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Fine French food in the heart of Pakistan, just no Pakistanis allowed

Waj S. Khan / NBC News

Philippe Lafforgue, owner of Islamabad's La Maison restaurant, defends his controversial policy of admitting only foreigners to his Pakistani restaurant. "It's not a discrimination thing. It's culturally sensitive thing. How can I serve pork and booze to Pakistanis without getting into trouble? So I have a rule: no locals getting in."

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Fine French dining in the heart of Pakistan? Sounds great — that is unless you’re Pakistani and you’re not allowed. 

Restaurant owner Philippe Lafforgue, opened the 20-seat “La Maison” last October with the controversial policy.

“It’s not a discrimination thing. It’s a culturally sensitive thing. How can I serve pork and booze to Pakistanis without getting into trouble? So I have a rule: no locals getting in.”

By Islamic tenet and Pakistani law, Muslims are forbidden from alcohol and pork consumption.

As a foreigner, Lafforgue claims he is allowed a license to serve alcohol to only non-Muslims; but there are no rules that allow him to deny Pakistanis entrance to his restaurant or a meal.

He has the right to reject serving alcohol to Muslim customers – as many other local hotels do – but he decided to deny Pakistanis entrance entirely. Even thought his entire staff – including his bartender and chef – is Pakistani.

 “It’s not discrimination, it’s my respect to the people,” said Lafforgue. “I can’t open it up to the Pakistani people because I serve alcohol. If I start serving locals, which is obviously profitable, I will have to bribe the police…which I want to avoid.”

However, Lafforgue’s blanket ban on Pakistani customers has been challenged.  

Several Pakistanis – including non-Muslims who are legally entitled to consume any food or drink they want – have questioned the policy, creating a stir on social media, and forcing the police to take note.

“It’s very straightforward,” said Cyril Almeida, a 34-year-old newspaper editor who started tweeting about the restaurant’s policies when his reservation was rejected because he had a Pakistani passport. “It’s a restaurant, it’s open to the public, and anybody can eat there…except Pakistanis. That’s wrong, and that’s offensive.

“How does a foreigner run this money-spinning business out of the heart of the Pakistani capital, and not let Pakistanis in,” Almeida asked. “And how does he get to ask me to produce my passport? He’s not an airport. He’s not an international authority. He’s not an embassy. How can he do this? Reserving the right to admission doesn’t mean an entire category of people [can be] written off.”

Lafforgue insists that other clubs function across Islamabad with similar rules; however, those are affiliated with embassies and diplomatic missions.

Instead, La Maison is on the ground floor of Lafforgue’s own residence in Islamabad’s posh F7-1 neighborhood and enjoys no embassy connections that would extend it diplomatic privileges. There isn’t even a display sign outside the restaurant.

The police are now onto the issue. 

 “We got complaints about this place practicing a colonial-style ‘Dogs and Indians Not Allowed’ policy in the middle of Islamabad, serving only foreigners,” said Yasir Afridi, an assistant superintendent of the Islamabad Police. He was referring to the harsh code of the British era when locals, then Indians, served as disempowered second-class citizens of the Raj.

“So I personally called in to make a reservation, and was rejected when I said I was a Pakistani,” said Afridi. “The next step was obviously to check the place out. We found over 300 bottles of non-licensed alcohol and even a casino table.”  

The police charged Lafforgue with "unlicensed alcohol," a crime in Pakistan. 

“How can you live on our soil and treat us like this,” said Afridi. “No rules allow such behavior. This is not the nineteenth century.”

Lafforgue is still defending his position.

“The cops knew I wasn’t around to show my documents, and that’s why they timed the raid to perfection,” he said. “But now I am fighting it. I am also writing a letter to [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif, who is both a fan of fine food and for creating a good atmosphere for foreigners to invest in Pakistan. I hope he listens to my case.”

Serving its last meal – for now – on Saturday evening, Lafforgue is confident he “will be serving pâté in a week or two.”

However, the Islamabad police, insists that Lafforgue has a criminal record in another Pakistani city, Lahore, and are conducting background checks on him.

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