to the bookings, Lucas Carton sets aside separate areas between smokers and non-smokers, leaving some extra space between the two groups' tables. On one recent night, only two tables were declared smokers. Smokers get tables just as good as nonsmokers, says Roger Moreau, the restaurant's manager. Some customers are afraid to declare they are smokers until they arrive in the restaurant because they fear being relegated to a bad table.

Since the passage of the new law, Tour d'Argent has set aside seven tables for nonsmokers, and that seems to be enough to satisfy all non-smoking clients patronizing the three-star Paris restaurant, according to maître d' Richard Durr. Customers are asked when they arrive in the restaurant whether they want to sit in the smoking or nonsmoking area. A little nonsmoking sign stands on the nonsmoking tables.

"People adapt because this law was passed for a good cause, for the health of the nonsmokers," says Durr.

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