Eating out — what are your expectations?

Written by admin on October 28, 2009 – 4:31 pm -

Eating at a restaurant should be a positive experience. But is it? After all, it’s the time when someone else shops, cooks, serves you what (you think) you’ve ordered and takes away the dishes and glasses to a mysterious place. Best of all, you’re not responsible for washing them. In spite of these definite pluses, people appear to have more gripes than you’d think. And they make no bones about voicing them.

Whether it’s your  local joint down the road,  a  recently opened trendy new café or a big name/big chef /big tab restaurant that’s drawing rave reviews, small and large irritations can mar a dining experience.

Pet peeves about dining out — Here’s a laundry list of what a survey of dedicated eaters had to say.

  • Dining rooms that are so noisy you can’t hear yourself think much less hold a conversation with your tablemates.
  • Tables that are placed  so close together you have to be a contortionist to get in and out and there’s no possible way to hold a private conversation.
  • Music too loud. People want to eat their meals in peace and relative quiet and not feel as if they’re in a high-decibel dance hall.
  • Lighting should be bright enough that you can read the menus; but not so bright that you feel as if you’re getting the third degree.
  • Restaurants should have coat rooms and sufficient space that you and your things aren’t competing for space on the chair and at the table.
  • Bathrooms should be clean and well stocked. More than a few people feel there’s a direct correlation between the cleanliness of a restaurant’s WCs and the kitchen.

Service irritations:

  • Being greeted at the door and grilled as to whether or not you have a reservation. If you don’t, the host or hostess will often shoot you a dirty look and lead you to a table as if they’re doing you a favor.
  • Finding yourself even more irritated because when you get up to leave, the restaurant is still half empty.
  • Sitting down and waiting more time than you care to before being handed a menu.
  • When you’re ready to order, being forced to wait. The group of people, who were seated after you, have the waiter’s attention and are firing away what they want to eat. You’ve missed your chance.
  • While you’re waiting, not being asked if you’d like to order a drink or being served water.  Some restaurants serve bread immediately, Others force you to wait so you’re crying, “bread and water — please.”
  • Waiter etiquette:  There are the ones who act as if they’re doing you a favor by serving you. Then, there are too many who want to become members of your family and participate in the conversation. I’m glad your name is John but please remember who’s the waiter and who are the clients.
  • The service personnel not being sensitive to your needs and wishes:  e.g. – when you want attention and when you don’t. There are times conversations are private and should remain that way. Professional waiters appear to have a sixth sense about anticipating a diner’s needs and seem to have eyes behind their heads.
  • Spare diners from waiters who refuse to write orders down. Being able to memorize a list of dishes may impress some people but others would prefer being served the correct dish.
  • Please don’t ask, “Is everything all right?” before someone has tasted the food.
  • Not serving everyone at the same time; Ditto for clearing the table. Many people find it offensive when a waiter removes a few plates at a time, as if to say to the diners who are still eating, “hurry up and leave.”
  • Meals that arrive so quickly that you know they’ve been sitting on a steam table or have had a quick zap in a microwave.
  • Having to wait forever to be served and then receiving the check before you’ve had a chance to drink your coffee. A meal should not be a marathon. Rather, it should be orchestrated to fit the scenario.
  • Some people complain that portions are so large they detract from the meal and its presentation. Not everyone wants a doggie bag.
  • Waiters who fail to check back with you after the meal is served.

There were complaints about parking, stratospheric menu prices, outrageous mark ups on wine. People jumped at the chance at adding their input. And I want to hear yours. You’re bound to have a lot of comments and post away.

Before you do, please stop and ponder what complaint is missing. It seems so obvious. But it doesn’t appear to be a high priority among the majority of people who eat out.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

(Photo: seventh.samurai/Priscilla Flickr/Commons)

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The Tides Inn: a relaxing escape for those who don’t want non-stop action

Written by admin on October 8, 2009 – 4:41 pm -

If your thing is big city glitz, The Tides Inn in Irvington, Va. isn’t for you. If you like the water, watching boats, biking, playing a few rounds of golf on a par 72 Golden Eagle Golf Club, designed by George Cobband and taking it easy, you’ll love the Tides Inn. Travel and Leisure has named The Tides Inn its number one choice for Best Resort in Virginia (and the only Virginia resort mentioned in their Top 100 issue last year).

The 106-room inn overlooking Carter’s Creek, surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay to the East, the Potomac River to the north and the Rappahannock River to the south, is an ideal place for family vacations. There’s so much for children to experience while adults do their thing.

The Tides has a camp called Crab Net Kids, where children do more than just basket weaving. They learn about the area’s ecology and the surrounding environment. City kids (perhaps for the first time) are exposed to croquet, shuffleboard, basketball, bicycles, volleyball and bird watching not to mention fresh water fishing. There are nature trails galore and it’s a superb and diverse area to explore. In other words, children are kept constructively busy while parents and grandparents enjoy grown-up time without guilt. Specific rooms have been designated “pet” friendly so you aren’t forced to leave those members of the family home.

The Tide Inn also has a sailing school and paddle boats, canoes and kayaks are available. There are four tennis courts and a swimming pool plus a spa for those who crave a stone massage, a seaweed wrap, a facial and other sybaritic delights.

If you like boats, you’ll probably see some glorious ones since it’s a frequent stop for the 125-foot variety that are making pilgrimages from one destination to another and rent one of the hotel’s slips. Each boat is given a room number and its occupants have access to all of the resort’s facilities. Don’t be surprised if you see crews of well dressed people in the bar or in one of the two restaurants. Smaller boats frequently moor at the hotel and rent a room or a suite for a night or two, since even dedicated sailors occasionally crave a break, especially if their vessel is the 27-foot variety and doesn’t have all of the comforts of home e.g., a really good shower.

The Tides Inn is an approximately a three hour drive from Washington, DC and Baltimore. It’s ideal if you’re planning a visit to Colonial Williamsburg since it’s only 45-minutes away.

The Tides’ executive chef T.V. Flynn is a master when it comes to preparing fresh cuisine and he’d give many French Michelin chefs a run for their money when it comes to presentation. Flynn insists on only the freshest of ingredients. You won’t find anything frozen on the menu and most of the herbs are grown on the property. Flynn’s salmon is grilled with honey glaze, the Filet Mignon is served with cheddar grits and perfectly cooked green beans and the signature She-Crab soup, chock full of soft-white fresh local crab, merits a second order. The tuna is seared rare and draws rave reviews.

If you’re a wine lover, Virginia is making its mark. There are more than 125 vineyards in the state now and some of the wines are very good with the whites currently taking the lead. The area isn’t Napa or Sonoma Valley yet. But don’t be surprised if you’ll be reading about and tasting more Virgina wines in the future. Most vineyards are about five-acres large, but hey, you have to begin somewhere. Wine tours are becoming another tourist attraction. Remember, you’ll need a dedicated driver even if you taste and spit. All those sips add up.

Would I return to the Tides? Yes and with pleasure. I’d love to take two grandchildren with me. It’s time their ‘city’ grandmother exposes them to nature.

The Tides Inn isn’t just for families. Irvington, most definitely a southern town, has some boutique shopping where you’ll spot some chic people buying clothes and more. Many military and government employees retire to the area and more than a few of the homes fetch hefty seven-figure prices. There’s a real community of residents and newcomers (that means you weren’t born there) who socialize and take pride in the area and plan activities such as the First Friday (of the month) evening festival and the following morning’s Farmers’ Market where more than 150 vendors (many who sell organic products) set up stands and people from all over the area congregate.

Oh, if you’re thinking wedding, getting married by the water at the Tides would be a romantic way to begin your lives together. Be sure to have some of Chef Flynn’s succulent grilled oysters and miniature crab cakes to accompany the Champagne toasts! Sante.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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About Provence

Written by admin on May 30, 2009 – 11:57 am -

Each year, emails flow into the Bonjour Paris mailbox with questions from people thinking of moving to Provence and setting up permanent housekeeping there. Even with the dollar-euro fluctuations, life can cost less in the French countryside, especially if you’re into food and wine. For people who are retiring (and can get medical insurance), France’s quality of life can be lovely. I know because I did it but was far from stopping to exclusively smell the roses.

My husband and I went for it full-tilt and fulfilled the dream so many people share. It was the perfect run-down mas (farmhouse) in the midst of the vines. All it would require was a little work—hah. After two years of more workmen than I could imagine and getting to know all of them in the area, the house was finally a home rather than a construction site. After spending fifteen years commuting between Paris and Provence, selling the house was bittersweet.

There had been so many wonderful events, birthdays, a wedding and memories I’ll always cherish. But for many reasons, most especially the death of my husband Victor, its time had come and gone. I considered trying to keep the house so my grandchildren could spend summers there. But it was a different era and the time had come to move on.

As I drove out of the driveway for the final time, I realized the tiny trees we’d planted when we’d first moved there had quadrupled in height. The fig trees we’d nurtured from slightly larger than twigs were bearing fruit. We’d lived through different weather systems, all too many mistrals and managed to become cat owners.

I don’t (rather didn’t) like cats. But Kitty has become a pivotal part of my life and even has a EU passport. Thank goodness, she has been insinuated her claws and ways into the hearts of others who give her incredible TLC when I’m traveling.

The house and the property were a lot of work and what we spent on upkeep… it’s vulgar to talk about money, but it was a hell of a lot. All I wanted was a staff only to find out we’d be dependent on very part-time help.

My husband was passionate about the garden. I love flowers and immediately planted peonies. Somehow, I always seemed to be somewhere else when they were in full bloom and would have to be content looking at photos of them in their glory.

We had a potager (vegetable garden) that cost a fortune to plant and to maintain. But Victor loved it and I learned to make every recipe that contained zucchini. I would literally stand in the garden and watch it grow. Our guests could hear me cursing. Neighbors knew to lock their doors and close all shutters pretending to be away in the event I came calling with three kilos of what became known as the vegetable from hell.

Naturally, the items I had hoped would grow didn’t. They were planted. But the mole population of the region knew what was good and they weren’t going to bother themselves with the zucchini that would explode a minimum of six inches if I turned my back. These devious animals aren’t stupid and were fully aware flowers are tasty. I thought about buying a shotgun or maybe dynamite, but I don’t think the neighbors would have liked that—or liked the idea that I’d drive the critters into their gardens.

Unless you’re committed to living in the country and becoming a part of the community, Americans shouldn’t strike out and buy property just because they’ve read one of Peter Mayle’s books. Or, our neighbors’ book, We’ve Always Had Paris and Provence by Patricia and Walter Wells.

It’s one thing for people who live in the EU and the UK to have second homes in Provence that they can reach easily on weekends or for a vacation. It’s quite something else when Americans take the plunge and opt to take up permanent residence on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you shuttle between the two continents, you can’t help but lose contact with family members, old friends and professional colleagues unless you don’t mind running a hotel. And even then…

Before taking the plunge, rent houses in different parts of France where there are huge differentials in costs of buying your dream house. Let the owners do the work as well as absorb the cost of the upkeep. In addition, you become familiar with different regions of the country and where you’d be the most comfortable. Some parts of France are extremely remote and don’t open their arms to newcomers unless your French is flawless.

Other areas of the country are filled with expats, which may be precisely why you opt to move there. It’s easier to acclimate if you already have a nucleus of acquaintances. But try not to fall in the same rut that some do by not even making an effort to learn anything other than the most rudimentary French and residing in colonies.

It’s never too late to learn a language even if your accent is terrible and you use incorrect tenses. The secret is to take lessons, studying, listening to language tapes or jumping in and speaking even if you sound foolish. Children have no shame when speaking a new language and adults should adopt the same attitude.

The cost of real estate in France with the exception of Paris has taken an approximate 10% dip according to Karen Tait, the editor of French Property News.

Buying into a “fractional ownership” of a property tempts some people. There are certainly advantages. But don’t consider buying into one without legal counsel. The developer is the main person who comes out ahead financially. Remember, whatever it’s called, it’s still a time-share.

Consult a lawyer who knows the laws and tax regulations of France and your home country. It’s money well spent since the Napoleonic Code is like none other unless you’re from Louisiana.

There are a lot of pitfalls that can be avoided by not relying on the local real estate agent and his or her chosen notaire who will be responsible for recording the purchase and sale of the house or apartment. If only we had taken this advice and sought out expert advice. But we were too busy smelling the lavender and contemplating the sunsets, which was the point after all.

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Slow Down, Enjoy Your Meal, and Sleep

Written by admin on May 16, 2009 – 12:05 pm -

Slow down and do as the French do and invariably you’ll be healthier and thinner. According to a recently released study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, the French spend more time eating and drinking than any of the world’s most prosperous nations. In addition to devoting two hours a day to eating, they average nine hours of sleep each day.

Not that some French aren’t becoming heavier. They are, and it’s because some of the younger generation have adopted more than a few of the U.S.’s bad habits: e.g., eating junk food, buying more pre-packaged and processed foods such as potato chips, and drinking more Cokes than water. Even though they drink less wine, beer consumption has increased.

However, the French tend to be more physically active and not necessarily due to spending hours in a gym—although that’s on the rise as people are pumping iron and running in place. Walking is a way of life even if people live in Paris and take the métro.

Métro stops are generally no further away than five minutes apart. But walking up and down the stairs burns calories. And if you’re in one of the larger métro stations, such as Châtelet, Concorde, or Étoile on the Champs-Élysées, by the time you walk from one line to the next, you may have walked nearly half a mile.

Tourists are usually amazed by how fast the French navigate subway stations. People are eager to get in and out and to their destinations. Sure, you can stop and listen to some of the (licensed) musicians and frequently hear pretty good classical music. There will always be a hat, basket, or bucket to drop some coins. More than likely, you’ll hear music that sounds as if a band comprised of the ubiquitous Peruvian pan-pipers is performing, and if you haven’t already done so, you can buy the generic CD.

It wasn’t so many years ago you’d never see the French eating on the run. That’s changed. Now, most French bakeries have a section of sandwiches available for carry-out. They’re generally made from scrawny baguettes. Skinny doesn’t do them justice: a more accurate description would be bulimic with one nearly transparent slice of ham and one of cheese and voilà, the idea being that you don’t have to open your mouth very wide to eat it.

American delis, sandwich shops, and carry-outs of all kinds astonish the French. When French friends accompany me to one, their eyes glaze over when they see the size of the sandwiches. They’re unable to believe how thick they are and that someone could possibly eat so much in one sitting—or standing. Remember, most French people don’t know about doggie bags in spite of being a nation of dog lovers.

In addition, most French people tend to eat meals with utensils. It’s considered a faux pas to eat pizza by picking up a slice rather than using a fork and knife—ditto a burger. Many people who come to France on business are shocked to see how fastidious their dining companions tend to be, and it’s smart to take your cues from them so as not to be perceived as lacking table manners.

Some other reasons the French tend to be thin: Rather than piling everything on one plate (and you’ll rarely see an all-you-can-eat buffet in France), meals are comprised of courses. It makes for a lot of plates, but a first course, a main course, another plate with salad and a sliver of cheese plus a dessert (tiny to be sure), give people the sensation they’ve eaten a lot even with rigid portion control. Eating this leisurely way takes time—and time is what the brain needs to register the food you’ve put in your stomach and tell you to stop it now. And there’s a bonus: when dinner is over, there are a lot of dishes to wash up, and that burns up calories.

Studies conducted at Penn State University and Cornell have repeatedly documented that the more food that’s served on a plate, the more people will eat. Perhaps too many Americans were raised as members of the clean plate club. Most people don’t get the signal to stop eating if there’s food left to be consumed—rather like goldfish that will eat until they explode.

Even though Americans believe that the most essential meal of the day is breakfast (bring on the cereal, toast, jam, and eggs), the French generally grab a cup of coffee and a tartine (a piece of a baguette with a light smear of butter) and that’s how they begin their day.

Few French snack between meals. Plus, if they’re having an apéritif before dinner, it will be accompanied with a few olives, perhaps some nuts, but not a dinner before dinner. Americans tend to set out platters of hors d’oeuvres so you’ve consumed more than your fair share of calories before even sitting down for the meal.

Time will tell whether or not the French will adopt America’s bad habits when it comes to eating. The one given is that the more affluent the French are, the thinner they tend to be. I’ve always believed French females are born without hips and thighs and it’s in their genes. That’s one way of rationalizing why Parisian women wear size six (or smaller) pants—and, if will make you feel better, you can believe that too.

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Would the French ruin one of their main tourist attractions?

Written by admin on March 11, 2009 – 8:45 pm -

The movie Sideways highlighted wine tasting junkets as a major sightseeing activity for wine lovers in the U.S. People go from one wine producer to another, sample a bit of that year’s crop (or older vintages) and buy bottles of their favorites to take home.

Limousine companies got into the marketing act by chauffeuring oenophiles (tasters out for a good time) from one producer to another. Driving after too much drinking is frowned upon and punishable by hefty fines with points being added to a driver’s license. Worse yet, you may find your car wrapped around a tree with you and your passengers in it. That doesn’t factor in the cars you might have encountered head on.

The French have traditionally enjoyed wine tastings at caves throughout France. Many wine growing parts of the country have designated wine-tasting routes where people stop and sample tiny glasses of wine and may or may not came away with a bottle or even a five- or ten-liter bag-in-box. Off they go to the next cave, which may be less than five minutes away. People from all over the world come expressly to make wine pilgrimages. France’s hospitality industry has benefited.

Last week, France’s Minister of Health Roselyne Bachelot proposed a law that would make it illegal to have wine tastings. This is intended to ban binge drinking at soirées sponsored by liquor companies in open bars where young people, often students, pay an entrance fee to drink as much as they like. But it could be interpreted as banning wine tastings.

As the French like to do, vintners went on strike over this proposition that would severely impact business and their ability to sell wines. Gone would be tastings in liquor stores and grocery stores (that sell enormous quantities of the country’s best-known beverage.)

Most observers of the French wager this law will never be adopted. It has too many marketing ramifications and would destroy a huge draw for French tourism.

Wine growers are proposing they be given a status differentiating them from producers of hard liquor and fortified spirits. That’s what’s done in Spain.

“How can one imagine that French wine, without even talking about its economic weight or its place in our heritage and our cultural identity, can have any real export growth opportunities when everything is done to censor it in our country?” questioned Bordeaux mayor, Alain Juppé.

Time will tell. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you read about the French striking and a lot of lobbying and posturing.  C’est la France.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Despite higher dollar, fewer Americans visiting Europe

Written by admin on August 27, 2008 – 3:03 pm -

Even though the dollar is finally a few cents stronger, don’t go out and count your euros and expect to be in consumer heaven when you visit Europe.

Americans are hardly rich, even though there’s talk of a psychological barrier being passed, now that the dollar is clocking in at less than 1.50 euros. Europeans are watching the currency market as if it’s the hottest game in town.

Americans aren’t heading to Paris they way they used to. The weak dollar, the U.S. economic downturn, and the high cost of airline tickets, due to the rocketing cost of fuel and the airlines’ own misguided efforts at nickeling-and-diming travelers, all convince a lot of people to stay home. And many just have sworn off dealing with airport security and being treated as criminals.

According to the French Government Tourist Office, 1.5 million Americans traveled to Paris in 2007, a drop of 5.5 percent from the previous year. Since January 2008, statistics reflect a further decline of 14 percent.

Paul Rol, director of the Paris Tourism office says, “the number of U.S. visitors has been decreasing since June 2007 and the downward trend is growing steadily.”

But as fewer Americans are coming to the City of Light, other nationalities are making up the slack. Paris has recorded an overall increase of tourists by 2.3 percent. During 2007, there were 8.76 million tourists, many of who came from Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Americans still comprise the largest number of tourists in Paris—just fewer, currently. But they’ve shunned France before. There were fewer between 2001 and 2003 following the September 11th attacks and the Franco-American row over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, U.S. tourism rebounded in 2004, and many people feel it will again after the upcoming presidential elections if Barack Obama is voted into the Oval Office.

Imad Khalidi, president of Auto Europe, predicts the dollar will become stronger if a Democrat is elected president. “Look back at November 1991, the French franc was very, very strong—4.6FF to the dollar. Once Clinton was elected, the dollar climbed to 6.4FF to the dollar. Let’s hope that’s the case again.”

Khalidi admits that the car rental business is down in the EU. But firms like his have more than made up for the loss by renting to Europeans who are vacationing in the U.S. and, because of the currency exchange, people living on a euro income feel rich and are making the most of their buying power. Walk into any big-city department store in America, and the locals will wonder if they’re in bargain basements when they hear the tourists exclaiming how cheap everything is. It’s reminiscent of the Japanese forming lines to gain entrance to Louis Vuitton on the Champs Élysées.

Travel industry experts agree that the very rich will travel when and wherever they want. Whether or not it costs more or less isn’t a big factor. The swanky Meurice Hotel, located near the Place de la Concorde and facing the Tuileries Gardens, isn’t crying the blues over losing its American clientele because it hasn’t. Eighty percent of them are from the U.S – except during August when the hotel is filled with families from the Middle East because they love Paris and want to flee from the heat at home.

What J.P. Morgan said about maintaining a yacht—”If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it”—applies here where the least expensive room begins at €650 per night, and a lovely Continental breakfast in the Michelin two-starred restaurant, Le Meurice, headed by Yannick Alleno, costs a mere €36. Since most of us have to ask, it’s pretty obvious we can’t afford it.

Another take is from Bill O’Such, who owns a super apartment in the Marais. “If reservations for our apartment— The Elzevir—is any indication, we have people reserving into 2010. It hasn’t affected Americans’ desire to travel to Paris.” In talking with them, they do cut down on what they do (i.e. fewer dinners out, less shopping, etc.) which costs a lot of money. They search for less expensive ways to come travel. “One theory I have is that hotels are now so expensive in euros that people are considering apartments even more than before. The other trend we’ve seen is we have more Australians and Canadians as clients.”

Of course the dollar is stronger against currencies that are pegged to it, so traveling in Asia, for example, may be a better bet than traveling to Europe. “In fact,” says a San Francisco resident, “I can fly more cheaply to Beijing than to Paris.”

So, the exchange rate is only one factor. The cost of flying may be greater, depending on your destination. It’s not easy to balance. And naturally enough, what we love is often what we’re willing to pay for, not matter what.

For instance, author Nancy Bruning says that she doesn’t know about others, but she’s booked to come to France this summer. “I’ll simply be sparing when it comes to spending. But, I love Europe so much that I’m not going to forgo my France fix.”

I don’t know about others either, but I will just be “sparing with the spending” and hope my credit card doesn’t melt.

For people who live here, we’re holding our breaths and eating a lot of pasta and drinking a wee bit too much wine.

Karen Fawcett is the president of Bonjour Paris

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