In Depth

Steak-frites is so passe: how the French learned to love burgers

It's not just McDonald's – three-quarters of French restaurants are now serving burgers

HERE'S something for Francois Hollande and the Obamas to chat about next week when the Americans have apologised for the "F*** the EU" remark and they're trying to avoid discussing you-know-what: new research shows that the hamburger has overtaken steak frites to become the most popular dish in France. 

The news will come as little surprise to regular visitors to France, who have watched the trend for American burger joints spread across France faster than the water across the Somerset Levels.

When, about 15 years ago, I visited the new McDonald's in the Provencal town of Cavaillon for a 'Royal Cheese' - their name for a quarter-pounder with cheese - I was told to go and sit down while the chef cooked it. Non, non, non! I tried to explain – it's fast food, you're supposed to have it ready before I even come in! The look of horror on the counter staff's faces was something to behold.

Very quickly, the trend took hold, especially among young Parisians looking for a cup of coffee at a price they could afford – though not before the anti-globalisation activist Jose Bove famously dismantled a McDonald's in Millau, loaded the rubble onto trucks and dumped it outside the town hall. He served three months for criminal damage.

Today there are 1,300 branches of McDonald's in France, serving between 1.8m and 2m customers a day, accounting for sales of €4.5 billion last year, according to Bloomberg. 

But the new figures aren't just about 'Mac-Do' as the French call the chain – they're about regular restaurants serving burgers. Stats from the restaurant research group Gira Conseil show that three-quarters of France's 110,000 restaurants now include a burger on the menu, with sales rising by 40 per cent over the past two years. 

“Protein between two slices of bread - the French love it,” says Bernard Boutboul, head of Gira Conseil (displaying a worrying lack of understanding – since when was a burger served between two slices of bread?). “The explosion of burgers is coming from restaurants. It’s affordable and chefs want to show they can make a quality burger.”

The trend is so rampant that only this week Le Figaro published a guide to "les meilleurs burgers de Paris". Top choice was Paris New York, a diner which opened just over a year ago in the 10th arrondissement. Le 'Classica America' costs €11.40 - not bad for a main course in central Paris - and is made from matured beef from Brittany and nine-month-old cheddar. Le Figaro recommends you order it medium–rare.

Many French traditionalists abhor the Americanisation of their country – but the truth is, for all its cobbled town squares, monuments and chateaux, France has long looked like an outpost of the States. Drive through the outskirts of Versailles or Avignon and you could be entering an American city: the malls, the gigantic supermarkets, the motels, the tyre dealers – and, yes, the Golden Arches.

When Francois Hollande visits Silicon Valley during his three-day visit to the States next week, he'll feel quite at home.

  • Paris New York, 50 rue du Faubourg St-Denis, 10th. Tel: 01 47 70 15 24.

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