Want a Good Seat in a Paris Restaurant? Be Famous, Attractive – and White

A French restaurateur in Islamabad has caused controversy by banning Pakistanis. But in Paris, seating customers based on their looks, ethnicity, wealth and fame is common practice.

Cafe Marly at the Louvre in Paris

Cafe Marly at the Louvre in Paris, which has been accused of having a controversial seating policy. Photograph: Kevin George/Alamy

Last week, the French restaurateur Philippe Lafforgue hit the headlines for a controversial seating policy employed at his restaurant La Maison. Despite being situated in the heart of Islamabad, Pakistanis are forbidden from entering unless accompanied by a foreigner. It seems Lafforgue prefers to cater for the expat market. He claimed that he thought he had no choice, legally, because he was serving pork and alcohol.

You might wonder if Lafforgue has ever worked in a Parisian restaurant, where the ugly practice of profiling on looks, ethnicity, wealth and fame is all too common. Two former restaurant employees told Le Canard Enchaîné – an investigative and satirical weekly – that failure to comply with the house rules regarding where to sit better looking people would result in such reprimands as: “What are those ugly people doing at this table? Everyone can see them when they come in. It’s bad for our image.”

My own experience backs this up. Having once spent six months working in one of the rather chic Parisian establishments at the centre of this controversy, and having spoken to workers at several other restaurants, I have seen up close how it works. The insidious nature of this practice is actually much more orchestrated than is perhaps understood.

In my restaurant, there was an area referred to as the “VIP zone”. It wasn’t strictly for VIPs, but for those guests that were deemed to meet “a certain criteria”. Located on the terrace in front of the restaurant, it was in essence used by the management to showcase how good-looking and famous the guests were to those passing by.

Those lucky enough to be seated in the VIP zone would often be fawned over by the better-looking waitresses (unsurprisingly, similar rules applied to the staff as the clients, and a short, average-looking waiter or waitress was hard to spot in the establishment). VIP visitors could even expect an informal visit from the manager to see how they were getting on. The food, too, would undergo additional attention before leaving the kitchen. But again, as with the guests, what mattered was how it looked.

Rarely would non-Europeans find their way into the VIP zone. Usually they would be shunted towards the edges of the restaurant. I once heard a forgotten table of Filipina girls complain: “No one is serving us! They’re ignoring us because we’re Asian.” They were right.

For the Parisian hôtesse, there is a myriad of things to consider when screening potential customers and deciding where to seat them. Fame – the most sacred of all customer attributes – is supposed to trump looks, though some can slip through the net. The hôtesse can only rely on her often quite narrow Parisian instincts to select a suitable table for any customers that arrive without a booking.

Thus I found George Michael sitting in the corner once, to the alarm of the manager, and Cate Blanchett was given a secondary table as the hôtesse, only noticing the friend and children with her, promptly ushered them away from the VIP zone. She spent the rest of the time hoping they’d finish eating before the manager arrived and discovered her mistake.

I recently discussed this seating practice with a friend and Parisian restaurant manager, who seemed unable to see why this was surprising. She kept waiting for the controversial aspect of the story. Her response was simple: “I don’t see where the news is. Everyone knows this happens. It’s Paris. Why do you think CVs without a photo never get looked at? It’s all about how you look.”

Creating the illusion of exclusivity is what these restaurants do; it permits them to charge more for the often quite average food and drink. And though most of us wouldn’t meet the criteria to be seated in the exclusive areas, our presence is still important. After all, it’s the “normal people” who help balance the books so that the farce can go on.

– The Guardian