Monday, 16 July 2012

The Potless Budget Restaurant Review #6: Les Relais Routiers, Various Locations, France

Being Potless isn't all about cooking at home - it's about having a fabulous value-for-money eating experience, wherever you are.

So, I present to you my series entitled: 'The Potless Budget Restaurant Reviews'!

Having trawled the globe looking for the best of the cheapest eating out establishments, I can now share my findings. 

'Cheap' is, of course, subjective. But what makes a restaurant qualify for this list is a sense of extremely good value. A greasy spoon cafe might be cheap (and delicious too, come to that) but it won't make it onto the list, unless the eating experience it provides is of the very highest quality in proportion to the price it charges.

Having escaped from Kaysersberg with my car intact, but unfortunately with my Hassenforder guest house room key still in my pocket (ready to return by recorded delivery from the post office in the beautiful Alpine town of Annecy, at our next stop), we were on our way south towards Provence, toward our ultimate destination in Nice on the Cote d'Azur.

Annecy was absolutely terrific, with a free upgrade to a double-balconied room with a canalside view, in our hotel Alexandra (#1 hotel in Annecy on Tripadvisor), and we had sampled a lovely ratatouille pizza in a friendly pizzeria - recipe to hopefully be recreated in my own kitchen soon, and posted on Potless afterwards, naturally.

While driving through France, we had resolved to only use the D roads, rather than the 'peage' A roads to get around France, for various reasons:

1. The D roads take you around the towns, through the fields and grapevines and along scenic Alpine routes, and are usually very well-surfaced for easy, picturesque touring - the main reason we drove, rather than flew, to Nice in the first place. A roads are built, for reduction of noise pollution purposes, far away from anything remotely interesting.

2. The toll roads are crazy expensive. A couple of hours on an A road will cost about 12-15 Euros. D roads are free.

3. You can get a proper lunch on a D road at the hundreds of restaurants dotted along their lengths. You will only get a burger in a service station on the motorways.

4. Petrol consumption on the D roads is a third better than on the A roads; a saving of about £80 on our entire trip.

5. French drivers on A roads are mental. The unlikelier the car, the faster it will go: A thirty-year-old Citroen Visa will drive up your arse and then roar past you at 140 kph, while a brand new Audi R8 will probably sit back and take it easy at a steady 100. Twenty minutes of this will leave you a trembling wreck.

Since we had resolved to generally eat lightly during our trip, rather than succumbing to the seeming French obsession with eating a four course prix fixe meal at every opportunity, we had decided that, for once, we might go for the big one and eat at a Relais Routier for lunch. I had regaled Mrs Ribeye with tales of these unassuming truckers stops, littering up the highways and byways with their family-run oases (as in plural of 'oasis' - although the spelling looks a bit wrong) offering cheap, plentiful traditional French meals to the big-rig drivers on their way between the big towns and cities. In England we simply do not have a comparable. Even the once mighty 'Little Chef' group of restaurants were only a place for a fry-up and cup of tea. Not the same.

Les Relais Routiers Online:


With the swirly blue/red circular logo telling us that the bland-looking restaurant at the side of the D1532 between Lyon and the south of France was a proper 'Relais Routier' - belonging to a guide, established in the 1930's, containing good value eateries to keep the truckers from starving or resorting to unhealthy fast food - we headed eagerly inside in anticipation of a good home-cooked lunch.

The adjoining parking area was filled with 18-wheelers. A good sign. We entered the lobby area containing a buffet of chilled hors d'oevres, a covered cheese platter, a huge stainless steel dispenser with three taps offering red, white or rose wine next to a tray of empty carafes, a wheel for making fresh crepes (together with a ginormous jar of Nutella), and a freezer full of ice cream. The dining room was filled with small two or four-seater tables, with double doors onto a terrace where a scary-looking Mrs Lovett type (of Sweeney Todd fame) was behind a huge BBQ, wielding her tongs with intent.

The restaurant walls were filled with large amateur drawings and paintings of celebrities, all with fairly hefty price tags of 30-40 Euros each. I cannot imagine who on earth would buy them.


We were instructed by the owner of the place that the price was 13 Euros per head, up front, for four courses. We didn't have to eat all four courses, but we would have to pay 13 Euros regardless. Oh and wine was included. We could eat whatever we wanted, and could visit Mrs Lovett and her barbie as many times as we liked.

We headed straight for the buffet. We carefully selected from the many cold cuts and salads on offer, but were mindful of the fact that there would be many delights offered later, and that we mustn't commit too hugely to the platters of pate en croute, jambon sec, cooked ham, salamis, egg salad, salad of green beans, pickled cauliflower, noodle salad, marinated mushrooms or cornichons.

We filled a half-litre carafe from the rose wine tap and took a table, already adorned with a jug of chilled water and a basket of fresh bread. The starters were fresh and delicious. We headed off the see Mrs Lovett. She was utterly adorable, and I felt a bit guilty about secretly comparing her to a murderous Victorian pie-maker. Who cared if she wore a shower cap and boots with her voluminous dress? Who cared if she strode around the restaurant with a foot-long carving knife, blade-up? She warmly told us to take what we liked and that we could come back for more. We chose murguez (the delicious north African spicy lamb sausages), chicken, traditional sausages and a big plate of frites to share. We stayed away from the big hunk of pork loin. It looked a bit... human. Eek!

After the main course, we took a slab of white-rinded gooey cheese (Brie, perhaps?)  from the covered platter in the lobby, to share. No way could we manage dessert, despite Mrs Ribeye's disappointment that she hadn't left enough room to cajole the owner into his rightful place behind his crepe wheel.


As the owner said: 13 Euros (just over a tenner a head in English money) each. Up front. Regardless of what you eat. Wine included.


Don't do this often, but do do this. The restaurant was heaving with truckers gorging themselves on all four courses, not a wimpish three, like us. Oh and they were all tucking greedily into the wine. No wonder the French government have just passed a law that all drivers must carry a breathalyser in their vehicle with them.

The food is not haute cuisine, but it's delicious, additive-free and great value for money. The husband and wife team were charming (I later found out that Mrs Lovett is not the owners wife. She must have been the nice, non-Victorian-murderous-pie maker-looking lady clearing the tables and preparing the hors d'oevres).

Not just for truckers; the Relais Routier is a big part of both the French culinary and touring traditions and I hope it lasts for at least another 70 years. But of course it will. We're off to Aix-en-Provence next. I will not eat ever again.

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