Benoit, the bistro which has stood seemingly impervious to time and fashion on a pedestrianised street in Paris between the Pompidou Centre and the Rue du Rivoli since 1912, cannot fail to charm physically or aesthetically.
Its corner site has the added protection of two rows of plants outside whilst once inside the highly polished doors the interior seems to sparkle, a reflection of the pristine bar with its rows of glasses and decanters; the bronze light and ceiling fittings; the paintings from a bygone, more innocent era; the original wooden menu holders and a clock happily stuck at 12 o'clock.
It is also the perfect size. Benoit seats 60 in two adjacent dining rooms, with an elegant private room upstairs, and as I sat there the first time I began to dream. Benoit seemed to me to be the ideal Paris bistro, the kind of place of which many would want to be le patron or even la patronne, welcoming guests, casting a proud eye over the food and basking in the bonhomie that its very walls seem to exude.
A little investigation revealed that this will only remain a dream. Benoit, named after its founder Benoit Matray, was in the same family for 93 years until Matray's grandson, Michel Petit, whose painting in his chef's whites stands proudly at the top of the stairs on the first floor, sold it to the restaurant group headed by top chef Alain Ducasse (and it was Ducasse who subsequently commissioned the painting to ensure standards never change). Momentarily disappointed, I arranged to meet Laurent Plantier, CEO of the Ducasse group, to discuss whether Benoit's financial structure and profitability are as elegant as its interior.
A 39 year old Nicois whose previous career includes a stint in banking, electrical goods and at MIT in Boston, Plantier began by saying that his principal preoccupations since joining Ducasse in 1998 had been with strategy, finance and the negotiation of the deals which had seen Ducasse restaurants open in hotels from Las Vegas to Tokyo. "Initially, we had no intention of looking at bistros but a few years ago Thierry De La Brosse of L'Ami Louis (where the portions are as stupendous as the bill) asked us to consider buying one or two because he feared that they would just disappear.
It took me a year to find Aux Lyonnais which I knew from the moment I walked in was 'la vraie chose' as well as having the most wonderful name – Paris's bistros are descendants of the bouchons of Lyons and used to sell the wines of that region from barrels in the basement as did Benoit, of course.
"Three years later, and having seen many, many other places that were nowhere near as exciting, I saw Benoit and knew it was perfect. In fact, Ducasse hadn't been for years but when I phoned him with the prospective deal he just said, "Go for it."
But what, I wanted to know, was the deal exactly? "At this level Paris bistros tend to sell on the basis of anywhere between 65-85per cent of their annual turnover depending on their location, the physical state of the building and their reputation. Brasseries sell on a higher multiple because they are open longer. I paid just under a million euros for Aux Lyonnais and 1.2 million for Benoit which was the fair asking price."
And, surprisingly, there was little competition. "Benoit is rather unusual because it is the only Paris bistro with a Michelin star, a highly intangible asset, which is only valuable if it can be maintained. I know the Coste brothers were interested but they would have wanted to change the style of the place, in my opinion, so they would have paid less. And because it had been owned by one family for three generations it was obviously a bit of a risk for our bank.
"The most pleasant surprise when we took over came when we asked Petit where we could get further supplies of all the items which make Benoit so special, the menus and the menu holders, the plates, the small serving dishes such as the one for the macaroni with your rabbit. He just opened a huge cupboard and showed us all he had accumulated over the years so nothing would need to change. The biggest challenges have been raising the quality level and bringing the kitchen into the 21st century."
Plantier sensibly returned to his bowl of scrambled eggs with truffles and glass of Pignan 2002 before continuing, "Petit was in his 70's and had already explained that one of the reasons he was selling was because he could no longer run Benoit as he once had. Since then Ducasse and David Rathgeber, who is the chef here now and used to work for him at the Plaza-Athenée, have concentrated on the produce and the execution of the dishes. Very little has changed, there's still the same emphasis on simple but delicious French food with the waiting staff still showing the customer many of the dishes at the table – one reason why we don't need a menu in English – and finishing the preparation of many of the dishes in the restaurant rather than the kitchen. That will never change. The two areas where we have made significant changes have been in the desserts which really needed to be improved significantly and in the cheeses where we have replaced a huge cheese trolley with a more manageable selection of five top quality cheeses."
As each of the half a dozen desserts were brought to the small serving table next to us I asked Plantier to disclose whether Benoit would not only continue to be absolutely charming but also profitable. "Yes, "he smiled, "but never excessively so because we can never serve so many customers. I think we have 46 booked for lunch to day we can serve 60-80 for dinner but no more. However, there is the added advantage that here because of the style of the cooking we do manage to achieve our desired food cost, around 27per cent of sales, which is of course much better than in our more expensive restaurants."
Over coffee and madeleines Plantier turned more philosophical. "There are only two possible futures for these bistros, either under the personal ownership of a hugely committed individual who is here all the time or a company such as ours which has the necessary management and resources. We've improved Benoit significantly in the first year because we introduced a very talented chef and his motivation has inspired the rest of the team. But we cannot sustain that forever and in the summer we will have to spend a lot of money refurbishing the kitchen."
Plantier responded to my request to see the kitchens by drawing the table away to let me out and leading me through a narrow doorway, barely wide enough I had noticed for a waiter with two plates, and into what can only be described as a rabbit warren of a kitchen. Just behind the doorway Rathgeber and his assistant stood at an old solid top stove barely wide enough for the two of them until Rathgeber led me down a steep spiral staircase, considerately warning me to hold on to the rail, to the arched cellars which had once housed barrels of Beaujolais but were now divided into a production kitchen, with a large quantity of meat being prepared for tomorrow's cassoulet, and down another set of steps to the pastry section heady with the smell of vanilla.
It was all hugely atmospheric with the ceilings and walls studded with the ends of wooden wine cases and the hooks where the meat carcasses used to hang still obvious. Rathgeber showed me where the necessary hygiene improvements had been made in the past few months but it was equally obvious where several hundred thousand euros would have to be spent to ensure that Benoit's kitchens lasted another 93 years.
As I climbed the spiral staircase back to the restaurant I realised that being a customer at Benoit is certainly be a better deal than being its patron.
Benoit 20, rue St Martin, 75004 Paris. 01.42.72.25.76
Open 7 days. Lunch 38 euros, a la carte 75 euros