France is known the world over for its food. Every town and city offers its own delicacy, produces its own cheese and has recipes passed down through the generations that have led to its identity.
Historically the local bistro was a focal point where French classic dishes from bœuf bourguignon to Blanquette du veau, baba au rhum to île flottante were served. As classic as the dishes themselves, was the buffet style of service ‘en famille’. Large stainless steel (sometimes silver) chafing dishes were lined up at the back of the bistro, allowing the wonderful aromas of each to escape as the lid was raised.
With the emergence of a more diverse culinary offering and, to a lesser extent, the impact of fast food, many of these local bistros disappeared. With them went some of the much-loved dishes, local recipes and a style of service that was as typically French as the two-hour lunch break during which they were enjoyed.
Les Grands Buffets – a culinary institution
In 1989, visionary restaurant owner Louis Privat, opened Les Grands Buffets as a “window into the world of French cuisine”. He lamented the demise of the local bistro and his passion was to restore this, not town by town, but in one venue in the southern French city of Narbonne, his home. In simple terms, Les Grands Buffets is fine dining meets a large hotel buffet. But the name really doesn’t not do it justice, it does not even come close in describing the experience. For a price at which you have to pinch yourself, €32.90 per person (half for under 16s and free for children under 5), diners are treated to a vast choice of foods which, in the main, originate or are produced in the region around Narbonne.
On arrival, you are greeted warmly, and genuinely, by a member of staff and personally escorted to your table. Here the elements of fine dining shine through with crisp white linen tablecloths and napkins, polished silverware and glassware. Aside from selecting from an extensive wine list, you don’t have to worry about deciding on which dish to choose as everything is included and the feast that is about to hit the senses truly does need to be seen to be believed.
Why Les Grands Buffets makes you pinch yourself in wonder
The ‘buffet’ itself is displayed (and displayed beautifully) in three main rooms – seafood, cheeses & charcuterie is the first port of call. Here you will find wonderful antipasti; local oysters, crabs, clams, mussels and prawns, fois gras (served six separate ways) and one of the most diverse array of charcucterie you will ever see. If fromage is for you, you may never want to leave this section! 45 different cheeses (making it one of the largest selection in any French restaurant) from every region in France, some from further afield, are a discovery in themselves.
Remembering there are two-more “courses” to your Grands Buffets experience, the second and largest section features the aforementioned chafing dishes – each containing a mouth-watering creation from a rich daube of beef to ratatouille, breaded frog’s legs to confit duck. The sheer variety of what’s on offer aside is astounding, not to mention the pièce de résistance of Les Grands Buffets, the rotisserie. It towers over the chefs below who prepare dishes to order – from suckling pig to lobster thermidor.
To complement the food, another major feature here is the wine list with every bottle charged at the cost price the restaurant pays the vineyard. Not only that, but each of the 70 bottles can also be enjoyed by the glass – all adding up to a staggering 80,000 bottles being consumed by guests annually (the largest consumption of any independent restaurant in the country).
By this point of your visit you have in mind that there is still one, yet highly important, section left to visit – the desserts. As with each aspect of the restaurant you have sampled before, you will not be disappointed with your sweet finale. The pastry chefs in the kitchens are kept busy throughout the day preparing more than 50 different desserts including gateaux, ganache, eclairs and, macarons as well as a chocolate fountain.
Les Grands Buffets is open 365 days of the year and reserving a table is very simple via their website (which is easy to navigate in four languages). You can normally reserve up to 7 days prior, although to accommodate the huge influx that July and August brings (where 1,000 people a day are turned away) the booking calendar is extended. However, do plan your visit well in advance and combine it with the wonderful city centre of Narbonne where you can discover the City’s Roman origins, stunning cathedral, Canal du Midi and a number of art galleries and markets.
By Peter Friend of La Villa Mazamet