Paris Cafeterias: To “flunch” or not to “flunch”?
How would you like to “flunch” together? Curious name aside, the flunch cafeteria chain in France offers a Cheapo-friendly lunch and dinner option to travelers not afraid to grab a tray and get in a line. But are cafeterias your thing?
The cafeteria conundrum
Without shame, I admit to being a fan of cafeteria food. I find the whole process, from lining up with a tray, to choosing a prepared entree and selecting accompanying vegetables, both fun and weirdly satisfying. (And let’s not even talk about the dessert and drink process.)
Perhaps it’s simple nostalgia for the grade-school cafeteria experience of decades past. Perhaps I like to see my food before I decide on what to eat. Or perhaps it’s a rebellion against “foodie” culture. Whatever it is, to this day I find something irresistible about cafeterias.
Many of my friends, of course, do not share this enthusiasm. They find a trip to a cafeteria to be a depressing experience—one of cattle-call lines, hospital-quality food, and bleak ambiance. Even worse, it could be a missed opportunity. After all, a meal at a cafeteria in Paris is a meal not at a cafe, or a crepe stand, or a boulangerie … or anything typically “French.” This has led to several “one tray at the table” moments for me.
No matter, when I travel I like to drop in on cafeterias and sample their wares. When living in Berlin, I ate frequently in the city’s Mensa cafeterias–and have written my own love song to that slide-and-pay experience. Mensa cafeterias not only offer a cheap lunch option, but also an opportunity to sample German-style (albeit somewhat institutionalized) dishes.
flunch it down?
In France, the flunch restaurant chain takes its name from mashing up “French” and “lunch.” (And not, as I previously thought, from “fast” and “lunch.”) It has even led to the coining of the verb “fluncher,” although I have yet to hear it used in a sentence.
Like most French restaurants, flunch offers several plats du jour, which change daily. Flunch prices them rather low—at €4.90 for the plat du jour, or €6.00 for the plat and drink (which includes a soda, water, beer or a glass of wine). Notably, the plat also includes an unlimited vegetable buffet, where you can graze all day on haricots verts, carottes, pommes de terre, epinards and so forth. Desserts and salads are extra.
And thus, flunch makes Cheapo sense, if it sounds appetizing to you. After all, flunch offers a cooked dish with unlimited veggies and a drink for the same price as a hamburger and a Coke next door at a McDonald’s. And the cafeteria set-up makes sense for non-French speakers. Just point and say, “s’il vous plait”. (And “merci!”)
flunch in Paris
The chain operates 200 restaurants in France, most of which can be found in shopping centers and along the highway. In Paris, however, several flunch outlets are located in super-central locations, including just next to the Pompidou Center and nearby on the street level of the Les Halles shopping center.
So, they’re cheap, convenient, and offer a healthier fast meal option than typical fast food. Why have I encountered so much “flunch-fobia”? A couple of thoughts:
Considering my several flunch experiences, I have certainly never been wowed by the food. The entrees, usually chicken, beef, or fish, have been French classics of a quality that’s acceptable while certainly not exceptional. (Americans could think of it as a sort of Ponderosa Steakhouse “a la Francaise”.) My meals have been a bit salty, and I’ve found the vegetables quite tasty—because they’ve been smothered in butter. It’s not exactly a light meal.
It’s hard for a room to escape the cafeteria aesthetic when there are tray rails lining every fixture. But they try to make the serving area cheery.
The dining areas, however, strike me as rather grim. In my experiences in the central Paris flunches, the dining rooms have been extremely crowded during the lunch hours. Sharing tables is not strange—in fact, during busy hours you’ll probably be seated next to and across from complete strangers. (But then again, I was dining alone!) These locations are also quite popular with bus and student groups—leading to sudden crowding, occasional horseplay and bathroom lines.
Really, this place is cheap. If you’re fine with tap water, you can have a full meal for €4.90.
Clearly, flunch isn’t for everyone, but it does provide a fast, central, and cheap alternative to typical fast food. If you decide to “flunch it,” don’t expect fine French cuisine. Expect, instead, to experience another country’s cafeteria culture. And then head back for some more buttered veggies.
Have you flunched?
Have you been to a flunch restaurant in France? Have you experienced another cafeteria in the country? Tell us about your experience in the comments section.