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France's three-star restaurants, known around the world as the ultimate in luxury dining, may be going the way of the dinosaur.

Battered by a weak economy, heavy debts, and extravagant staff costs, their ranks have dwindled to fewer than 20 as rated by France's two top guidebooks.

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Top chefs and restaurant critics say the elite is likely to shrink still further, even if the economy improves, as young chefs focus on more modest fare in simpler surroundings in the search for solvency rather than celebrity.

"Over the next five to 10 years, there will be fewer three-star restaurants. There may be only 12 or 15," says Bernard Loiseau, chef and owner of a three-star restaurant in the town of Saulieu in the Burgundy region.

Nineteen restaurants are awarded three stars in the 1996 Michelin, France's most prestigious restaurant guide, compared with 20 in the 1995 edition. In just a few months, super-chef Pierre Gagnaire has gone bankrupt, master-cook Joel Robuchon has announced plans to hang up his apron at 50, and La Tour d'Argent, a temple of Paris gastronomy for decades, has been stripped of its third star.

The staid Michelin awarded at least one of its coveted stars to just 532 restaurants this year, down from 541 last year and 554 in 1994.

"There are many young people now in the business in Paris who are no longer interested in the massive investment required to earn three stars," Mr. Loiseau says, although he stresses that his own business is in excellent health.

But a closer look at his restaurant gives an insight into three-star chefs' problems. Loiseau borrowed $3 million to achieve the opulent decor he thought would catch a Michelin inspector's eye. Yet the restaurant only breaks even at best.

"As I have many debts, I make no money from the restaurant," Loiseau says. Michelin director-general, Bernard Naegellen, predicts the number of three-star restaurants will climb again once the French economy improves.

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But critics and chefs see another problem for the future in the changing attitude among young chefs. Those just starting out are less willing to put in the long hours required to achieve three-star fame. They aim instead for a less formal, less expensive dining experience.

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