We’ve come a long way in Britain to appreciate the street cafe scene. When I was young no-one would be seen outside eating unless they were having a picnic. Eating in the street was viewed as slovenly, the climate deterred it and, quite honestly, the resulting views didn’t justify the experience. You would have suffered with pollution, litter and smells.
Thankfully, city and town planning has developed to ensure we appreciate our urban spaces more. There was a huge gap where the only civic sculptures were of last-century generals and monarchs. We’ve also been on holiday on the continent more and can appreciate just how nice sitting and people-watching can be. The smoking ban has also probably helped in getting people used to sitting outside. Of course our climate doesn’t help but even there, cafe and restaurant owners have invested in shelter and outdoor heaters to make it more pleasant.
In my recent trip to Clermont in the Auvergne I noticed how the street cafes are still thriving even when the weather isn’t supportive. Ok, the temperature was a good 10 degrees warmer than in the UK but people dressed up for the event in warm jackets and coats. How else could they tuck into a cheese platter and a bottle of wine at 10am on an early Spring morning?
We sat down at a couple of tables on the pleasant but not exceptional Place de Jaude to eat and watch the world go by. The first time was at the Faisant D’Or. The square is a long rectangular area with tramlines along one edge and dotted with fountains and LED lighting in equal measure. The buildings are in what I am led to believe is termed Hausmann style (firmly Victorian in my book). There are a few modern structures in amongst and some catering cabins along the sunny side. There is even an old church in one corner. My point is that this isn’t a remarkable space. The nearest I can think to compare it with is the open market place in Nottingham.
And yet people naturally converge on it and the cafes and restaurants serve the customers. The Faisant D’Or offers drinks as well as full meals. The standard fayre is burgers, salads, steak hache and occasional daily specials. On our visit I had the Faisant D’Or burger and my wife went for the Caesar salad. How nice to be asked how you want your burger cooked? I couldn’t imagine having a bleu or saignant burger (I said I wanted to be asked not to have permission to do something crazy). I settled for a point and it came cooked perfectly. It also came in a large seed bun with some tomato, some local cheese and a large hash brown. There was a bright yellow sauce (mustard-related?) which tasted fine too. Slightly expensive – but then Clermont in general is slightly upmarket. The Caesar salad had really nice chicken and a good dressing but the salad element was large and uninspired. I had a nice artisan Biere des Druides to go with it. The people watching was good but the pigeons and the absence of prompt table-clearing was both unhygienic and annoying.
The Hotel du Lion was on the same run of cafes and was pretty similar. In this case I tried the Truffade to compare with the magnificent one in Le Caveau. It was served with ham, saucisson and pickled vegetables and was fine but not as integrated as my previous encounter. The potato was more distinct and hadn’t broken down as much. The crust was on the top from a grill rather than on the bottom from contact with the skillet. On this occasion I coupled it with a glass of perfectly acceptable Cotes d’Auvergne. My wife went for the special Dorade done with a pesto sauce and served on a bed of shelled broad beans. She did well. We lingered as the tables came and went. There were tourists from Holland and USA, there were students, couples and groups of blokes who were obviously regulars. The people waiting for the trams and the shoppers provided passing interest. There was a regular waft of smoke and the breeze as a pigeon was occasionally shooed away.
Street cafes are a great way to spend an hour or so. Don’t expect prompt or attentive service unless they want your table. Don’t expect great value but enjoy what is available and enjoy the experience.