From bistros to brasseries, crêperies to cafés, bouchons to winstubs, France has evolved a food culture more sophisticated than any other. Christopher Petkanas explores every corner of the country that lives to eat, and finds the tables that epitomize the Gallic art of dining out
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.
Waged since the first escargot inched its way toward a pot of simmering bouillon, the Paris-Lyons battle for gastronomic supremacy is not likely to be settled any time soon. Those who give Lyons the edge always cite the bouchon, a strictly codified subspecies of bistro unique to the city. La Meunière is a model example, founded in 1921, and run with full knowledge of the genre by Maurice Debrosses, a sexagenarian who for years directed the dining room at Paul Bocuse, just up the Saône. Like the most authentic bouchons (the term originally described the brooms auberges gave patrons to brush down their horses), La Meunière cultivates a proto-cruddy look and serves Beaujolais drawn on-site from casks into thick-walled bottles. The buffet de saladiers lyonnais is a 12-foot table covered in widemouthed stoneware bowls and terrines filled with ritual hors d'oeuvres: lentils, beets, herring and potatoes in oil, shredded beef shank, tripes en gelée. And did we mention the calves' and sheep's feet?Main courses run to such hometown favorites as chicken in a perky vinegar sauce and juicy whole kidneys roasted with shallots. Dessert may seem like a death certificate after all this, but it would be reckless to bypass the apple tart. Uncorrupted by glaze or puréed fruit, it's thin, flaky, and absurdly buttery.
LA MEUNIèRE, 11 Rue Neuve, Lyons; 33-4/78-28-62-91; dinner for two $34.
As in Lyons, Alsace has a vernacular eating-and-drinking culture that developed its own format, the winstub. No translation of the term is entirely satisfactory (win means "wine"; stub is "room"), but "tavern" comes close: a macho, dark-paneled institution where Riesling flows from pitchers and visceral fare celebrates the pig and duck. Enter Odette Jung, who is regarded by the Alsatian food community as a mythic muse and by the decorating community as a styliste manquée. Last year she hit on the idea of reinventing the winstub, casting it in a romantic light that reflects her own quite amazing doll-like image and devotion to the local folk arts. Indeed, La Ferme de Suzel is more boudoir than tavern, an 18th-century farmhouse Jung purchased in pieces as architectural salvage. She reassembled the building in a blink-and-you-miss-it village north of Strasbourg. You want charm?Suzel's got charm. You want style?Suzel's got style. Light is filtered through canning jars of cherries soldiered on the windowsills. Parquet de Versailles glows below crystal chandeliers. Reverse paintings on glass hang above porcelain teapots (okay, here it gets a little weird) imprisoned under bell jars. In this swooning atmosphere Jung delivers on her promise of "une cuisine de terroir de grand-mère." Sautéed foie gras escallopes are more like plump steaks. Meaty duck confit comes with the surprise of cranberry confiture. Baeckeoffe, the native stew of champions—a mixture of lamb, pork, beef, and potatoes is finished in the dining room's 1712 Kachelofen, a woodstove faced in sunny spattered tiles. That leaves Jung's signature vacherin, a tower of meringue, rhubarb ice cream, whipped cream, crème anglaise, and red-currant coulis. Think of it as an Alsatian sundae.
LA FERME DE SUZEL, 15 Rue des Vergers, Ringendorf; 33-3/88-03-30-80; dinner for two $72.
Ever tried to make a 10 o'clock dinner reservation in France?You're treated like you've got two heads. Which is why brasseries are so precious. They refuse to toe the line. Bigger than bistros, less formal than restaurants, they're open late, overlit, and noisy. Like any fully inscribed brasserie, Les Vapeurs, near Deauville, has a menu weighted with shellfish platters, grilled fish, omelettes, onion soup, escargots, choucroute, and fries, fries, fries. But it's the crevettes grises, boiled shrimp netted just off the coast, that people drive all the way from Paris for.
LES VAPEURS, 160 Quai Fernand-Moureaux, Trouville; 33-2/31-88-15-24; dinner for two $60.
Coastal Provence is dotted with cabanons de mer, privately owned jerry-rigged beach shacks for pan bagnat picnics. More evolved but in the same knocked-together spirit are places like Restaurant Bernard in Toulon. Getting there is a scream. You park in front of the café on Avenue de la Résistance, then walk down a steep path flanked by villas, cypresses, and parasol pines. At water's edge, the tide tickling its façade, Bernard serves a lusty, obscenely copious, law-abiding bouillabaisse. Scorpion fish (there's no bouillabaisse without it), fiery rouille mayonnaise, garlic-scraped croutons, and heart-quickening Mediterranean views make this the real deal.
RESTAURANT BERNARD, Calanque de Magaud, Toulon; 33-4/94-27-20-62; bouillabaisse for two $63.
THE RIVERSIDE RELAIS
There's a long history in France of escaping the city (in this case Biarritz and Bayonne) for a languorous Sunday lunch on the banks of a river. The two-Michelin-star Auberge de la Galupe is sensitively folded into a beautiful old white-and-sang de boeuf boatman's house on the Basque side of the glassy Adour. Christian Parra has somehow remained undiscovered by American foodies, though he is second only to Michel Guérard as a personality-chef in his native Southwest. Regulars don't even bother to look at the menu. They order the tuna belly, duck ravioli, wild Adour salmon cooked on a dry griddle, blood sausage (Guérard uses Galupe's recipe), and what Parra calls "the best ham in the world," Jabugo from Sanchez Romero Carvajal in Andalusia.
AUBERGE DE LA GALUPE, La Place du Port, Urt; 33-5/59-56-21-84; dinner for two $96.
Café and cafés are intimately associated with the French—they've been sipping it and idling in them for 300 years. One of the country's most spectacularly decorative cafés is hidden away in Moulins, 135 miles northwest of Lyons in a little-traveled region that for centuries was the seat of the dukes of Bourbon. Famed for its delightfully goopy rococo boiseries depicting shells, plumes, and whorls, Le Grand Café was piped into being by an Italian craftsman in 1899, placing it in the strenuously ornamental Golden Age of cafés, which began with the Second Empire and lasted until the turn of the century. Everyone should bow down and kiss the ring of Christian Belin, Le Grand's owner, who guards his institution's frescoes, stained glass, mosaics, and heroic bronze d'orée chandelier like a curator, and who cares enough about his clients' palates to serve Kimbo coffee. Le Grand is also a grassroots bistro, offering coarse-cut rabbit terrine and terrifically tangy tripe packages in a mahogany-hued sauce tinged with tomato. Local Charolais beef turns up as skirt steak with shallot-and-red-wine sauce, fillet with pepper sauce, and entrecôte with garlic-parsley butter. But even at mealtime the hard-core café constituency needn't worry about being squeezed out. Tables are always reserved for those interested only in drinking, nuzzling their poodles, and smoking themselves to death.
LE GRAND CAFé, 49 Place d'Allier, Moulins; 33-4/70-44-00-05; coffee, $1.10; lunch for two $26.
No other French region relies on a single food the way Brittany relies on crêpes (the category includes savory buckwheat galettes). More than an appetite, Bretons have an irrational need for crêpes, which has given rise to an entire genre of modest, familial restaurants. Crêpe-making is a systematized art, and at La Galette Rennaise in Rennes it reaches its apotheosis. Customers are queried on the preferred degree of doneness. The cooking plaque is greased with egg yolk. Crêpes are folded in triangles, never in semi-circles. Locals start with a buttered galette; advance to one brimming with ham, Emmental, and a fried egg; and conclude with a jam-slathered crêpe.
LA GALETTE RENNAISE, 34 Blvd. Laennec, Rennes; 33-2/99-31-46-86; lunch for two $14.
One of the great marketing tools of 21st-century French wine making is the vineyard hotel-restaurant. For spreading the word about Château Cordeillan-Bages, a Médoc cru bourgeois made by the same team as the legendary Lynch-Bages, nothing does the job like Château Cordeillan-Bages, a 17th-century manor house with 24 attractive guest rooms and an ambitious restaurant. Cooking on the Gironde estuary near Bordeaux, chef Thierry Marx spotlights local land and sea products—lamb and asparagus, sturgeon and eel—in dishes flagged "Terre & Estuaire."
CHâTEAU CORDEILLAN-BAGES, Routes des Châteaux, Pauillac; 33-5/56-59-24-24; dinner for two $125; doubles $130.
French château owners figured out a long time ago that opening their piles to the public is a good way to pay for repointing the façade. The newest wrinkle is the 15th-century Château de la Bourdaisière in the Loire Valley. The estate owes its recent rebirth as an oh-so-French hotel and heirloom vegetable garden to Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie, who is also behind the dirt-chic Prince Jardinier garden boutique in Paris. Bourdaisière's 130-acre park includes a potager-conservatoire planted with 500 varieties of tomatoes, 200 herbs, and 120 lettuces—bounty deployed in special-order meals of remarkable freshness and purity.
CHâTEAU DE LA BOURDAISIèRE, 25 Rue de la Bourdaisière, Montlouis-sur-Loire; 33-2/47-45-16-31; dinner for two $40; doubles $92.
THE GRAND HOTEL RESTAURANT
As many Parisians will tell you, there are some nights when only dinner in a grand hotel will do. Ladies get to wear their JAR parures. The people-watching is amusing. Damask for days. And how about all that crystal and silver?The grand Paris hotel restaurant of the moment is Le Bristol—dig those waiters in tails—where Eric Frechon began as an assistant in 1980 at age 17, and where he triumphantly returned last year as chef. Frechon worked at the Crillon under Christian Constant, the man who powered the great nineties bistro revival, and I'm not sure I didn't prefer Frechon's more peasanty style of cooking when he was on his own at La Verrerie in Paris. But running the kitchen in a fancy hotel has its exigencies, especially when the brief is to climb the Michelin ladder as quickly as possible. Which is how you wind up with gold-plated dishes like sea bass with caviar. Fortunately, there are also more plebeian delights, like hazelnut-crusted sole and Frechon's trademark oxtail-and-marrow lasagna. Insiders think dessert man Gilles Marchal is the reason Michelin bumped up the restaurant to two stars this year. His extended riff on the mandarin (sorbet, madeleine, gratin, gelée) is sweet music.
RESTAURANT LE BRISTOL, 112 Rue du Faubourg-St.-Honoré, Paris; restaurant 33-1/53-43-43-40, hotel 33-1/53-43-43-00; dinner for two $98, doubles $560.
THE TEA SALON
France's tea salons perform a humanitarian service just by calming the country's sweet tooth. The more intemperate the climate, the higher the concentration of these pure-pleasure-giving establishments, and Alsace has perhaps the highest of all. Urban is on the lovely main square in Obernai, a scrupulously restored Alsatian village and the most visited place in the region after Strasbourg. The salon's renown rests on its palette of 42 teas, honey-rich spice cake, and Kugelhopf: here, the Alsatian breakfast-table fixture is baked in handed-down terra-cotta molds and exhales a scrumptious yeasty perfume. Even on Easter Sunday, a day when you would have thought the locals could stay home and give it a rest, they throng Urban, exercising their pastry-a-day birthright.
URBAN, 82 Rue Général-Gouraud, Obernai; 33-3/88-95-58-90; tea and pastry for two $8.
Without bistros, the social fabric of life in France would unravel. If cafés supply the woof, bistros like Bordeaux's La Tupina supply the warp. The restaurant has a fresh-scrubbed farmhouse feel and a stone hearth on which many of its quintessentially southwest dishes are cooked. Nothing prepares you for the mountain-man portions or hyper-robust nature of these dishes, composed with pedigreed ingredients from small suppliers. Grilled duck breast is as thick as a telephone book. Hand-cut frites are fried in duck fat in the fireplace. With the kind of firm flesh unknown in even the best American free-range poultry, spit-roasted chicken is served beside a giant crouton in a flood of fatty drippings. When I ordered the tube pasta in a bubbling sauce of foie gras, cèpes, pork belly, cream, and butter, the woman from New Jersey at the next table looked as though she were about to have a heart attack for me. As her only course she had asked the waiter for "three of your mildest cheeses." She should have stayed home.
LA TUPINA, 6 Rue de la Porte-de-la-Monnaie, Bordeaux; 33-5/56-91-56-37; dinner for two $65.
THE FUTURIST THREE-STAR
As the fin de siècle approached, French chefs felt challenged to reinvent the three-star experience. None took a bigger gamble than Michel Bras, who erected a lean-and-mean hotel-restaurant complex in granite, slate, and glass in a rural back of beyond between Toulouse and Lyons. Here Bras takes to the woods in search of the culinary plants—gentian, meadowsweet, and elderflower—that delineate his cuisine. Aligot, potatoes whipped into two-foot-long ribbons with Tome cheese, is a valentine to the local cooking. Chocolate cake with a molten center reminds you why it became the copycat dessert of the nineties. And oh, the breakfast. Breads and pastries are kept warm on a heated stone inset in an ebony platter.
MICHEL BRAS, Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole; 33-5/65-51-18-20; dinner for two $136, doubles $126.
THE SNACK STAND
The sentimental notion of the French as a people who spend two hours at table in the middle of the day only goes so far—who says they don't eat on the run?In Nice, schoolgirls and functionaries form long lines at Bar René Socca, purveyors of what the owner calls "fast food Niçoise." It should taste this good everywhere. Socca, the indigenous savory chickpea-flour crêpe, is licked by flames in a wood-burning oven. Pissaladière is a tart of sweet onions on a bready base. Sold in a flimsy container with a plastic fork, stockfish—salt cod dried until it is as hard as wood—is better than that served in most of the city's restaurants. The fish, brought back to life in water, dissolves into fibrous, deliciously chewy flakes in a stew of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. The magic (and funky) ingredient is stockfish intestines. Vive le fast food!
BAR RENé SOCCA, 2 Rue Miralheti, Nice; 33-4/93-92-05-73; lunch for two $8.
THE ALPINE CHALET
Hikers, bird-watchers, watercolorists—anyone heading out for a day in the French Alps—have two choices: pack your own provisions, or break for nourishment at a rustic farm restaurant like Philippe Muffat-Meridol's Alpage Les Têtes. The handsome turn-of-the-century pine chalet with a roof of red-cedar shingles is in a delirious eagle's-nest setting, at an elevation of 4,900 feet, 40 miles southeast of Geneva above the chichi ski town of Megève. The Leutaz parking lot is as close as you can get to Les Têtes in anything but a four-wheel drive. From there, it's a heavenly one-and-a-quarter-mile nature walk to the restaurant, warmed by cast-iron stoves and festooned with giant cowbells threaded on studded leather straps. Beefy red-and-white checked oilcloth covers chunky pine tables built by Muffat-Meridol, who also makes and serves his own wonderfully rough pork terrine and subtly smoked saucisson. Cured by a friend, ham has a roundness and richness that reflect its prolonged aging—12 months. Fondue savoyarde, the region's culinary emblem, is a teasingly nutty marriage of Vieux Comte and Beaufort, the latter often from artisan cheese makers who use milk from Muffat-Meridol's cows. A meal winds up with a refreshing little green salad, a bit of the goat cheese made downstairs, chestnut cream capped with crème fraîche—and a goat-milking lesson.
ALPAGE LES TêTES, Rte. de Leutaz-Very, Megève; 33-6/09-40-55-12; lunch for two $32.
THE TASTE OF TOMORROW
Traditionally, covered food markets in France offer nothing to cure immediate hunger beyond fruit and the odd finger food. Saveurs d'Auvergne, a new-wave market bowing next month, changes all that with a satellite bar and restaurant serving the same artisanal products, as well as dishes made from the same first-rate ingredients sold just yards away. Located some 300 miles east of Lyons, the consortium groups sellers of charcuterie, beef, poultry, fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread, wine, and pastry.
SAVEURS D'AUVERGNE, Ave. Ernest-Cristal, Clermont-Ferrand; 33-4/73-63-43-54.
Rural all-in-one café-restaurants—equally reliable for gossip and tête de veau—were once as common in France as telephone jetons. No more. Which is why you have to admire the Auberge Ensoleillée, a Burgundian stronghold whose chef has never heard the word fashion applied to food. Take a seat next to a mushroom gatherer and start with the nine hors d'oeuvres variés, including cervelas (rosy pistachio-flecked sausage) and crunchy red-cabbage salad. Follow with a regional classic, coq au vin or boeuf bourguignonne. Who says nostalgia isn't what it used to be?
AUBERGE ENSOLEILLéE, Dun-les-Places; 33-3/86-84-62-76; dinner for two $24.