Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 07:26 UK

French restaurants feel the crunch

By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

Board advertising 'crisis menu' at Paris restaurant
The 'anti-crisis' menu for less than five euros is basic but popular

Many of the best restaurants in France are being forced to tighten their belts and lower prices as recession eats into their profits.

"At the top level, turnover has fallen by half," says one of the country's main restaurant and hotel trade associations, the Syndicat des Hoteliers, Cafetiers, Restaurateurs et Traiteurs.

Overall it is estimated that the income of all French restaurants fell between 20% and 50% in the first three months of this year.

More tourists and office workers can now be seen munching sandwiches and ready-prepared salads in streets and parks, rather than forking out for a sit-down meal.

One Paris restaurant now offers a two-course set lunch for less than five euros (£4.50) in a brave attempt to hold on to its customers.

"We offer this 'anti-crisis' menu every Tuesday and we don't make any money out of it," says the owner, Laurent Krill. "But it brings people in, and some of them come back on other days."

Coleslaw starter

Haute cuisine it is not. When I went to sample the set lunch, the starter was coleslaw followed by beef goulash.

But the restaurant was packed and at this price everyone seemed delighted.

Meanwhile, several Michelin-starred restaurants have slashed their lunchtime prices by up to a third.

Other cheaper restaurants have simplified their menus and lowered prices.

Many of those that rely on tourists say they are now struggling to stay in business.

The owner of one restaurant in a prime Paris location off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, who declined to be named, says he used to receive tour groups nearly every day but now he is lucky to get one a week.

Sales of sandwiches are soaring as Parisians and tourists economise

"I'm hoping things will pick up in May when the peak season starts," he said, surveying rows of empty tables. "But who knows if they'll have as much money in their pockets?"

Many restaurants with a local clientele still seem to be doing well.

But more than 6,000 restaurants are reported to have closed in France last year - and that was before the economic crunch really started to bite.

Sandwich outlets, on the other hand, seem to be doing a roaring trade, much to the chagrin of the restaurateurs.

On the banks of the Seine I came across three Parisians enjoying a picnic.

In true French style, they had brought a folding table and chairs, an ice bucket and silver cutlery to enjoy an economical lunch and a bottle of wine with a postcard view of the Notre-Dame cathedral.

"I still go to restaurants but I tend to choose cheaper ones," one of them told me. "It's a question of money. I should say I'm still doing quite well but I don't know if that will still be the case next month or next year."

The French government expects the economy to shrink by 2.5% this year.

It has persuaded the European Union to allow it to chop value-added tax on restaurant meals from 19.6% to 5.5% but the cut will only come in next year, and some restaurateurs fear that will be too late.

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