At the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), James Bond rings up his old friend Monsieur Bécaud, proprietor of a modest restaurant exactly opposite the railway station of Étaples in northern France, and books a table. Two hours later, Bond enjoys a dinner of turbot poché, sauce mousseline and half a roast partridge. Did the restaurant really exist, and if so, where is it?
According to a near-contemporary edition of the Michelin Guide, there were two restaurants opposite the railway station: the Hotel des Voyageurs and the Normandie. Of the two, the Voyageurs is nearer the station’s ticket office and therefore closer to being exactly opposite the station. However, the situation isn’t so clear cut.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to check out the restaurants for myself. I drove to Étaples and found that, while the Normandie has closed down, the Voyageurs still exists. The Voyageurs is a large hotel, bar and brasserie on the corner of the street. This doesn’t quite accord with Fleming’s modest establishment and I wondered whether he meant the Normandie, which seems to have been next door to the Voyageurs in a building now occupied by an estate agents. (The address of both establishments given in the Michelin Guide is 7 Place de la Gare, but confusingly, the Voyageurs is in fact at 11 Place de la Gare, while the establishment next door is at no. 9.) That said, Michelin categorised the Voyageurs as a very plain, but adequate hotel, so perhaps the restaurant was modest enough.
Of course, Ian Fleming may not have had either restaurants in mind. It’s possible that he was referring to another restaurant on the street that wasn’t included in Michelin (the guide isn’t comprehensive) or he wasn’t describing any establishment specifically.
Whatever the case, we know that the Voyageurs existed at the time that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was published, and so naturally I popped in to recreate James Bond’s experience as best I could. Unfortunately, poached turbot and roast partridge was off the menu, but I ordered what I hoped was a suitably Bondian assiette de la mer, which turned out to be fish paté and pieces of smoked salmon and mackerel fillets. Keeping with the fish theme, I followed my starter with baked whole merlu (hake), accompanied by rice, boiled potatoes and a salad.
During my meal, the staff member who served me told me that she had worked at the Voyageurs for thirty-odd years. She showed me some vintage photographs of the establishment, judging by which, the hotel was long past its glory days. She wasn’t, alas, familiar with the name of Monsieur Bécaud.