Best French Restaurants in the U.S.
Le Pigeon is part of a national shift in the definition of what makes a great French restaurant. Yes, thick sauces still exist (thank goodness), as do venerated haute cuisine kitchens like those of chef Joël Robuchon. But French cuisine has also become more accessible, and increased access to exceptional local product means that bistros like Maison Giraud in Los Angeles and brasseries like Niche in St. Louis dish out high-quality French fare in more down-to-earth environs.
“French gastronomy is based on the ingredients themselves and on detailed, careful preparation of the food,” says Robuchon. “I truly believe, as is exemplified in my restaurants around the world, that the simpler the food, the harder it is to prepare it well. You want to truly taste what it is you’re eating, and that goes back to the trend of fine ingredients.”
Technique still counts, of course, and many American chefs have spent time in France learning to flambé, sauté, and julienne, as well as about sauce preparation and a structured kitchen system in which every person plays a crucial role.
The results are on display at the best French restaurants across the U.S., from Les Nomades, in a romantic Chicago brownstone, to the outdoor patio of Anis Café & Bistro in Atlanta.
Mélisse, Santa Monica, CA
Santa Monica may be on the beach, but Mélisse is a true fine-dining destination, with two Michelin stars and the refined look of smoky purple walls, white tablecloths, and handblown French crystal sculptures. The dining room sets the stage for exquisitely prepared contemporary French-California cuisine that pays homage to the nearby Pacific. Onion soup with coconut and Dungeness crab, Santa Barbara prawns, and Kona abalone are just a few of chef Josiah Citrin’s dishes. The stellar wine list reflects the best of California and France.
Le Pigeon, Portland, OR
Carnivores and adventurous eaters will appreciate chef Gabriel Rucker’s creations, which add whimsy and decadence to traditional French recipes. Beef-cheek bourguignonne, rabbit-in-a-pig-blanket, and foie gras profiteroles are among the quirky edibles. The chef’s counter puts diners ringside in the busy kitchen, and the brick-wall dining room’s three communal tables are often filled with both locals and international clientele. Le Pigeon’s first cookbook comes out in September 2013—for you try-it-at-home types.
Les Nomades, Chicago
Linger at this romantic brownstone in Streeterville for a memorable Parisian-style tête-à-tête. The restaurant’s motto declares, “A fresh expression of French cuisine,” and the menu heeds the claim with clever twists on classics such as the sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras, banana water, and Granny Smith apple purée appetizer. The wine list includes an excellent champagne selection, worth a toast whether you’re celebrating or not. lesnomades.net
Maison Giraud, Los Angeles
Don’t let the simple décor of this Pacific Palisades bistro-bakery combo lower your expectations. Whether you opt for croque monsieur, quiche, or a classic cocotte—a meal served in its own mini casserole—the food here is easygoing and expertly prepared by French-trained chef/owner Alain Giraud, who has helmed some of L.A’s best (Bastide and Anisette). The fresh pain au chocolat is reason enough for an early-morning wake-up call. maison-giraud.com
Brasserie L’Oustau, Manchester Center, VT
Authenticity and service are always in style at this southern Vermont brasserie, which attracts diners from as far as New York and Canada. Owned by Michel Boyer, a well-respected connoisseur of French gastronomy, this is a real gathering spot where friends and family meet for American interpretations of French food—pommes frites, slow-cooked onion soup, roasted chicken, savory sausages, and vegetables—all sourced locally. brasserieloustau.com
Brasserie by Niche, St. Louis, MO
A pressed-tin ceiling, checkered tablecloths covered with butcher paper, and a buzzing outdoor terrace are the perfect backdrop for James Beard–nominated chef Gerard Craft’s French bistro lineup of onion soup, country pâté, cassoulet, and duck confit—all with ingredients sourced from nearby farms. Romantics take note: this brasserie was formerly Chez Leon, a neighborhood bistro where Craft courted his wife. brasseriebyniche.com
A Back Bay staple for more than 30 years, racking up numerous awards along the way, L’Espalier also counts four gorgeous dining rooms that showcase chef-owner Frank McClelland’s New England–French cuisine. Seared Georges Bank scallops and Maine mussels, Maine beef tenderloin with braised short ribs, and grilled Maine lobster with Cape Cod clams are a few of the locavore specialties to be enjoyed. lespalier.com
Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas
Las Vegas has become a serious food town, and no small credit goes to chef Joël Robuchon, who opened two restaurants at the MGM Grand in 2005. His eponymous three-Michelin-star nirvana of refined French food—such as truffled langoustine ravioli or French hen with foie gras—envelops diners in a lush purple dining room with velvet banquettes and dripping chandeliers. Head to the more relaxed L’Atelier next door for steak tartare with fries or Maine lobster salad.
Anis Café & Bistro, Atlanta
It’s a little ramshackle, and who knows if the Citroën Deux Chevaux parked out front runs, but that’s the charm of this unassuming restaurant hemmed into a side street in Buckhead. French Mediterranean flavors inspire the menu, and on warm summer nights, the patio is the place to be. The refreshing vine-ripe tomato tartare with buffalo mozzarella and baby arugula is pure Provence, as is the gulf shrimp served with tomatoes and tossed in pastis shallot vinaigrette. anisbistro.com
La Folie, San Francisco
If presentation is an indicator, classically trained chef Roland Passot is still having a blast whipping up French-California dishes that live up to the restaurant’s name (meaning “folly” or “madness”). Prix fixe menus feature duck breast and sautéed Burgundy snails as well as more contemporary dishes like Dungeness crab salad on English pea panna cotta, served with a passion that has made this a Bay Area favorite for 25 years. lafolie.com
Balthazar, New York City
If you can’t get to Paris, Keith McNally’s SoHo institution (est. 1997) invites you to dream a little among the red banquettes and funhouse-size mirrors. While trendier French restaurants have come along, Balthazar remains popular with locals and tourists alike. They're here for the atmosphere and brasserie dishes like a succulent whole-roasted chicken for two, moules-frites, and steak tartare. The seafood bar is stacked with oysters, crab, clams, and lobster—easy to wash down with French wines from an enviable list of nearly 200.
La Chaumière, Washington, D.C.
Like a rustic French inn found on a country lane, this Georgetown institution delivers the crème de la crème of French food in D.C.—without any fuss. Beef medallions in sauce, mussels in white wine, marinated duck breast, and seasonal specialties like Marseille-style bouillabaisse lure repeat diners. The varied wine list pulls from boutique and well-known producers from all over the world. lachaumieredc.com
This tiny, cash-only, BYOB restaurant in Bella Vista pairs recipes grounded in sophisticated French technique with the comfort of a home-cooked meal. Sit at the bar with a view into chef Pierre Calmels’s kitchen—dinner theater at its best—or go on Sunday for the four-course prix fixe menu, which lets you pick and choose from items like buttery escargots and roasted squab. If you’ve never tried pig’s feet stuffed with foie gras, this might be the place to go for it. biboubyob.com
Saint Jacques, Raleigh, NC
Monthly wine dinners and cooking classes encourage diners to come back for more from chef Lil Lacassagne, whose menus emphasize flavors of his native Provence. Hudson Valley foie gras, sweetbread medallions, and escargots with butter and garlic figure on the menu, as do lunch specialties like crêpes, quiche, and omelettes. The wine list has a naturally French bent, although Provençal rosés are surprisingly spare. saintjacquesfrenchcuisine.com
La Belle Vie, Minneapolis
Bestowed with the Best Chef of the Midwest title by the James Beard Foundation, chef-owner Tim McKee wows with his fresh interpretation of French Mediterranean cuisine. Order à la carte or choose a prix fixe menu that layers unusual flavors and textures. Case in point: pan-roasted poussin with morels and fava beans and poached sturgeon with morcilla, beets, and toasted buckwheat. High ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and flawless service add to the sensual experience within this 19th-century building.
Bouche Bistro, Santa Fe
When your local restaurant scene is crowded with fiery chili sauces, steak frites can sound tantalizingly exotic. Enter this cozy bistro, opened in February 2013 by chef Charles Dale, whose résumé includes some James Beard nominations and elbow rubbing with Spain’s Ferran Adrià. While menu items ebb and flow with the seasons, mainstays include charcuterie, roasted chicken, escargots, and black mussels in white wine and red chili lemon mousseline. bouchebistro.com
Bis on Main, Bellevue, WA
Just 15 minutes from Seattle, Bis on Main serves French-American cuisine in a dining room filled with a rotating selection of modern Northwest art—and without stratospheric price or pretense. To experience how fine French food can be made approachable, try the pork tenderloin wrapped in crispy speck ham and served with a Dijon rosemary sauce and a side of brussels sprouts topped in truffle honey, walnuts, and bacon. bisonmain.com
Le Provençal, Coral Gables, FL
This traditional French restaurant with ample outdoor seating has been a crowd-pleaser since 1975 and still serves food focused on the flavors of Provence. Wade through the long menu to pick out the bouillabaisse, a specialty of Marseille, where chef Christian Antoniotti trained. The three-course dinner menu changes monthly. One constant: classic French desserts like crêpes suzettes, îles flottantes, and chocolate soufflé. leprovencalrestaurant.com
Bouche, San Francisco
It didn’t take long after a December 2011 opening for Bouche to earn its place among the big kids of French cuisine, thanks to St. Tropez-born chef Jerome Albaric. You can expect a seasonal menu mash-up of Mediterranean meets Bay Area-fueled ingredients like a local cheese and charcuterie selection and Dungeness Crab mashed potatoes—all served with the friendly and laid-back vibe that comes naturally to California. bouchesf.com
Daniel, New York City
Daniel Boulud’s Michelin-three-star restaurant has enchanted diners since opening in 1993 and got a 2008 refresh from celebrated designer Adam D. Tihany, who paired Neoclassical archways and high ceilings with custom-made chandeliers with Limoges porcelain tiles and paintings by Spanish artist Manolo Valdés. The equally eye-catching dishes change seasonally and are offered à la carte or via tasting menus. A wine list 2,000 bottles deep ranges from the legendary Château d’Yquem to a huge Burgundy selection to sweet Hungarian dessert wines.
The Maisonette held the record as the world’s longest-running five-star restaurant until it closed in 2005—making way for Boca, run by David Falk, who happened to study under former Maisonette chef Jean-Robert de Cavel. An imposing 19th-century chandelier imported from Paris illuminates dishes like Mediterranean sea bass with leeks, bouillabaisse, and mussels, or an haricot vert salad with poached egg, bacon, and almonds. Don’t skip dessert; pastry chef Amy Guterba’s sweets are a perfect point finale to an epic meal.
Chef John Sheely puts a Lone Star twist on French bistro classics—and the giddyup in the gourmet—with dishes like grilled half chicken with smoked sausage, summer succotash, and mango barbecue sauce. Mussels come with roasted tomato, Spanish chorizo, and white wine and are served with—what else?—garlic toast, a Texas favorite. mockingbirdbistro.com
Petite Chou, Indianapolis
With fresh flowers on the tables, wicker café chairs, and the conversation flowing as freely as the champagne, this quintessential neighborhood bistro gives off an ooh la la appeal. The menu presents a feast of casual comfort food, from pommes frites fried in duck fat to savory omelettes made with Indiana eggs to artisanal house-ripened cheeses. Parisian-inspired artwork decks the walls, and there’s even a dog-friendly outdoor terrace for Fifi. petitechoubistro.com
Bistro Vendôme, Denver
Since 2003 this convivial bistro with outdoor seating has lured diners off bustling Larimer Square downtown into a setting worthy of Paris, where fresh French dishes show off local ingredients—the smoked trout omelette and a beet salad in a kale-hazelnut vinaigrette, to name two. More than 65 French wines are available amid the mustard-tinted walls and tables so packed in that a rendez-vous des amis might soon include the neighbors.
Millesime Brasserie, New York City
Substitute the Seine for the Hudson, and you could be in a Left Bank brasserie; Millesime’s ornate crown moldings and red banquettes hearken back to those 1920s Hemingway haunts. Even the cocktail menu is a trip through French history, with appearances from Coco Chanel, Honoré de Balzac, and Napoleon (listed under Short and Potent). Michelin-starred chef Laurent Manrique oversees this high-energy establishment, where guests return for the enormous shareable seafood platters as well as staples like steak frites and hearty brasserie food. millesimenyc.com