Great Bistros of Provence
One drizzly, bone-chilling week last winter I was in the Luberon, and the visit was not going well. Bad weather (yes, even in Provence) had caused work plans to go awry, leaving me with lost days and a grumpy disposition. For solace, I took myself to lunch at the cheerful Bistro de France in Apt. Within 20 minutes, planted on the banquette facing a truffle omelette and a generous glass of house rouge, I had an epiphany. I realized that at that moment, surrounded by animated diners and plumes of cigarette smoke, I felt utterly and completely happy. I hesitate to credit the bistro with transcendental powers, but that meal certainly brightened up my crummy day.
In the course of writing a book on Provençal style recently, I traveled from Arles in the Rhône delta, through the mountainous Vaucluse, and eventually over to the Var, often in the company of my photographer, a gourmand who preferred to starve rather than face a jambon sandwich on the run. The noon-to–three o'clock slice of the day, when the light was often too harsh for photographs, provided the perfect opportunity for leisurely lunches in favorite old haunts as well as in some of the area's newest dining spots. Throughout our journey, I looked for the best local bistros, scoping out places that offered a Provençal cuisine du marché—olive oil–based cooking using fresh-from-the-market ingredients. The best places not only provided excellent food but also possessed the four basic characteristics of any good bistro: a distinct personality, intimacy, a convivial atmosphere, and a generous spirit. Here, plucked from our extended journey through the herb-scented landscape of the Midi, are a few favorites.
On a narrow street opening onto the Place du Forum in the heart of old Arles, we found this former charcuterie, dating from 1942. The tiny space is now a winsome bistro with a modest décor of red velvet banquettes and pig figurines. The enterprise is fueled by the passion of François Colcombet, originally from Lyon, and his Arlesian wife, Regouya. Inspired by the tradition of the bouchons lyonnais—tiny bistros with hearty, sausage-based cuisine—François wanted to create a bistro des copains (bistro for friends), as he puts it. Regouya does all the cooking behind the original marble counter, in a space the size of a large sofa. The menu is a carnivore's dream, with main courses that feature Charolais beef, rack of lamb, and grilled duck breast. (For vegetarians stranded here, Regouya is happy to whip up a platter of grilled Mediterranean vegetables, along with a crisp and garlicky mixed green salad.) I made a meal one night of the charcuterie platter, called the assiette anglaise, a lavish spread of cold cuts and a warm saucisson de Lyon aux pistaches, a mild sausage with chopped pistachio nuts in the filling. A dish this rich needs a dynamic red wine, and I splurged on two glasses of a 2000 Côte Rôtie. The pleasures of the inconspicuous Charcuterie have drawn many fans, among them the great foodie Jim Harrison, who chronicled his experience here in his memoir Off to the Side. Harrison might be amused to know that the Colcombets' chocolate Labrador retriever, Lanvin, has gnawed their copy of his book to shreds. 51 Rue des Arènes; 33-4/90-96-56-96; dinner for two $60; closed Sunday and Monday.
Le Bistrot du Paradou
I had many happy lunches at Chez Quénin, once a humble neighborhood canteen, while working on a book in the early eighties. New owners Jean-Louis and Mireille Pons, from nearby Arles, took over the restaurant shortly thereafter, changing the name to the trendier-sounding Bistrot du Paradou and improving the cuisine, while maintaining the character—vintage-tiled floors, stone walls, timbered ceilings—of the old place. Mireille, the daughter of an Arlesian baker, commands the open kitchen, while the personable Jean-Louis, with his wonderful Provençal accent (vin blanc becomes "veng blahng"), works the room. Just as in the days of Quénin, there is only a single four-course prix fixe at each meal. Tuesday, for example, might feature roasted farm-raised guinea hen, and Friday is the day for aioli, the traditional Provençal feast of steamed vegetables, salt cod, and local snails accompanied by the pungent garlic mayonnaise for which it is named. The price includes a bottle of wine—red, white, or rosé. My most recent dinner started with grilled orange roughy fillets drizzled with olive oil and garnished with basil, followed by a main course of sliced leg of lamb served with a potato gratin. Dessert was Mireille's plump and flaky strawberry tart. "Our most faithful clients call us at the beginning of the week to find out the menus for the next five days," Jean-Louis says, "then plan their week accordingly." 57 Ave. de la Vallée des Baux; 33-4/90-54-32-70; dinner for two $105; closed Sunday and Monday.
Le Bistrot d'Eygalières
Does a restaurant with a Michelin two-star rating and a refined décor still merit the modest title of bistro?Yes, indeed, in the case of the Bistrot d'Eygalières, whose owners, the handsome young Belgian couple Suzy and Wout Bru, have maintained the true bistro spirit while offering a menu of exquisitely nuanced regional cuisine. This bistro de luxe, in a sleepy, out-of-the-way village a few miles south of the main road that runs between St.-Rémy and Cavaillon, has won over many high-profile neighbors: Charles Aznavour and Princess Caroline of Monaco frequently book tables, as do other members of the local gratin. Elegant and understated in tones of olive-gray and cream, the interior serves as background for Wout Bru's dazzling cuisine. Wout, an inventive chef, uses vinaigrette and jus bases to keep his cooking light and full of flavor. "I'm always looking for new ways to enhance the essence of each product I work with, from the farm, the forest, and the sea," he says. My mouth waters when I think back to my lavish lunch there, a medley of warm-lobster salad dressed with an earthy truffled vinaigrette; a croustillant (crisply grilled fillet) of baby pig, with savory and wild mushrooms; and a "gazpacho" of fraises des bois, tiny, fragrant wild strawberries. Rue de la République; 33-4/90-90-60-34; lunch for two $100; closed Monday all day, Tuesday for lunch.
The former mansion of Jules Pernod, creator of the famous anisette liqueur that still bears his name, now houses one of Avignon's newest restaurants, Numéro 75. Noted local chef Robert Brunel, whose eponymous establishment, Brunel, faces the Palais des Papes, decided to take over the Pernod property to offer diners a more casual, countrified dining experience. Set behind an iron gate, 75 feels like a secret garden, fragrant with mimosa, bougainvillea, and lemon. "I wanted to create a bistro menu featuring simple Provençal cuisine and lots of salads," Brunel says, "dishes that are perfect for eating outdoors." He keeps his menus short, with only a handful of lunch and dinner choices. My alfresco meal on an evening in late spring—a silky foie-gras terrine studded with bits of poached artichoke hearts, followed by pan-roasted guinea hen paired with a tangy, tender lemon confit—was a delight. Salads, such as the combo of prosciutto, sun-dried tomato, and marinated eggplant, are popular with the after-theater crowd that fills the garden during Avignon's famous summer festival in July. 75 Rue Guillaume Puy; 33-4/90-27-16-00; dinner for two $71; closed Sunday.
Le Jardin du Quai
A lively group of antiques dealers surrounded me in the garden of Le Jardin du Quai last summer, and all of us were eager to try chef Daniel Hebet's lunchtime specials. In a century-old house across from the train station in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a celebrated riverside town of antiquaires, Le Jardin du Quai is one of the best new restaurants in Provence. Hebet, who drew rave notices as chef of the Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon, offers an unadorned but sophisticated market-based menu in an appropriate atmosphere of retro chic, complete with an old zinc bar and vintage bistro tables. On the afternoon I found myself seated under Hebet's vine-draped pergola, lunch started with a dish of grilled asparagus, shaved Parmesan, and fresh herbs. A tender, center-cut cod fillet on a bed of warm chickpeas flecked with orange zest was the main course; dessert was a luscious poached white peach in a cinnamon-spiked sugar syrup. The meal, enhanced by a golden Jean-Luc Colombo Les Figuières Côtes du Rhône, was unforgettable in its delicious understatement. 91 Ave. Julien-Guigue; 33-4/90-20-14-98; lunch for two $60; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Le Bouquet de Basilic
In the tourist-clogged hill town of Gordes, it's not easy finding a place to eat—a pleasant, authentic, and reasonably priced place, that is, among the tourist canteens and the high-priced restaurants. Le Bouquet de Basilic, tucked behind a souvenir shop, is an adorable discovery. A leafy terrace offers cool shelter on a hot day, and the timbered, turmeric-hued interior is the perfect retreat when the mistral blows. Marianne Galante, the restaurant's amiable owner, has family roots in Sicily, and she has given a distinctly Mediterranean slant to her organic blackboard menu. Many dishes include Galante's glowingly fresh basil, the restaurant's namesake, as well as her house-grown garlic and locally pressed olive oil. I enjoyed the crab salad in a light, lemony vinaigrette, and my finicky photographer pronounced the tagliatelle with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic très bon. Our carafe of rosé du pays, the Fontenille Côtes du Luberon, dry and delicately fruity with a tiny hint of cranberry, was just right with this casual, southern-souled meal. Rte. de Murs; 33-4/90-72-06-98; lunch for two $70; closed Thursday.
Bistro de France
For me, this is the quintessential town bistro. Its individual elements (Formica tables, Naugahyde banquettes) may not be particularly attractive, but those motley parts add up to a beguiling whole. The restaurant was spiffed up a couple of years back with a marbled trompe l'oeil façade, but it remains humble at heart. According to owner-chef Jackie André, the Bistro de France is one of the oldest bistros in Provence, built where a bicycle shop and a café stood back in the twenties. The meals here are good the way the best home cooking is: fresh, unadorned, and generously served. There are black truffles in the winter, melons in the summer, and cèpe mushrooms in the fall. With its seasonal specials and menu classics such as crespéou, a layered Provençal omelette with herbs, spinach, and zucchini, and old-fashioned blanquette de veau—the ultimate bistro comfort food—the Bistro de France always plays to a full house. The crowd chez Jackie is a congenial mix of local businessmen, happy tourists who chose well, and real estate agents dragging along potential clients to show them a bit of local color. There is a daunting rush for tables after Apt's sprawling Saturday morning market, and disappointed shoppers are often turned away. Reserve! 67 Place de la Bouquerie; 33-4/90-74-22-01; lunch for two $60; closed Sunday and Monday.
Linda Dannenberg is the author of New French Country (Clarkson Potter). She has written for the New York Times, Departures, and House & Garden.
The best time to travel to Provence is from April to October, when the weather is warm—between 65 and 85 degrees—and comfortable for city touring and eating outdoors. For savvy travelers who prefer to avoid crowds, autumn and spring are particularly pleasant and serene. A word of warning: the winter months can be windy and cold, especially inland.