Film Scouts Buzz

1997 Cannes Film Festival Buzz
TRAY BIEN: A fond farewell

by Lisa Nesselson

On Tuesday February 11 at a quarter to one in the morning, Brigitte Bueninck signed the papers that signaled the end of an era. The RESTAURAMA - a vast airy establishment located on the ground floor of Le Splendid hotel, facing the water in Cannes - would give way, after 38 years, to a branch of the Planet Hollywood empire, slated to open with customary fanfare just in time for the 50th International Film Festival in May.

The RESTAURAMA self-service cafeteria was the brainchild of Bueninck's enterprising father, Robert René Gallais, a sort of Gallic Johnny Appleseed who spread good ideas across France. (Pause, if you will, to recall that even the most iconic of French comestibles had to be introduced to French soil and the citizenry: without Parmentier, there would be no potatoes - and hence no "frites" - in France; without the innkeeper Procope, we're told, coffee might never have caught on in Gaul. It's like trying to picture New York or LA without donut shops.)

Gallais worked with the Marshall Plan from 1949-1953 in Washington DC after the war. When he and his family returned to France, he brought back with him a few solidly American ideas, including plans to launch the first self-service cafeteria ever in Gaul. People scoffed at the very notion, warning him that "No self-respecting Frenchman would ever stoop to carrying his own tray." But Gallais' first eatery, opened in 1953 on rue Pierre Charron in Paris, was a smashing success, with a turnover of 1200-1500 meals a day. A three course repast cost less than 12 (old) francs.

"At first, customers didn't grasp the concept," Bueninck reminiscences. "You had to explain it to them: Take a tray, a knife and fork, help yourself to a salad or a desert. Proceed to the cash register, then choose an empty seat and dig in." (Bueninck speaks perfect colloquial English, which served her well during her many years with UNESCO.

Despite naysayers, Gallais went on to introduce another no-frills Yank standby, the "lavomatique" (launderette) to France.

He was also instrumental in popularizing the "ticket repas" - the subsidized meal vouchers most employers bestow upon employees to defray the high cost of grabbing a bite to eat. The boss pitches in half the face value, the worker chips in the rest and the resulting tickets help keep the nation's far-from-cheap cafes, restaurants and brasseries afloat.

In the '50s some carbonated beverage barons said, "Mr. Gallais, you're bilingual, you're a good man. Would you accept the French franchise for Coca-Cola?" Mr. Gallais said "no" because he didn't personally care for the most profitable brown liquid this side of crude oil.

If I may digress, Coke became widely available in France, of course, even without guidance from Mr. Gallais. Cherry Coke is a very recent development, lauched in earnest this April with the oddest ad campaign since the provocateurs at Bennetton started mixing sex, death, animal micegenation and war with trendy ready-to-wear garb. Billboards feature two collossal cans of Cherry Coke, tinted (what else?) cherry red with black leopard-like spots, accompanied by one of three tag lines, which translate as follows: "At last, a drink that matches your pimples and blackheads"; "Considering the music you listen to, it figures you'll like this beverage"; and "At least there's one thing you'll be able to call "cherie" this year." (Would a comparable approach have worked, I wonder, when H2O from the other side of the pond first tackled the American market? "Listen up you boorish Yanks: mineral water from France may not change your life, but at least you'll be lavishing cash on the domestic subsidiary of Perrier or Evian.")

The RESTAURAMA, whose impressive marquee was a replica of the zig-zag "building blocks" pattern of Hollywood's "Cinerama" logo, opened in 1959 with that era's equivalent of the hoopla Planet Hollywood is likely to attract. [The eye-boggling Cinerama process, which utilized a trio of cameras filming side-by-side to render ultra-widescreen images reconstituted via three synchronized projectors running simultaneously, was designed to lure mass audiences back to the movie theaters they'd begun to desert in the early '50s due to the spread of television. Gallais was inspired by the eye-catching logo and the grandeur and excitement it implied.]

"The Kessler Twins - Ellen and Alice - who were big stars at the Lido, were on hand for the opening ceremonies and helped draw 300 people," explains Bueninck, a gracious hostess who exudes the hands-on energy of a workaholic who is happiest when serving the needs of others. "My father had a knack for blending showmanship and practicality. Now I suppose Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis will inaugurate the new establishment."

I became a RESTAURAMA devotee starting with my first Cannes fest in 1987. My colleagues have always been skeptical, but the food there was fresh and tasty (Bueninck eschewed frozen meat and fish and got her produce at the local market), the service quick and polite. The sunny terrace or the big tables inside were perfect for stretching out and reading the trades or writing reviews between screenings. I know of no place else in Cannes to get a decent osso bucco heaped with vegetables or fresh poached salmon with a lifetime supply of potatoes for under ten bucks.

In 1986, civic-minded Bueninck helped instigate a city-wide program to provide free meals to one of the area's most prevalent natural resources: senior citizens. The RESTAURAMA may have provided hasty but tasty sustenance for communications professionals during the film festival and the dozens of other major trade shows staged throughout the year in the Palais des Festivals across the street, but 365 days a year it was a friendly gathering place for the elderly, who came for coffee or tea and ice cream or pastry. A retired woman I spoke to - who pointed out that one could rotate fountain deserts for quite a while before having to repeat - had been coming "every afternoon for six years." She and her friends will now have a choice between the decidely limited fare at McDonald's next door (new as of last year) and Planet Hollywood.

The 45th Planet Hollywood on earth and the third to be built in France (following the Champs-Elysees and Disneyland Paris) is a ground level establishment with 250 indoor place settings, a bar, a souvenir boutique and a terrace that seats 150. Many an urban Planet Hollywood is a windowless concrete box, but the architects have taken advantage of the Riviera climate and the RESTAURAMA's choice location facing the old port. There's been a dining establishment there at the base of the Hotel Splend for much of this century. The pre-Gallais tenant was the Brasserie Lorraine and before that, a dance hall.

"We worked hard," says a man who washed RESTAURAMA dishes for 24 years. "There were hundreds and hundreds of customers a day." Planet Hollywood's track record suggests that customers will flock to the new joint, too. In place of the RESTAURAMA's drinking fountain (one of the few I've ever spotted indoors in France) and the formica sign announcing to those in the line that used to stretch out the door: "You have a 7 minute wait from this point," will be such items of authentic cinemablilia as Bruce Willis' walkie-talkie from "Die Hard with a Vengeance," the T-shirt Sylvester Stallone wore in "Cliffhanger" (which had its world premiere, for charity, during the 1993 Cannes fest), Gerard Depardieu's hat from "Tous les matins du monde" and Tom Hanks' ping pong paddle from "Forrest Gump."

Anyone who's ever ordered a burger and a Coke at a Planet Hollywood can confirm that if one goes at all, one does so more for the form (the spirited decor that showcases entertainment artifacts) than the content (the food).

On the eve of his 25th pilgrimage to Cannes, Roger Ebert - who always bunks at the Splendid - told me, "This is just another example of the seismic shift that began when the Palais [the Festival's original home, circa 1949-1983, nearly a mile to the east] moved. In the old days, the Splendid was at the "wrong" end of town, a long walk from the Palais, albeit the harbor and the vieux carre were charming. When the Palais moved, everything moved with it--the crowds, the chic cafes, the restaurants, etc. But Planet Hollywood?? With long lines of teenagers waiting to get in? Not the tone a town like Cannes should be encouraging."

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