A good restaurant can become an institution, especially if the menu caters to the weak of spatula or the hungover, destitute student. Cheap greasy spoons can provide the grub that angels fear to concoct — as the shoddy excuse for a stove back at the basement suite might erupt at the first hint of actual cooking. Affordable, reliable, cosy, the dive restaurant is a necessity for down and outers all over the globe.
In my first year out on my own, away from my father’s magnificent bolognese and my mother’s heavenly roast potatoes, I survived on a steady diet of bagels, peanut butter, and jam. Whenever I did go out for a bite to eat, I was grateful that downtown Victoria’s longstanding vegeterian hangout, Green Cuisine, was there for me. The restaurant’s comfortable location, in the heart of tourist central’s beloved Market Square, would lead many to expect high prices; but one of the delicious daily soups with a piece of housemade cornbread was a steal at $2.50, with a hefty pot of black tea for a buck and a half more. The old bamboo furniture had seen better days and the cash register always looked like it had more dents in it than cash, but these little faults became charm in my eyes. That restaurant was all I needed to entertain a friend out of doors, away from my roommate’s incredible mess and my equally disgusting cooking skills. I can’t begin to count the amount of times I strolled downtown and smiled down at the meager change in my pocket, knowing the simple, and delicious, pleasure that awaited me in that frugal haven.
Places like Green Cuisine live large in the memory of many; but if anyone is capable of doing due diligence to the sordid bastion of the restaurant-dive, it is Honore de Balzac. The great French writer struggled with crippling debt his entire life — he was an artist of loans and interest, never lacking an exorbitant amount of canvas to work with. He was therefore no stranger to the world of the poor supper.
Eating out in restaurants was a social necessity in nineteenth-century France — your presence at the communal cafe in the later hours of the day determined your commitment to a set of ideals, a political party, or whatever peer group you aspired to join. Balzac was intimate with the poor writer’s club, the kind of fraternity that was almost more of a curse than a blessing. In Lost Illusions, one of Balzac’s grandest works, the author paints a masterful portrait of food’s central importance to a burgeoning community of young, poorly-fed minds.
The name of Flicoteaux is engraved on many memories. Few indeed were the students who lived in the Latin Quarter during the last twelve years of the Restoration and did not frequent that temple sacred to hunger and impecuniosity. There a dinner of three courses, with a quarter bottle of wine or a bottle of beer, could be had for eighteen sous; or for twenty-two sous the quarter bottle becomes a bottle. Flicoteaux, that friend of youth, would beyond a doubt have amassed a colossal fortune but for a line on his bill of fare, a line which rival establishments are wont to print in capital letters, thus–BREAD AT DISCRETION, which, being interpreted, should read “indiscretion.”
Flicoteaux has been nursing-father to many an illustrious name. Verily, the heart of more than one great man ought to wax warm with innumerable recollections of inexpressible enjoyment at the sight of the small, square window panes that look upon the Place de la Sorbonne, and the Rue Neuve-de-Richelieu. Flicoteaux II. and Flicoteaux III. respected the old exterior, maintaining the dingy hue and general air of a respectable, old-established house, showing thereby the depth of their contempt for the charlatanism of the shop-front, the kind of advertisement which feasts the eyes at the expense of the stomach, to which your modern restaurant almost always has recourse. Here you beheld no piles of straw-stuffed game never destined to make the acquaintance of the spit, no fantastical fish to justify mountebank’s remark, “I saw a fine carp to-day; I expect to buy it this day week.” Instead of the prime vegetables more fittingly described by the word primeval, artfully displayed in the window for the delectation of the military man and his fellow country-woman the nursemaid, honest Flicoteaux exhibited full salad-bowls adorned with many a rivet, or pyramids of stewed prunes to rejoice the sight of the customer, and assure him that the word “dessert,” with which other handbills made too free, was in this case no charter to hoodwink the public. Loaves of six pounds’ weight, cut in four quarters, made good the promise of “bread at discretion.” Such was the plenty of the establishment, that Moliere would have celebrated it if it had been in existence in his day, so comically appropriate is the name.
Flicoteaux still subsists; so long as students are minded to live, Flicoteaux will make a living. You feed there, neither more nor less; and you feed as you work, with morose or cheerful industry, according to the circumstances and the temperament.
-Lost Illusions, Part Two, Chapter Two, 1837
Flicoteaux has finally left the streets of Paris, but all over the world, there are frugal, thoughtful restauranteurs willing to take his place. Thanks goodness.