PARIS — While new data show eurozone countries like France have finally emerged from recession, many Europeans are still cutting costs and staying home for the summer holidays. But in ethnically mixed northeastern Paris, home to Arabs, Africans and Asians, some of the poorest city residents are getting a taste of vacation - and of champagne, foie gras and other delicacies, for just a few euros.
By midday, the small restaurant overlooking a canal in northeastern Paris quickly fills up.
At a small table, Flavio Nervegna is managing reservations; there are dozens of demands he needs to juggle. Not just from well-heeled Parisians wanting to dine here, but from some of the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents, who will sample fine cuisine for just a fraction of the price listed on the menu.
This restaurant is part of a larger effort that Nervegna heads. Called "Tous a Table!" - or "Everyone at the Table!" - it's a collaboration supported by non-governmental groups, the private sector, French chefs and Paris city hall. Nervenga says it's about diversity, inclusiveness and democracy - through food.
"The first mission is to open the doors of restaurants that are more and more closed to people with financial difficulties. So we are receiving each day between 12 and 15 people who will pay only 10 percent of their bill…and they come in complete anonimat [anonymously]…Tous a Table is really about putting your chin up. Here you get dressed [up], you do your hair," said Nervegna.
Nervegna's clientele includes the elderly and the handicapped, first- and second-generation immigrants who are struggling for an economic foothold, and affluent Parisians.
"I had people from the Moulin Rouge coming for lunch yesterday, for example. I had two or three people who are on TV…. also mostly African people, but also lots of Chinese people and also people from North Africa. I have people from Ile Maurice, a lot... It's very nice, because everybody is treated the same way. Tous a Table is about creating mixity [diversity] in restaurants," he said.
It's a diversity reflected in this working-class neighborhood, known as the 19th arrondissement. It's here where Tous a Table has set up its summer restaurant as part of the city's larger "Paris Plage" (Paris Beach), offering faux beaches, water sports and dancing for residents.
The tough economy has taken its toll. Polls suggest half all French are cutting costs and staying home this summer.
Nervegna's restaurant not only offers fine dining for the disenfranchised, but also jobs. Ethnic Tunisian Lionel Hagege is one of the casualties of the economic crisis.
Hagege says he's been unemployed for several years until he landed a summer job at Tous a Table. He hopes it will lead to longer-term work in the restaurant business.
By mid-afternoon, the restaurant has a new clientele: a group of children wearing blindfolds who are trying to guess the fruits and vegetables they are tasting - produce that their parents cannot always afford to buy.
Eight-year-old Arnaud Arasakesary, from Sri Lanka, says figuring out what he is eating blindfolded is difficult.
But there's another goal, says Antoine Aubard, whose foundation, Simply, is backing the effort: the tastings also teach young kids about good eating habits.
"Some haven't even tried fruits and vegetables, even if they can afford it, because they're parents aren't buying them or they're too young to know them, they've never tried them," said Aubard.
Star French chefs have also pitched in, hosting cooking workshops at Tous a Table, like one with African women, to prepare an upscale version of West Africa's staple mafe peanut dish with plantain chips.
"Women that are alone most of the time, with difficult stories," said Flavio Nervegna. "And they come, between 10-15 people, and they create the plat du jour [daily special] with the chef that we serve the whole day. And they come afterwards to eat it around the table."
The menu one recent night included grilled vegetables, French cheeses, salmon pasta and a chocolate dessert. The food was delicious. It was impossible to tell whether my fellow diners were rich or poor. And that, of course, is the goal.
"The values of an association like Tous a Table and the values of cooking are very similar. It's really about sharing, it's about transmitting [know-how]," said Nervegna.
Holidays are almost over, and the restaurant closes this weekend. But the larger Tous a Table project continues. Nervegna is planning monthly dinners for the disenfranchised in top restaurants, and a huge gala dinner next June. The goal is the same: bringing a cross-section of France around the table to share good food and good times.