I avoid ‘chains.’ Not talking about the medieval versions that make your soul quiver when you play Lord and Serf. I’m talking about restaurant chains. Yes, I include Gimmeyerbucks and McBurgers.
Ok. I do sin occasionally. And, I swear I’m sorry. Sometimes a man’s gotta have a smack of caffeine anyway he can get it. But, in the main, when it comes to the big names in fast food, as they say in French, “I defecate upon thy hands with the full force of my churning bowels.
Recently, a close friend introduced me to Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery and coffee shop in the heart of Mons, Belgium. But, wait a sec…it’s not just in Mons, but in damn near every country that has running water. Gotta be a mistake. Can’t be a …dare I mention the word again…CHAIN! Yes, it is.
Alain Coumont opened his first one in 1990 on 16 Rue Darsaert in Brussels.
What’s so special about Le Pain Quotidien? How come this chain doesn’t deserve the same retching disgust we reserve for microwave burgers and vending machine coffee?
By the way, in English, Le Pain Quotidien means The Daily Bread. Daily bread means what it says. Fresh is the key word. More than that, everything in this bakery is organic. Preservatives, flavor enhancers, artificiality, all be damned!
LPQ has the kind of charm that makes you step inside, even if you’ve just finished breakfast. Authentically, rustic décor. An irresistible waft of fresh bread. The almost erotic allure of freshly ground coffee.
You can read all about the history of Le Pain Quotidien on their web page, and also learn where to find the nearest outlet. http://www.lepainquotidien.com/our-story-history/#.U5WIZhYajwI
But, as always, I’ll give you a thumbnail sketch. Alain trained as a chef and earned his toque in the same hotel restaurant where his father trained. But he came by his passion for fresh bread in the best way possible, at his aunt’s knee, baking loaves and tarts on Sunday mornings. There’s no substitute for the glowing passions you acquire in childhood.
As a chef, he searched all over Brussels for the taste he remembered. No luck. Only one thing to do. Start your own bakery. His idea was simple: “Having a place where I can feel at home away from home.”
To me, chains are too often a glitzy failure of artificial atmosphere: an English pub with plastic, pseudo-wood, or a grand old steakhouse, remembered with glass, steel, and recessed lighting. Doesn’t fool you anymore than replacing a leather basketball with a balloon. Dishonesty comes to mind, followed quickly by stupidity.
Le Pain Quotidien didn’t cut the corners, or introduce a substitute for real charm. It just feels right and inviting. Lots of old wood, including the counters. Faded walls look as though they carry the patina of decades. Chairs creak a bit. But, the most important part of this bakery is the bread. Loaves on shelves where you can see them. Fresh. Fresh. Fresh. Crusty and wholesome.
The coffee is dark and rich, without being bitter, or ragged on the edges. Comes in a bowl, just the way Alain’s hot chocolate did when he was a boy. Your choice of a large bowl or small.
It was early morning. I ordered a coffee and a croissant. Golden. Light. Flaky. Delicious. Just as a croissant should be. If you’re thinking crescent roll, get your mind out of the school lunchroom and into somewhere more Gallic. At LPQ, the croissants are light as air. Try a smear of orange marmalade, or one of LPQ’s delectable sweet nut spreads. They’re on every table.
You won’t be sorry. And you’ll find time to linger. This isn’t just breakfast, this is the start of a beautiful day.
I know I’ve got time. Who hasn’t got time for another glimpse of childhood on a sunny morning. “Mademoiselle, un autre café, s'il vous plaît.”