PARIS — At the Ritz palace overlooking the Place Vendôme, the "Ritz Burger" beaufort cheese, fries and a green salad is sold for 42 euros. At the Crillon bar, the chef's mini burgers are sampled until 6 pm, for a cool 28 euros. A longstanding symbol of junk food, the burger seems to have found its nobility: In just a decade, it has earned a seat at some of the most beautiful tables in France, including the Parisian address, Meurice, which The New York Times anointed as the maker of the world's best hamburger.
The burger, which first spread through the United States early last century, has prompted a revolution in the land of baguettes and foie gras: Sales last year exceeded those of the classic jambon-beurre (ham-and-butter) sandwich, a French staple. About 1.46 billion burgers were sold, 9% more than in 2016, according to Gira Conseil firm. Even if this tidal wave of burger sales is driven by an explosion in fast food sales, burgers are now also a must in traditional sit-down French restaurants. The dish is now featured on the menu at some 85% of 145,000 restaurants around the country, with owners opting for what is seen as both a "premium" and easy-to-eat offering.
The upscaling of the burger is linked to the arrival of food trucks in Paris.
The burger's rise in upper-end dining in France dates back to 2008, according to Maria Bertoch, a French restaurant specialist. In the face of the economic crisis, restaurant professionals saw this hearty dish as an opportunity to save money for themselves and their clientele. For Hubert Jan, president of the restaurant branch at Umih, the leading trade union of the profession, the upscaling of the burger in French cuisine can also be credited to food trucks that began to spread around Paris over the past five years, led by Le Camion Qui Fume ("The Smoking Truck"). "They have combined fast food and high quality," says Jan.
The burger is seen as a way to easily rejuvenate a restaurant's menu and customers, and goes down well for both lunch and dinner, with minimal preparation required. "Its margin is as high as that of a pizza or a crepe," one food professional says — between 10-15% more than any other dish à la carte on a sit-down menu, with ground meat being far less expensive than steak or rib.
Another advantage for restaurant owners is that adding a burger to the menu does not require investment: They can both diversify options and boost margins with a single dish. Pizza or crepes, for example, imply buying new specialized equipment. So, France, it seems, will keep firing up the grill like never before.