Before we left for Sunday lunch at the Les Deux Garçons restaurant, Aix-en-Provence, I checked the reviews on Tripadvisor. I’m mildly addicted to Tripadvisor restaurant reviews — I enjoy their Pepys-like unselfconsciousness — and never before have I seen opinion so equally divided between praise and censure. According to the dissenters, Les Deux Garçons is ‘a worst nightmare’, ‘absolutely horrible’, ‘a fraud and a scam’, ‘a theatre of clowns’, ‘the perfect place to while away a few hours — if you are on death row’. The waiters are ‘imperious’, ‘churlish’ ‘stuck-up’, ‘aggressive’, ‘abusive’, ‘absolutely unbelievable’ and ‘the rudest outside Paris’. Michelle from London reported that they had ‘looked down on us because we are Asian’. A Honolulu man’s romantic dinner was spoiled because ‘a Morocan [sic] guy who served us was on speed or some drugs’. A waiter elbowed Sharon from Dubai in the face. Diane P from New York is convinced the maitre d’ stole her credit-card numbers and emptied her bank account. Other complainants reported a live cockroach in the breadbasket and an overpowering smell of urine in general. Many English customers felt not just unwelcome but openly detested. Several claimed to have seated themselves at an outside table and been pointedly ignored, while French customers arriving later were welcomed extravagantly and served promptly. The actual food, according to the naysayers, is ‘vile’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘dog food’.
Les Deux Garçons is internationally famous because it has been a café since 1792 and because the usual famous people have patronised it. Cézanne and his mate Zola used to go there for morning coffee. Cocteau, Churchill and the ubiquitous Picasso have all put on the bib there. This is the attraction. Today’s smoke-free atmosphere, dress, hairstyles, manners, morals, beliefs, language, currency and even the flavour of the snails and the rosé would of course be unrecognisable to Zola, Cocteau or Churchill. Everything changes. Except nostalgia, perhaps. And so one dutifully trots along to these overhyped places hoping for a fleeting whiff of a Disque Blue, or the echo of a lilting accordion, or a glimpse of the old French sexual and intellectual arrogance of yesteryear. But usually in vain.
We had booked a table for two for Sunday lunch. Before leaving the house for this Tours Fawlty I took a glass of Dutch courage. We arrived there on the dot of two, pulled open the door, and found ourselves in a covered outdoor café with heaters. The tables were populated with French unselfconsciously digging in. Otis Redding was sobbing his heart out beneath the cheerful Sunday lunchtime hubbub. Nobody shied at my tweed hacking jacket, knitted tartan tie, and obvious Britishness. The immaculate young Maître d’, caricatured in the reviews as a cross between Basil Fawlty and Ronnie Kray, welcomed us gravely and ushered us into the inner sanctum — an ornate, gilded, mirrored room of old gold and sea green — where he deftly installed us. In here, Nat King Cole was singing ‘Unforgettable’. Again, nobody seemed to mind or even notice that we were British. Certainly not the maître d’, whose exquisite sensibility brought to mind that of Lord Jim, who, Conrad tells us, was ‘faithful like a friend and attentive like a son, with the patience of Job, the unselfish devotion of a woman, and the jollity of a boon companion’. He led us kindly by the hand through the menu. Our French is laughable, but not only did he not hold this against us, he asked us what our English word for agneau is, as though knowing an English word or two would enrich his day, his life. For starters we chose a glass of pastis and a plate of oysters. While the oysters were got ready, I asked him if he’d mind if we upped sticks and popped back outside to the covered café area for a fag? Not a problem, Monsieur. A wonderful idea. He personally supervised the excursion, procuring for us a pleasant window table and a clean ashtray, and rebuffing a waiter’s objection with a look and a word.
‘It’s a trick,’ I said as we lit up. ‘The waiters are all gathered around and gobbing in our oysters as we speak.’
Our meal was protracted and leisurely. I cannot comment on the food quality as I am a gastronomic moron. It was easily edible. A waiter appeared as if by magic if we wanted anything; otherwise they were invisible. Afterwards we sat on, the last to leave, nursing glasses of house champagne served in big sherry glasses. Nobody minded. The bottommost number on the bill didn’t frighten us. The contrast between our experience of Les Deux Garçons and that of the negative reviewers seemed utterly fantastic. The both of us have been doing the military two-step to and from the nearest lavatory for the past 24 hours, and feel pretty ill, but the cause of that might have been anything.