Driving detours

Eating at motorway service areas can be a dispiriting experience, even in France, so Paul Lamarra tells you where to take a mealtime break and refuel in style

All too often when I roll out of the belly of the ferry I make a mental note to drive on the right, tune the radio to France Bleu or Nostalgie for that first taste of French ‘cheese’, lock on to the Toutes Directions signs and within half an hour I am sailing down the autoroute with no intention of stopping any time soon.

Food and drink are passed to children in the back to appease the slightest grumble and before I know it I am counting down the kilometres and bizarrely congratulating myself on the efficiency of our getaway. The holiday spirit somehow gets lost and, were it not for being outnumbered three to one, I doubt that I would ever stop until we reached our destination.

My gripe is with motorway services. I see stopping at them as a necessary evil that should be minimised. To be fair, service areas are all about a utility that can be neatly summed up by little pictograms displayed on signs beside the motorway indicating food, fuel, picnic sites, WC and where they take credit cards.

To me, the motorway sandwich is to food what Johnny Halliday is to music; strangely without provenance and only just meeting the definition.

There is a growing trend to sell some produits regionaux but in the sterile atmosphere of chiller cabinets and fluorescent lights I am not convinced. Mostly the food is designed to be eaten by people without time, space or cutlery.

Under pressure to compromise I have, over the years, experimented with alternative food stops that contribute to the holiday spirit and prove altogether more satisfying.

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Where French motorway services areas do get it right is in their provision of ample picnicking facilities. Both the full service areas and the much more basic aires de repos give you the option.

Sitting comfortably

Aires de repos, which have been built about every 25 kilometres, usually offer no more than toilets and a phone kiosk, but their true worth is in allowing you to get out of the car and sit comfortably at a table tucking into a delicious pre-prepared picnic.

However, there are a couple of alternatives if you want a cheap meal just off the autoroute. Lorry drivers are the cognoscenti of the highways and although they frequently clog the service station car parks, they are noticeable by their absence from the cafeterias. It turns out lorry drivers have their own extensive network of eateries. Usually to be found near the first roundabout off the autoroute, Les Routiers are independent restaurants marked by a blue and red disc, and are open to everyone.

Here, a three-course lunch with wine will cost around €12. It usually consists of a cold buffet of pickled fish, salamis and lots of sweetcorn; a generous portion of chicken or a cheap cut served with potatoes/rice and gravy; a sliver of cheese; and a yogurt or mousse to finish. Generally, the wine is served whether you want it or not and although it is weaker than normal don’t be tempted to drink at all if you are the driver. Participating restaurants are listed in the annual Guide des Relais Routiers.

The other good bargain option and one that keeps the children happy is to pull over at an out-of-town centre commercial and seek out a supermarket cafeteria. For less than €12 you can enjoy almost any kind of main course (from pizza and pasta to leg of lamb and gratin dauphinois), a drink and a small dessert.

The snag is that these cafeterias get extremely busy and the queues can be lengthy. The best way to avoid the rush is to arrive just after 1.30pm when everyone else is having coffee.

Using the France-based Buffalo Grill steakhouses, whose red neon rooftop lighting can be seen for miles, is a mistake that I will make only once.