I was recently writing a scene where the protagonist enters a French restaurant in 1942. He’s a downed American pilot attached to the RAF (see Long Way to Thunder Bay excerpt) trying to reach Spain. He has cash and speaks a little French. Not possessing ration coupons, he fishes out 500 francs to pay for his meal – hoping this is sufficient to appease the ‘patron’. I mentioned to friends in Paris, Fabien and Agnes, that I was concerned about this scene. I did not know whether my protagonist was paying way too much. He might pay a little over the odds, but would 500 francs have been a small fortune in 1942? Would that amount of money have drawn unwanted attention to him?
The answer appears to be yes, according to: http://quotidien-parisiens-sous-occupation.paris.fr/detail_238
Agnes kindly found the above photograph of a Parisian Restaurant (Le Quercy) menu from August 1942. Itemised in detail, it provides a fascinating insight of the cost and composition of restaurant meals. The three meals listed cost less than 20 francs each. Certain items appear only to have been available ‘sous ticket’ (with a restaurant ticket or ration coupon that customers would have secured in advance with their identity cards from official Government agencies). Other courses appear to have been paid by cash without ticket.
Most noticeable is the absence of meat from the three meals detailed. Sauteed green beans, chicory ravioli, pears, and chicory in ‘jus’ all feature. These are foods that would have been grown in and around Paris, and presumably were in season in August. Other courses included soup or vegetable salad. My guess is that these would have been….chicory.
In fact, the scarcity of food and monthly ration allowances had plunged by the second half of 1942. The German occupiers and Vichy regime were tightening their grip on the French people, and on what they consumed. At weekends therefore, Parisians took to their bicycles or to trains, and headed into the countryside to buy food. They returned home on Sunday evening, to dodge the German checkpoints set up to catch black-marketeers. The owner of the Restaurant Le Quercy may himself have run this gauntlet. Farmers, hitherto perceived as peasants, gained a new elevated status. City dwellers looked on jealously and hungrily at the butter, cheese, eggs, chicken, hams and other luxuries the farmers produced, and paid high prices to return home with even a few hundred grammes.
Returning to my fictional scene, 500 francs would have been a little much to pay in an ordinary restaurant. But I sense that to eat chicken, butter and ham, city people with the means to do so, would have paid many times the official price. Some did so, at clandestine black market restaurants, hidden away in the basements of unassuming private residences or in alleyways in Montmartre. Yet for most people, chicory and pear would have been all they could afford. And that is if they ever went to a restaurant at all.