PARIS, France - A week-long celebration of gastronomy aims to tempt would-be gourmands on tight budgets into the world of fine French dining next month with two-for-one fixed-price meals at more than a thousand restaurants across the country.
In its third year, "Tous au Restaurant," or "Everyone to the Restaurant" has signed up 1,200 eateries, both Michelin-starred and more modest establishments, to offer diners a set three-course meal at a reduced price from September 17-23.
"It's about democratizing gastronomy, which is thought of as expensive," Jean-Bernard Bros, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of tourism, told Reuters. "It attracts clients who aren't necessarily in the habit of going to new restaurants."
France has a long and rich culinary heritage, at the apogee of which sits the "gastronomic meal," a ritual-laden social tradition added to UNESCO's cultural heritage list in 2010.
But French cuisine - frequently infused with butter and cream - is often perceived as fussy and out of touch with modern appetites for simpler, healthier food.
With a looming recession also weighing on diners' choices, a new generation of chefs has sought to combat that image with lighter menus and more casual eateries offering quality meals at affordable prices.
Online bookings open for Tous au Restaurant on September 5.
At a lunch to promote the event, organizers and members of the press convened 125 meters (410 feet) in the air at the Jules Verne, the Eiffel Tower restaurant of celebrity chef Alain Ducasse who dreamt up the idea three years ago.
"We're killing ourselves - gastronomically!" said Bros, as waiters brought out a sample menu of appetizers which may be on offer in September - cucumber gelee with creme fraiche and a raw sea bream served with lime zest and shredded egg.
The food fest continued at Citrus Etoile off the Champs-Elysees where cod poached in a ginger and sake court bouillon and a simple puree of tiny green peas graced the tables.
Musing on last year's event, which attracted more than 400,000 people across France, chef Gilles Epie said his eatery was crammed with eager eaters from old to young.
"We were booked for the whole week within one and a half hours," he said. "There were people who came from the provinces, young people who were 20 years old, really it was neat."
Organizers say the week-long festival is not designed to be a money-maker - Epie said his restaurant just breaks even - but is instead intended to encourage those who are discovering the world of gastronomy for the first time.
At the same time, they say, it may open doors to young people who might want to make a career of the so-called "metiers de bouche" - literally "professions of the mouth."
New this year is a bus transformed into a mobile restaurant - the "Resto Truck" - that will park at emblematic spots in the French capital and serve 80 meals at lunch and dinner, each helmed by a different chef.