Monday, 19 December 2011
Our favourite restaurant
We always enjoy a meal at a Châteaubriant restaurant known as Au Vieux Castel (At the Old Castle - castel really being a small castle or manor).
This restaurant has a distinctly dismal appearance from the outside, a sort of downcast look which is not helped by its situation at possibly the busiest crossroads, next to one of only three sets of traffic lights in town. One opens the door and is immediately pitched headlong down three steep steps into the bar. French bars are completely different from English pubs. There is no warm, welcoming feeling to them; they are plasticy and usually have rectangular, formica-topped tables lined up in neat rows, with hard chairs to sit on. Granted, this bar is not quite as bad as that, but an English country pub it is not.
The restaurant is through a narrow arch and down another step. Once in the restaurant, one could be forgiven for thinking that one had passed through a time warp and was back in the 1970s – or even the 1950s. At first glance, the floor appears to be tiled, but it is actually covered in lino. The bottom half of the walls is covered in wainscotting stained a deep brown, the upper half of the walls having been painted in what is now a rather dirty-looking cream. Or is it magnolia? The window frames and a door into the street are painted dark brown. (That door, by the way, is permanently locked and duct tape has been placed over the edges to prevent draughts coming through.) The windows have net curtains at the bottom half, and I'm not at all sure those curtains have been washed in the six years or so that I have been eating there. The ceiling has beams – also stained a dark brown. Hanging from the walls and some of the beams is a collection of ancient woodworking tools and, somewhat incongruously, a wooden coffee grinder. Also decorating the walls are a number of pictures, including a rather dark landscape, an old photo of somebody's great grandparents, a pin-and-cotton spider's web on black felt and a mock horse's collar complete with plastic flowers. There are pots of artificial flowers on each windowsill and a five-foot tall artificial laburnum in full flower. Goodness knows how they all get dusted – or even if they ever do. Standing against one wall is an ornate upright piano, complete with candles, and just beside the entrance is a large charcoal grill on which the meat and fish is cooked.
The restaurant is owned and run by two very nice gentlemen who would be quite at home in Brighton. One is in charge of the front of house, while the other is in charge of the kitchen and cooks the meat. They both greet us effusively when we arrive, with kisses for Mrs S and handshakes for me. The first time the kisses started I backed up against a handy pillar, but I needn't have worried: I'm obviously not their type. All joking aside, they are always very pleasant and we usually manage to crack a feeble joke somewhere in the conversation. It has to be a feeble joke as neither of them speak as much English as I do French, which is little enough. Mrs S is always helped solicitously down the step from the bar into the restaurant where we have a regular table beside a heater - very pleasant in the winter.
When we arrived earlier this year we were surprised to find that the restaurant had been given a make-over. The brown wainscotting had been painted white with crimson trim and the tablecloths were white with crimson check. Although it is now very smart, I think I preferred the old look which I found much more characterful. This is how it used to be: