Ménerbes: Wait Goes on for Buyer of Iconic Café Owned by New York Food Maven Eli Zabar, and for Pedestrians

by BB Kuett on November 12, 2012

November 15 marks the beginning of the winter season in the Luberon when numerous hotels, restaurants and cafés close, opening up in mid-March or early April.

In Ménerbes, its principal café has been shuttered for nearly three years. Once a paragon of village vitality, the lifeless café – called the Café du Progrès in its notoriety – is today a marker for the downside of gentrification, and a reminder of the lack of street traffic on the village’s brilliantly repaved streets.

At first sight for tourists, the four circuitous streets that intersect at various angles and levels in the center of Ménerbes – with two restaurants, four shops and an art gallery – appear as a tranquil Provencal mise-en-scène.

To locals and village officials, Ménerbes is too dependent on those living beyond the village borders, and too tranquil, visitors being insufficient in number.

Amplifying the predicament of Ménerbes is the cautionary narrative in the personage of the Manhattan food maven Eli Zabar, who purchased circa 2000 the Café du Progrès, a timeworn hang-out with a spacious grassy terrace; the café Peter Mayle popped into, where one combined the elements of village gossip inside and, outside, tourist chic.

Taking possession of a prosperous longtime Luberon fixture, Eli Zabar was clueless that the deal came with sort of a poison pill: the building’s two tenants – one operated the café and the other a restaurant whose entrance was festooned with loud signage – were locked into a nasty lawsuit, which, once resolved, compelled Zabar to shutter the establishment.

Subsequently, the café, leased to new operators, took the name Le p’tit bouchon. Business took a downward turn and the café closed. For the past three years Eli Zabar has had the empty café listed for sale.

The property remains on the market for 1,200,000 euros.

At present, Ménerbes has only “un café de pays,” a cramped space for locals to chat with un café or un demi, and play le loto; a spot visitors avoid. (café entrance at top of above photo under heading.)

Mr. Yves Rousset-Rouard, the dynamic mayor of Ménerbes who has launched successful projects in the village, is eager for a village mini-revival with a new café that will attract visitors and boost pedestrian traffic on the most immaculate streets in the Luberon.

Observers of Luberon life are bearish about a new café – restaurant. Whereas a significant growth of  ‘résidences secondaires‘ has brought new wealth to the village and upgraded the infrastructure, a corollary is the thinning out of around-the-year denizens. With full time inhabitants in Ménerbes becoming less and less in number, there is a dearth of daily customers to fill the café tables.

When posed with the question on the likelihood of a new café invigorating the village, one resident of Ménerbes quipped sardonically: “C’est un challenge.”

Basics:

Café inquiries: Property agency Emile Garcin, Luberon office, Email luberon@emilegarcin.fr, Website

The elegant repaving of the streets came by way of the boundless generosity of philanthropist Ms. Nancy Negley, of Houston and Ménerbes., who purchased in 1997 and completely renovated The Dora Maar House, whose stately edifice addresses the Luberon countryside to the north. The French government under Nicolas Sarkozy made Ms. Negley a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

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