Relais Routiers: Oh, to Be a Trucker (in France)

Charcuterie plate
A lot has been made of the glory and diversity of America’s road-foods by such hit US TV shows as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which, if you haven’t seen it, features a bleach-blond moron traveling the highways and byways of this great nation gorging himself on deep-fried hamburgers, the world’s spiciest chicken wings, and platters of barbecue so big you could almost hear his car’s shocks wince. He then jumps back behind the wheel and steps on the gas to make it to the next neon-signed heart-stopper before his cholesterol level has the chance to drop below 300.

As you may have inferred, I am not overly impressed by this show or others like Man vs. Food that marvel at just how gluttonous and boorish the host can be. Perhaps it’s because I frequently over-eat and then avoid looking at myself in the mirror, but in the same way as I don’t favor shows featuring close-ups of young fools guzzling booze, like, say, The Real World, I also don’t enjoy watching some fat guy shoving 4 pounds of pancakes down his pie-hole surrounded by the cheering obese. I find it all, shall we say, sorta gross.

On a more serious note though, if such shows are truly representative of the best road-food in this country, and were I an American truck-driver, I would fear for my health. I know from personal experience that driving isn’t one of the more healthful occupations given the innumerable sedentary hours in the cab, but when the majority of truck-stops offer only greasy fast food, you can be pretty sure that expecting to to enjoy a long and healthy retirement after 40 years in the game may be optimistic.

We mentioned our appreciation for the fare offered at Italian truck-stops a couple of years ago — noting with joy and surprise in equal measure that one can get beer or wine to accompany, amongst other things, fantastically fresh panini — but our recent trip to France has re-opened the debate over which country we’d prefer to be a trucker in.

Known as routiers, French truck-drivers have a reputation for gruffness and industrial action. Rarely a year passes in which they do not blockade the Channel Tunnel or the autoroutes around Paris with blazing oil drums to protest rising fuel prices, increased tolls, or out of sympathy with the similarly militant French farmer. Having driven in France, one sympathizes with their complaints over the miserable state of fuel and tolls, but if there is one facet of Gallic truck-driving life about which they cannot complain, it’s road food.

Relais Routiers sign, Auberge St. Martin

Perhaps to compensate the routier for his hard life behind the wheel, the weeks away from his family (and it almost always is a him), and the hours of solitude, in true French style, there has grown up a nationwide network of restaurants that principally cater to him: the Relais Routiers. The French trucker network makes sure that wherever he may find himself, from the city to the countryside, from Flanders to Gascony, the hard-working driver can get a three-course meal with wine and a shower without having to resort to such desperate measures as his American (or British) counterpart and settle for fast-food. In fact, a handy pocket-guide is published annually to help them find these often out-of-the-way places.

And therein lies the rub: rather like the average Frenchman who will happily spend an hour of his precious Sunday driving out to a tiny auberge hidden in the hills to support the cooking of a particular chef, the French truck driver will always go out of his way to arrive at a Relais Routiers around noon. And why not? They serve excellent, often regional, food at the correct price that has him returning every time he’s passing by.

But to many throughout the provinces of France, the Relais Routiers are more than just a truck-stop. They are the local restaurant, watering-hole, social club and informal town hall — the locus for ties that bind the community together. And like local businesses everywhere, owners of Relais Routiers know their clientele well enough to understand that their customer’s loyalty to a restaurant is only as strong as its loyalty is to their stomachs and pocket-books. Consequently, they offer reliably good, honest food. Indeed, in these thin times, and with the advent of so many pretentious, expensive eateries causing the collapse of local bistrots across France, some commentators have called Relais Routiers the guardians of the nation’s cuisine. This might be slightly unfair to the Paul Bocuses and Daniel Bouluds of this world, but like a good pub in Britain or quality diner in America, you simply know where you are with a Routiers. You know what to expect and while your expectations might rarely be exceeded, they are always met, and familiarity and comfort are what most people seek most of the time.
Slice of local andouillette sausage
Until comparatively recently, the laws governing alcohol consumption and driving in France were less than strict, and it was perfectly normal for a routier to wash his three course meal down with an aperitif, half a bottle of wine and a digestif (all except the digestif being included in the price) before breezily climbing back into the cab of his 10 ton machine and trundling off. These days the carte routiers still includes three (sometimes four!) generous courses, but with the booze sensibly capped at a 1/3 bottle, often served in a small jug that looks touchingly dainty in the nicotine-stained hands of blue-chinned trucker.

When we visited Auberge St. Martin — a Relais Routiers on the RN31 in Pontarcher, Ambleny, between Compiègne and Soissons in the Oise department of France between Christmas and New Years — our delicious three course lunch and half-carafe of house red plus coffee set us back an astonishing 22 euros ($29) for the two of us. The charge of one euro above that levied on many of our fellow diners was due to our inability to flash our routiers membership card.
Auberge St. Martin, Relais Routiers
The Carte Routiers had its customary three options that day, a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts: a charcuterie plate (containing slices of the local specialty, andouillette, or tripe sausage) or pork rillettes, followed by poulet Basquaise (Basque-style chicken with peppers and onions in a spicy sauce) or biftek (rump steak with french fries), and fromage blanc (a delicious thick natural yogurt) or assiette de fromage (cheese plate) for dessert.

The food was simple and delicious, and the service prompt and informal. The sole problem we encountered was in following directions to the bathroom which appeared to lead to the bar, but in fact directed you outside to a separate door where the shower was located. The most enlightening aspect of the whole experience — quite apart from note penned on the menu listing a shower for 2 euro or 3 euro with a towel — was that this place really did a lot of its business with truck drivers. Outside, packed tightly together on the muddy verges of a country road were 10 or more giant trucks, and glancing around us more than half the diners were sitting quietly by themselves, sleeves rolled up to reveal a bevy of tattoos, breaking their midday bread in companionable silence. We looked at each other and both said, almost simultaneously, “this would never happen in America.” It was a moment of sincere cultural recognition on our behalf, and we raised our glasses to toast these heroes of haulage and their continuing role as custodians of the nation’s table.

Postscript:
I should have mentioned, as some readers pointed out, that Alton Brown’s Feasting on Asphalt series on the Food Network brought much-needed attention to many of America’s excellent road-food places. In some ways, I willfully ignored these and made a false comparison between France and America by only focusing on the dearth of good eateries along America’s interstates while specifically discussing eateries scattered around the back-roads of the French countryside. As Alton says, “Steer clear of freeways. You will never see, hear, smell, feel, or taste anything interesting on an interstate.”

37 thoughts on “Relais Routiers: Oh, to Be a Trucker (in France)

  1. Here in Spain it’s been always said that good road restaurants were those whom had more trucks parked at the outside.

    Carte Routiers is such a great idea! French know how to do things right!!!

  2. Few things make my heart go pitter-pat like a beautiful charctuerie plate! You had me at the first photo.

    I do admit, I do love traditional American truck stop food. A greasy burger is a special pleasure in itself. DD&D may not be a quality show, but at lesat it does showcase the “little guys”, gives a hand up to independent establishments. Heck, they profiled an excellent Venezuelan lunch place near my office in Norwalk and the business at that place skyrocketed. In cases like that, perhaps the show serves a purpose.

  3. @Rachel – I was, of course, being deliberately provocative. I didn’t really need to make a dig at the Food Network and Guy Fieri, I just couldn’t resist. I dearly love a greasy burger too, but the larger point, of there being too few alternatives to heart-stopping fare on the American roads, is a problem. One could equally argue the lack of quality hamburgers available on the French roads is equally a problem, but if I had to eat road food day-in, day-out, I’d definitely prefer to have the choices available to the French trucker than the American. I only briefly touched on it, but I think the question of the volume of food offered in these kinds of places is also worth mentioning. While you might get a three course meal with wine at a relais routiers, you also tend to get food that is recognizably fresh and a good serving of vegetables, but in reasonably-sized portions. The point of dissing D,D&D and Man vs. Food is that they glorify the extra-large or, in many cases, obscenely large portion, which in these times of fearfully-high obesity, heart disease and diabetes, is pretty disgusting.

  4. What a delightful post… I loved the stories of the routhiers and wish such places existed here. The Sterns go from coast to coast finding the best road food… which is heads above what normal truckers even know to want let alone go out of their way to find. These places are fast disappearing as they are pushed out by fast food and an aging clientele and ownership. Sad fact of life in the USA but good for them to at least applaud the dying breed. Thanks for the great post.

    1. @Deana – thanks for the reminder about the Sterns. I had almost forgotten about http://roadfood.com/. Definitely an effort to be applauded. It’s one thing complaining about the lack of good road food out there (like me), they are trying to do something about it and raise awareness of what great stuff there really is.

  5. I feel the same way about Man V. Food, every time I turn on the Travel channel hoping for Bourdain, that show is on instead! It’s kind of unbelievable they can get away with glorifying that kind of excess in this day and age.

    I did think there was a tiny touch of irony to your photos of the charcuterie platter though, given your criticism of the grease & calories of American food! Don’t get me wrong, I love charcuterie and think it’s head and shoulders above any kind of processed foods, but it’s not exactly the epitome of healthfulness either, especially if you were eating it every day. 😉

    When I was teaching in France, the cafeteria meals for the teaching staff sound pretty close to what you described, also with wine included. Luckily I had a free hour after lunch to walk or nap it off!

    1. @Noelle – i agree with you about charcuterie, and those pics were posted with a certain irony, especially since the shots of our main course, steak frites wouldn’t necessarily have helped make my point either! It’s important to note that, as you know, French portions are much more modest than those found in America and the French diner’s, perfectly reasonable, expectation is to be able to finish what’s on his plate. In America, giant portions are expected and actually finishing your meal is a challenge, but because so many extra calories are available on the plate, you are tempted to over eat simply because you can, and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “I can resist anything except temptation.”

  6. God, I hate Guy Fieti (I know it’s ‘Fieri’ but he always pronounces it like he’s an honest-to-goodness Italian). Scary thing: he’s taking over network television, too. He’s like the fat, goateed, fake rockabilly Ryan Seacrest.

    But about eating road grub in France: jealous! I love road food. This also reminds me of the grub available at convenience stores in Tokyo. It’s remarkably good for the price, and a far cry from the botulism-in-a-bun we get at American 7-11 stores.

    1. @Heather – hooray! I’m so glad you rose to the FN bait. We hate him too. Doesn’t Fieri/Fieti realize the 90s was 10 years ago and wrap-around shades, barbed-wire tattoos and other rockabilly-revival bullshit (thanks Quentin Tarantino) are dating him horribly?

  7. I drove all the way West on highway 40 when I moved to California in 1993, and I was a vegetarian. I don’t know how I made it through Arkansas alive.

    Years later, driving from Florence to Milan, I stopped at what in this country would be a ghastly soylent green dispensary and instead had a perfect espresso and some damn fine penne all’arrabiata.

    Still, having said that, I think Jonny should go back to Australia and stop stealing our jobs and women.

  8. @Peter – Reminds me of Johnny Cash, “I never wouldda made it through the Arkansas mud, if I hadn’t been riding on the Tennessee stud”. Having said that, serves you right for being a vegetarian.

  9. Cool! I want to go on the road again, only in France, from one end to the other stopping at the Relais Routiers all the way. Next time I get off this rock.

  10. Yes, yes. You show us that charcuterie plate as such a tease. I can almost taste the pungent flavors of that salami in the center. I’m so with you on the backwards glory of Man v. Food, and although I do enjoy his showcasing the rare gems of places that serve perfect BBQ and dreamy, one-of-a-kind food finds, I’m grossly fascinated and often just as put out by his over-consumption of killer meals. Huge steaks, 7-pound burritos… I’m sorry if I can’t abide. These days, it just seems wrong. And irresponsible. I will be far more interested, and willing to watch ‘Food Revolution’ especially with hopes that others will tune in as well. And hopefully Jamie Oliver won’t diss salami. That might make me cry.

  11. Man that Andouillette caught my attention! I ate many versions the last time I was in France, some tasted literally like crap, some were heavenly. Thanks for this great post!

  12. I did love this post! I was smiling at your ferocity re: american food at truck stops and sighing at the relais routiers that I had missed while living in France all these years.

  13. “The food was simple and delicious” — that says it all, doesn’t it? It’s what’s missing at most truck stops here in the states. Sometimes a slice or two of good quality bread, cheese, and a slice of charcuterie is all it takes.

  14. Your story is bringing back lots of memory. I always loved Routiers restaurants, they’re relatively cheap, always good (even excellent sometimes) but what i love the most is how unique they are. It’s a little bit like being in someone’s home for a meal.

    Again, great writing Jonny. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Good writing, loved reading this.
    Growing up we would drive from the uk to France once or twice a year for holidays and wine purchases, most of the time it was normal autoroute service stations (which we loved) but sometimes Relais Routiers where we would have wonderful food and wine like the french children. My parents still plan trips around them.

  16. It’s funny you mention roadside food. In extend to this I also can’t stand most vacation spots and their food offerings. Drive to the little coastal towns or to the places around the National Parks and all you get is deep fried sameness. And this doesn’t have to be snobbyish, good, local, seasoal food doesn’t have to be expensive. Thanks for the post!

  17. I am with Kate – grossly fascinated by Guy shoving monstrous portions of fatty foods down his gullet. And yes – he’s trying so hard to be cool with the hair, tats, and shades it’s fun to laugh at his “look”. What a kook!

    Thanks for yet another highly educated post and I am going to store this little piece of info in the back of my brain. Then one day, I will pull out this piece of trivia and blow away one of my family members with “Oh yeah, I know about the truck drivers in France; they eat at these great little cafes called Relais Routiers.” A blank stare will inevitably follow and I will be chuckling to myself while thinking “God, I love We are Never Full!”.

  18. Sorry if I bump this post into the present! I’ve just found this group, and I love it.

    @Claudia
    Your idea is a great one! I did a similar trip in 1987. South from Boulogne to Perpignan, across the top of the Med then north from Marseilles to Calais. Oh, the memories of the food at RR. Unbelievable.
    That, of course, was before I moved to Canada, and found out that good food is unobtainable here……

  19. I’m late to the party here, but your page popped up while I was searching for routiers, and I wanted to check it out since it was one of the few in English. Kudos on a great article! I’ve experienced routiers twice, both on a working trip in France. One was in the Loire, the other in Languedoc. My previous experiences with Continental road food had been good – in Italy and Germany, and I certainly was not disappointed in the least with the French equivalent (although the German truck stop with its fresh chantrelle mushrooms with spaetzle in an herbed cream sauce was pretty amazing).

    The irony is most of the food at routiers would be hoity-toity, high-class “gourmet” food twice the price in the U.S. And a bottle of wine would be double the price of the entree!

    I’m visiting the Dordogne in June and have already printed out the list of the routiers from their website. Although I’m staying at hotels with restaurants, I’m keeping myself open to the occasional routiers stop for lunch!

    1. @Seatea: Thanks for visiting. You’re totally right. That is the irony of Routiers food. That gruff, blue-chinned truckers are tucking into a dish of chicken with tarragon cream sauce that would be served with great reverence at a white tablecloth joint over this side of the Atlantic always struck me as one of the greatest aspects of a Routier cafe. They really are some of the least pretentious places to eat excellent food in France. Enjoy the Dordogne! We’re very jealous!

  20. Nice to know they still exist, though in 2010 in Provence we didn’t see a single one. I have memories of them in 1965, when there weren’t freeways to speak of, and in particular one in the Loire valley where my ex ordered fritures de Loire. That turned out to be tiny fish fried whole. She looked at these and said in English ‘How do I eat this?’ whereupon one of the blue chinned truckers, who obviously understood English, came across, picked one up by the tail, lowered it into his mouth, crunched it up, and said ‘Like that!”

    I’m jealous too.

    1. @Paul: thanks for the wonderful comment and story. We, too, got the impression that they aren’t quite so common as they once were due to the rise of the autoroute and fuel prices in France which discourage drivers from making detours to satisfy their stomachs. That said, this one was doing excellent business on a weekday lunchtime, so hope remains that these bastions of working class gastronomy will continue. I just looked up fritures de Loire and being big fans of Goujons as well as fried smelts, it looks like they fall somewhere between the two. But isn’t that what’s so great about Routiers in the first place? They are hyper-local and they know they’re going to only serve two or three mains a day, so it’s all totally fresh.

  21. Here is Elizabeth David on the subject of cafes routiers, from her 1960 book French Provincial Cooking, pp 46 & 47: “My first-hand knowledge of Brillat-Savarin’s country is small, my only gastronomic recollection being of a very excellent but very simple meal, all the more delicious for being somewhat unexpected, in a cafe-routier just outside Bourg-en-Bresse. It was in the days before these transport cafes had become well known to tourists and stopping for petrol before going into Bourg we saw that behind the filling station was a small whitewashed farmhouse advertising accommodation and meals………….

    Our dinner consisted of a small selection of hors-d’ouevre, amongst which the home-made pate was especially good; afterwards we ate a tender chicken roasted in butter, and a salad. The sweet was that wonderfully fresh and innocent-looking cream cheese dish, a coeur a la creme, served with fresh rich cream. We complimented the patronne…….

    When we came down next morning…………we found that the patronne had provided more coeurs a la creme for our breakfast; and on the table beside the coffee, croissants and the butter was a bowl of beautiful fresh wild strawberries. How she had procured them at that hour of the morning I did not ask……. etc”

    Maybe to more sophisticated travellers cafe-routiers were well known but to me in 1965 they were an eye-opener. At that time in this country (South Africa) the only meals available in most small towns were at the hotel, where (if you were white, and at specified mealtimes only) you would get brown soup, rather fishy fish, roast chicken/lamb/beef or all three, with overdone cabbage, rice and potatoes, with jelly or steamed pudding to follow. It’s different now, in all respects.

    1. @Paul: Thanks for visiting our blog and thanks so much for the lovely comment! I’m not sure that even today Routiers are patronized by most tourists. Certainly, in our limited experience of them, we were the only non-French, and apart from a couple of families, the majority were blue-chinned truckers. I’ve read that as the French truck driver becomes a rarer breed (with most freight now traveling on the rails due to fuel prices), Routiers are welcoming tourists more and more as a means of compensating. If this is true, I do hope that the evolving clientele doesn’t signal a shift in the food or style of service, as it would be a great shame if these working-man’s restaurants became gentrified and priced beyond the reach of their usual patrons.

      And to your point, I totally agree: food, in general, has improved immeasurably over my lifetime, both in quality and selection. I’ve not visited South Africa (one day!), but truck stops in most countries I have been to offer only revolting fast food, making the offerings of even the most decrepit Routier cafe unimaginably good.

  22. Until last year, I was an english trucker driving backwards and forwards to France every week for six years and my nightly stops at many of the Routiers were the highlights of my week. I must have visited most of them and rarely was I disappointed. During the afternoon, I would find my Routiers guide and plan where my night’s break would be, sometimes, somewhere new, sometimes, an old favourite, of which there were plenty! Parking up at around six o’clock, quick shower and then into the bar for a kir, while, all the time building up an appetite for the wonderful fayre that awaited me and my fellow truckers! Happy days!

    1. @Rob: thanks for the wonderful comment! How would you say that English truck-stops compare with Routiers? Is there any equivalent in the UK whether a network or just a few good pubs that cater to truckers?

  23. Sadly, there really is absolutely no equivalent in the UK…honestly! There are truckstops, but the food they offer is poor at best and the atmosphere within is non-existant.

Like this post? Hate this post? Let us know!