Places selling sustenance to passersby are at least as old as Pompeii. But it took the French to invent the restaurant. In late-18th-century Paris, people for the first time were able to eat what they wanted, when they wanted, with the added fillip of knowing before the first forkful how much it would cost. Once restaurants were democratized under the Revolution, there was no turning back. Now everyone could dine—and dine well—in public. As novel as the 12 soups, 15 roasts, and 50 desserts on the menu was the possibility that the man at the next table was also the man who lived across the landing from you.
In the more than 200 years since, France has taken the concept of the restaurant and raced with it, inventing variations based on the specialties served, style of cooking, atmosphere, architecture, decoration, marketing spin, price, and just plain survival (pity the poor château owner who has to open his home to you and me). Sometimes a handful of these factors conspire to shape a single genre: bistros are defined as much by their food (gutsy) as by the look (dressed-down) and bill (gentle).
With neither time nor budget constraints, and with every sort of locomotion known to man (car, plane, train, subway, bus, taxi, snowshoes), I set out on a gastronomic Tour de France. My goal was to uncover one quintessential example of every traditional form of eating venue in the country. I found exactly what I was looking for—plus a couple of savory surprises. When it comes to eating, nobody has a sense of place like the French.
As French as de Gaulle's nose, the auberge speaks to many travelers' most cherished notion about France: the marriage of a good meal to a good bed. Drape in a stylish nautical and colonial atmosphere and you have Le Bistrot du Bassin-La Maison du Bassin. Bassin refers to the Bassin d'Arcachon, 44 miles southwest of Bordeaux, an inlet formed by a break in the Atlantic coast and a skinny 12-mile-long peninsula that ends in Cap Ferret, a town that despite its retro seaside charms remains under the radar of even ardent American Francophiles. Here Le Bistrot sits, a block from the bay among shacks where farmers process and sell Arguin oysters. Hinting of hazelnuts, Arguins raised in the bay are a specialty of Le Bistrot, where they are served as a first course raw; warm in a bath of butter, parsley, and garlic; or with a briny gelée of the oysters' liquor. (Though the chef doesn't offer oysters the way locals eat them—icy-raw, with pieces of grilled sausage balanced on their bellies—beg him to do it for you.) Follow with succulent pan-tossed shrimp zapped with pesto, and then gird yourself for the dessert buffet: some 25 choices, set out on a vintage display table from a fabric shop. Iconographic madeleines and meringues fight for plate space with exotic ginger-roasted pineapple in a caramelized vanilla syrup. Fifteen steps after the last bite, I was asleep under a creamy mohair blanket in the Chambre Marine, snugly conceived like a steamship cabin.
LE BISTROT DU BASSIN-LA MAISON DU BASSIN, Quartier des Pêcheurs, Cap Ferret; restaurant, 33-5/56-03-72-46, hotel 33-5/56-60-60-63; dinner for two $58, doubles from $82.
THE RESTAURANT DU VILLAGE
How would provincial France survive without the village restaurant?The question is too paralyzing to even consider, since it's the first choice for fêting baptisms, birthdays, weddings. If you've ever been turned away from a backwater canteen because four generations of the same family had taken it over to celebrate a communion, you know what I'm talking about. La Petite Maison revitalizes the tradition of the village restaurant with chic and elegance, qualities that take you by surprise, given the unlikely setting. Cucuron, which hugs the "unfashionable" flank of Lubéron Mountain near Aix-en-Provence, is one of the last untainted villages in the region, and the site of the most beautiful pièce d'eau in Provence, a simple 500-foot-long pool surrounded by monumental plane trees. Around the corner is La Petite Maison, where l'art de la table attains haute heights with vintage hemp bedsheets stitched into tablecloths, monogrammed château-issue napkins, wooden chargers, and hand-turned sycamore pepper mills. Chef Michel Mehdi proves himself equal to the setting with dressy versions of rural Provençal classics, including daube flavored with bitter-orange peel, pieds et paquets (lamb's feet and tripe bundles), and moist, aromatic caillettes (molded rounds of lamb's liver, spinach, and mint). From the regional pantry come wheat berries, dried mullet roe, Camargue sea salt, and violet artichokes the size of a baby's fist. As fall approaches, the rotisserie is fired up for hare, squab, and partridge.
LA PETITE MAISON, Place de l'Étang, Cucuron; 33-4/90-77-18-60; dinner for two $78.