Have you ever noticed when you are ordering food, especially Chinese or Indian cuisine, whether for a delivery or at a restaurant, the need for a menu is often irrelevant? Everyone always chooses their “usual” and never deviated from it. It’s the same with pizzas, no matter how many new variants of crust, base or toppings they come up with, everyone always asks for the same as they always have. Is having a wide choice not always a good idea, because it makes no difference? Aircraft food is often derided for being “chicken or beef?”, but how about if you completely remove any kind of choice, disregard the demands of vegetarians or vegans, could it possibly work? Well, yes it could and actually be an astounding success…
Paris is a wonderful city, full of unexpected joys, if you are prepared to venture beyond the usual tourist haunts, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph. During my time there I made many surprising discoveries, one of my favourites being the Relais de Venise, also known as the Entrecôte. Before realising what it was, often I used to walk past and would wonder why there would always be a long queue outside, waiting to get in. The sort of queue that you might see at an achingly hip nightclub, with all the beautiful people eager to gain admittance to an exclusive venue. But this was no nightclub and indeed, the queues would be forming as early as six in the evening. The address was chic enough, a side street off the Champs Elysées, but the frontage gave no clue as to what went on behind the wooden door and frosted windows. Curiosity got the better of me one evening and I stopped to ask someone in the queue what all the fuss was about. He told me that this was where you get the best steak in town and was also Paris’s best kept secret. Being an avid fan of steak, my appetite was truly whetted and before long, I found myself part of the queue, gradually advancing toward the door.
Eventually, I got inside and was met with something completely unexpected. A heaving, bustling dining room with all these beautiful people sat cheek by jowl in their expensive furs, Birkin handbags and Chanel No5 heavy in the air. Waitresses dressed in a turn of the century black dress and white apron rushed back and forth, arms laden with plates of food. I had never seen so many people shoe horned into such a relatively small dining room and the noise of excited chatter and orders being shouted to the kitchen gave it a very heady atmosphere. We were seated on wooden chairs at a square wooden table, covered by a tracing paper tablecloth. Giddy with the adrenalin, we barely had time to catch our breath, when a waitress greeted us with, “Have you been to the Relais de Venise before?”, much in the same way as you were welcomed at a Harvester eatery back in the 90s, but instead of us being told there was an all-you-can-eat salad bar, we were asked how we would like our steak cooked. We could have anything long as it was medium! A carafe of house red arrived after another brief discussion and it dawned on us that we had not been offered a menu. A couple beside us spotted out bemusement and explained that there was no menu at the Entrecôte, it was a fixed menu and the only choice was whether you wanted a dessert or not. In a city of such exacting dining standards, how could this be?!? But no time for pondering, as a walnut salad arrived, along with some sliced baguette. We tucked in using cutlery I recognised from my infant school and were pleasantly surprised at how good the salad was; simple green leaves and walnuts in a light dressing. Soon the empty plates were whisked away and replaced speedily with new ones bearing slices of steak, drizzled with a greenish sauce. I asked my neighbour what this sauce was, but he smiled and said, “Try it!”. Like everything else being served, the recipe was a closely kept secret and this was the charm and attraction of the place. My friend was spot on, the meat, with the accompanying sauce was outrageously good, as were the chips that arrived to go with it. No fuss or frill, just steak and chips done exceptionally well, washed down with a very good house red. Then came the twist; just as we were two-thirds of the way through, our waitress returned to serve us second portions. Wonderful! “Are you having a dessert?” asked the waitress, as she cleared the empty plates. Our friend at the next table said it was a must to try the profiteroles, “They’re legendary!”, he said. And he was not wrong.
As we fought our way out of the restaurant, I could now see the quirky attraction of this place and understood the simplicity of the menu and clockwork nature of the service as people continued to stream through the door and the queue outside did not appear to diminish. We became regular visitors to the “RdV” and were thrilled when a few years ago, a London branch of the famous restaurant opened. An exact copy of the Paris original, even down to the furniture, the staff outfits and the school dinner cutlery. I love taking friends there and watch their reaction of bewilderment at no menu and no choice turn to astonishment and pleasure at what they end up receiving.
There are now several Relais de Venise restaurants dotted across London and also now even in New York, as the success goes from strength to strength. Depriving people of any kind of choice and giving them only what is good for them is thriving in a world where democracy is eating itself.