ON THE ROAD AGAIN, AND HUNGRY FOR FRANCE: Creating a Guide to Great Roadside Eats

May 29, 2011

Lays-Potato-Chips

During the course of a major recent French road trip, I couldn’t help but wondering how eating in the highway rest stops of France’s excellent national highway system went so dismally wrong. In one highway rest stop after after, the edible offer was consistently mediocre to miserable and gallingly over-priced, a state of affairs that’s absolutely bewildering when you consider that the original Michelin guide was born a little over a century ago to direct motorists to great eating as they traveled around the country.

Since the high-speed highway system opened, however, France has seemed to follow the woeful American model of really bad road food. Almost everytime we thought to stop for a meal, the offer ran to woebegone salads at the strikingly awful L’Arche chain of restaurants or, increasingly, McDonald’s, which seems to be reeling in one highway rest stop concession after another. And miraculously enough, they’re all quite busy. It doesn’t have to be this way either. Italy’s Auto Grill’s serve decent pasta and pizza and the Moevenpick chain runs an excellent group of Marche restaurants in various European countries including Slovenia where you can get at some surprisingly good, local food in highway rest stops.

To be sure, you can pack a picnic or leave the main road in search of decent food when you’re on a French road trip, and that’s exactly what we did, stopping for an excellent lunches at Le Chat in Cosne Cours sur Loire, a better-than-average omelette and salad with a nice little carafe of Haute Cotes du Beaune at the Cafe Baltard in Beaune, and Les Bons Enfants in Saint-Julien-du-Sault (reviewed on this site). ViaMichelin‘s website is a useful tool for tracking down good eats when you’re traveling, but France doesn’t have a guidebook or website like Road Food, the terrific book and website created by Jane and Michael Stern. Because I will be traveling a lot in France during the next few months, I’m going to open a new index category on this site entitled “Autoroute Eats,” which will be a collection of great, easily accessible addresses for anyone traveling on France’s main highways. I’d be delighted if you’d contribute the good addresses you find during your highway travels in France, too.

Oh, and in case  you were wondering, the “Cheeseburger” flavored potato chips, which we thought were hilarious and bought to relieve our boredom and satisfy our curiosity, were expectedly awful, with a pronounced taste of ketchup and pickles. Still it does say something rather alarming about contemporary French eating habits that Lay’s thought that such a ‘flavor’ would find a following.

Cafe Baltard, 14 Place La Halle, Beaune (Burgundy), Tel. 03-80-24-21-86. Serves non-stop during the day. Average 15-20 Euros.

Les Bons Enfants, 4, place de la Mairie, Saint-Julien-du-Sault (Yonne), Tel. 03-86-91-17-38. Lunch menus 16 Euros, 19 Euros. Prix-fixe 28 Euros. A la carte 40 Euros. Closed Sunday night and Tuesday.

Le Chat, 42 bis, r. des Guérins – Villechaud,  Cosne Cours Sur Loire,  Tel. 03-86-28-49-03. Closed Tuesday. Average 30 Euros.

  • Nicole

    Setting out on a two week road trip from Paris to Bordeaux and Cote d'Azur this week. I plan to pack picnics and fill up my water bottles with wine we find along the way but I will definitey report back with any good food we find on our journey! Great idea. Sad to hear France has gone more "American" when it comes to roadside dining.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks, Nicole. I look forward to hearing about your roadside discoveries, and bon voyage! Best, Alec

  • Alec, if you ever find yourself near the Viaduc de Millau, stop at the service area which is run by Michel Bras and his brother AndrĂ©. They only serve local products and have these great little crepe-like cone sandwiches called capucines filled with ingredients like truffles and potatoes, Roquefort and pears, smoked trout, and aligot and sausage. It is a fantastic place and shows you what fast food could look like.

    Millau Viaduct Service Area
    12100 Millau

  • Thanks, Phyllis. Michel Bras's open-only-in-the-summer is a great example of what roadside dining could and should be in France. I love his capucines, too, and the quality of the ingredients is outstanding. What amazes me is that other chefs and regional tourist boards haven't realized that highway rest stops offer a great opportunity to showcase the quality of their cooking. Best, Alec

  • I look forward to reading your reviews as you travel the French roadways looking for good food. I have enjoyed and used your book, articles in France Today and this web site which I follow. We live part of the year in the Vaucluse so we are always looking for good restaurants to try as we travel in the South of France.

  • Rob

    Incidentally, I don't think the cheeseburger Lays are sold in the United States. We would never eat anything so vulgar here. 🙂

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Hey Rob, I've never seen the Cheeseburger flavor in the U.S. either. The horror of this little chemistry experiment is that it's so clearly targeted at the average Frenchman, or the guy who's made France McDonald's biggest market in Europe. Weird potato chip flavors are as much of an eye opener in terms of local palates as bouillon cubes, though, since they're so reductive of the comfort-food level of eating in any country. Best, Alec

  • pop milt

    From 2001 until 2009 , I traveled around France, Germany, Austria ,and Holland in a vw camping car,from one tennis tournament to another. In France I stayed off the autoroutes , because of the tolls. I took the secondary roads. I would stop at the relais des routiers. These truck stops are fine places for an above i average meal. It's not gourmet, but I found most of the lunches quite good. Their qre usually 3 or 4 main course choices, and in someplaces their is a buffet.The average cost was from 10 to 15 euros. This usually included 4 courses with wine and in some places coffee. One may have to share a table with other customers, but to me this was part of the fun. You have an opportunity to mix w/ the locals,annd you don't find many americans eating at these truck stops. I also stayed on the secondary roads because gas is less expensive. These truck stops are usually open only for lunch and during the week. If one travels to Brittany their are no tolls and many of these truck stops. Just look for the red,white and blue in a circle which indicates the relais des routiers.Enjoy. Milt

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks for the good advice, Milt. France's secondary roads are indeed prettier, cheaper and do lead to great food, but for the time-pressed, I'm still befuddled by the rotten food in autoroute rest stops and hope readers will find the easy-off-the-road-and-back-on-again list of addresses I'm planning useful. Best, Alec