Latvians resumed dining on outdoor terraces on 7 May, blessed by glorious sunny weather. A veteran purveyor of all things French was there to greet his customers in Riga.
Before the war, Riga’s leafy boulevards and cosmopolitan air earned it the nickname “the little Paris.” In more recent times, few have done more to bring joie de vivre to the Latvian capital than Frenchman Bernard Larane.
For over two decades, this native of Toulouse has treated Riga to delicious pastries, uplifting coffee and an elegantly relaxed ambience at his chain of cafes. And having shared so many ups and downs with his adopted city, the restoration of Bernard’s pavement oases has soothed many pandemic-weary souls.
The good life on a budget
The sight of Bernard shuttling between his city centre outlets by bicycle in all weathers has been a fixture of Riga street life for many years. And his first journeys to the Baltic were just as intrepid.
He made a six-hour stopover in Riga in August 1992, en route to Russia, near the end of a backpacking trip involving ten trains from the south of France. His most vivid memory of the city back then is of old men selling cheaply printed black and white pornography near the central station. But he denies that this swayed his feelings for the place, for good or ill.
Eighteen months later, while taking a consignment of wine to sell in St. Petersburg, his car broke down in Latvia, and he decided that was far enough. The wine business succumbed to bureaucracy. Then he had a go importing French shoes, but he admits that fashion sense isn’t his strong point, and in any case the French shoe industry collapsed. So for a while he traded in Latvian peat moss.
Finally, he launched the first cafe in the Cadets de Gascogne chain, opposite Bastejkalns Park. A grateful public emerging from Soviet greyness discovered the joy of perusing dog-eared copies of The New Yorker over an espresso and a cinnamon roll. Pricing the coffee affordably, Bernard built a faithful and eclectic clientele, with urban sophisticates rubbing shoulders with pensioners and cops grabbing a caffeine hit before their shift.
In some ways, with no pesky EU regulations requiring disabled toilets and such, it was easier to open a business in those days. At the same time, Latvian purchasing power was low and turning a profit was far from easy. Nevertheless, Bernard insisted on high standards, and to this day he only uses real butter to make his renowned croissants.
“There is a fashion now for everything vegan, so perhaps in future I could use margarine or palm oil – why not?” he jokes.
The natural attractions of Riga are also to his liking.
“It’s very green, and the sea is not far away, so you can switch off from the city on a deserted beach,” he says. “And apart from my places, there are loads of other nice cafes to sit down at, in fact more than in Toulouse, despite it being bigger. Riga has more of a cafe culture than France.”
A few years after splitting up with his Cadets partners, Bernard opened a new chain called Troubadour Gourmand. The enterprise had expanded to three cafes when last November the Latvian government banned all onsite dining. Keeping one venue open for takeaways and with a modest amount of state support, he was able to stay afloat more easily than businesses which had to shut entirely.
Although earnings were down, he says he was glad to be able to take it easy for a while.
Bernard is a notorious party animal, and his birthday celebrations are legendary. During the restriction period, going to work every day gave him a vital social outlet, chatting to folks who dropped in for a baguette.
“Yes, it got a bit boring sometimes, not being able to go out on Friday and Saturday nights,” he admits. “But fortunately, I could meet my friends when they visited my cafe during the day.”
Due to the unusual circumstances, Riga City Council has allowed restaurants to expand their pavement terraces this summer, as long as tables are distanced and patrons mask up if they go inside. And Bernard is optimistic about the summer. He has even been approached to open a Troubadour inside a major Riga hotel, though whether he takes up the offer depends on a revival in tourism.
And for this expansive character, art seems to be imitating life. In bygone years, Bernard has had a starring role in Latvian beer commercials. A few weeks ago, he played a small role as a French waiter in a Danish movie being filmed in Riga.