There always comes a time in a traveller’s French itinerary, when you arrive hungry at a restaurant at 2pm in the afternoon only to hear “Fermé monsieur”. This is a shock to Anglo-Saxons who live in a world where customer is king – only to realize that there is an alternative Universe with a Gallic accent where such rules don’t apply. As for Mediterraneans like the Italians or Spaniards who eat breakfast at noon, dinner at 10pm and snacks in between: it must feel like that the waiter doesn’t like the cut of their jib. I know what Germans and Swiss think coz they’ve told me many times: “Wahnsinn” – Madness.
Frankly, if you don’t feel hungry in France between noon and 2pm or 7pm to 9pm, you’ve had it. You’ll be heading off to MacDonald’s (if there is one) or to the nearest kebab shop (and even they are closed after 10pm on Mondays, in Auxerre). Paris is the big exception and so are summer sea resorts – although any extension of hours tends to be at night-time – but in the rest of the country you had better get hungry when the locals expect you to.
It is possible that you may find some brasserie offering food outside these hours but the food will not always be up to scratch. Trip Advisor reviews like “Ce resto est une catastrophe” or “A éviter absolument” reflect my own experience in one particular case in Nancy. And in another case in Nevers, yes I ate at 3pm once, but someone else’s review on this chain brasserie was: “Service was terrible, staff was rude, and drinks were drastically overpriced”.
I did once find a restaurant open late on a Sunday evening, in Strasbourg. Its advertised opening hours were until 11pm. I was there at 9.45pm. The only food they would cook was a cheese and ham tartiflette. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I ordered it. Dessert, maybe? “Desolé, monsieur,” came the answer. You see, many times the advertised hours will not correspond to kitchen hours. “When we entered they said they had run out of food,” runs a common complaint on a review site.
Why, every single restaurant and every single boulangerie, patisserie – even post office – opens when it wants and closes when it suits the proprietor. And, as a guidebook researcher, the responses never fail to surprise me.
Shortest opening hours prize must go to the otherwise wonderful Le Comptoir des Tontons which is only open Tuesday–Saturday noon–1pm & 7.30pm–8.30pm. Or so they said to my face.
Most complicated opening hours prize goes to La Madeleine in Sens: Monday closed. Tuesday 8pm–9.15pm, Wed–Sat 12.30–1.15pm & 8pm–9.15pm; Sunday closed, plus two weeks in June, two weeks in Aug and two weeks around Christmas.
Most perverse opening hours prize belong to Autun Central Post Office: Tues–Fri 8.30am–12.05pm & 3.30pm–6pm; Sat 8.30am–12.20pm. (I presume it takes ten minutes for employees to clear up their desks).
Then there’s the tourism offices. Take Cluny for example. Fantastically helpful, great people and I made some good friends there. But we’re talking about its opening hours are we not? April Mon–Sat 9.30am–12.30pm & 2.30pm–7pm; May–Aug daily 9.30am–7pm; Sept daily 9.30am–12.30pm & 2.30pm–7pm; Oct daily 9.30am–12.30pm & 2.30–6pm; Nov–March Mon–Sat 10am–12.30pm & 2.30–5pm.
Top prize must go to the Écomusée d’Alsace which really gives you a spreadsheet of its opening hours on its site. I spent a lot of time trying to find the algorithm and compress them into a few lines, but couldn’t. So that’s what I wrote in the relevant guidebook entry:
April–Nov, generally open 10am–6pm; July & Aug 10am–7pm, but check the online calendar for odd closing dates and staff holidays (normally mid-Nov and in Feb–March)
No wonder there is a website that tells you when a French establishment is open. And no wonder, it is still a work in progress.