The Côte d’Azur enchants and exasperates the French in equal measure, because everything about the region is paradoxical. Its cooking is a case in point: Originally and fundamentally a cuisine de pauvres, tempered by the ordinary nobility of fishermen and farmers, in modern times it has been plunged helter-skelter into a world of gilt and whimsy more fitted to an imperial court. Unlike Tuscany, which has managed to preserve the pure magic of its cucina povera, the Côte d’Azur has seen its regular cooking cast adrift in a sea of pomp, wherein the aim is more to dazzle than to persuade, self-expression is valued more highly than good sense and technique is king. (Even ultratraditional dishes like bouillabaisse get picked apart.) Fortunately, now that the food in the great palace hotels is burdened by prices that give pause even to the most plutocratic Russians, the cuisine of unpretentious bistros has surged in popularity. These days one needs to mix it up and boldly go among the humbler places, like those on a student’s budget. It’s the new vogue on the Riviera, and it suits the present time. Except here, the cooking scene is played out against the same glorious Mediterranean backdrop, and contrary to other regions of France that are more understated and discreet (like Alsace or Brittany), the cuisine of the Riviera remains delectable because the chefs make such strenuous efforts to be interesting. They strut their stuff, strike their poses and genuinely enjoy themselves—and sometimes they are very successful in what they do. We have selected 14 of the livelier establishments, from Nice to Marseille (a stretch, maybe, but important to include to get the best recommendations), run by people of this joyous stamp, for your greater good.
La Merenda: If there’s one place on the Riviera that remains constant and timeless, it’s La Merenda. Its modus operandi does not change. It has no telephone and doesn’t accept credit cards; if you want to reserve one of the 24 stools at this tiny restaurant near the Marché Saleya, you have to stop by in person like in the old days. You may see chef Dominique Le Stanc, formerly of the Hotel Negresco in Nice, preparing his dishes and peeling his vegetables. There are no pretensions of grandeur: La Merenda is dedicated to local dishes, from an irresistible pasta with pistou sauce, a red-pepper tart and zucchini fritters, to oxtail with polenta à l’orange and just-picked broad beans with pancetta. At 4 Rue Raoul Bosio; no telephone.
Hostellerie Jérôme: It is commonly assumed that the authentic, relaxed, first-rate Mediterranean cuisine of our fathers has vanished forever. It hasn’t. It exists at the Hostellerie Jérôme, where it is dispensed by Bruno Cirino, a chef as modest as he is brilliant. Cirino’s technique is dazzling and meticulous, always focused on the very best ingredients; his cooking is dreamy, respectful and, above all, really good. He might be said to occupy a middle ground between Jacques Maximin (when he was at Hotel Negresco) and Alain Ducasse (during his time at the Juana, in Juan-les-Pins), but Cirino is the real deal. Particular favorites are pigeon breast braised in a black-olive reduction, langoustine salad and roast chicken with truffled potato purée. It’s all basic, totally immaculate Mediterranean food, fittingly served in a vaulted and frescoed dining room. At 20 Rue Comte de Cessole; 33-4/92-41-51-51; hostelleriejerome.com.
Le Mirazur: If you love honest cooking—that is, if you love the polar opposite of classic international cuisine—you will find its modern version here. Le Mirazur is a splendid restaurant with 1930s decor and its own herb and vegetable garden, in the polished tradition of Michel Bras, Alain Passard and Noma. The cuisine is spare, flinty, almost Druidical in its attachment to the best ingredients; unsurprisingly, chef Mauro Colagreco, who trained under Passard, is a contemporary master. Like his mentor, he grows his own tomatoes (40 varieties, including one that has a rich flavor of truffles), the tongue-tingling flower buds called Sichuan buttons, horseradish, wild radish leaves, rainbow chard and carrots, white, yellow and red. The result: sea and potager gloriously united. At 30 Av. Aristide Briand; 33-4/92-41-86-86; mirazur.fr.
Louis XV–Alain Ducasse, Le Grill: The great Monte Carlo rivalry between Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon is one of the perennial attractions of the Côte d’Azur. All personal animosity between these two has long since vanished, but the battle for professional supremacy still rages unabated. Ducasse, with the support of chef Franck Cerutti, his one true heir, commands a flotilla of restaurants in the Hôtel de Paris, whose flagship is the Louis XV–Alain Ducasse (Pl. du Casino; 377-9/806-8864; hoteldeparismontecarlo.com). Though personally I prefer the old-fashioned mood of Le Grill (377-9/806-8888), on the top floor. Here the roof can be opened or closed depending on the weather, and every time it opens, the delighted diners’ camera flashes set the night ablaze. What’s more, real progress has been made with the food: The famous grilled poussins (young, small chickens) and the hearts of lettuce à la Monégasque make it clear that fresh interest and élan have returned to the kitchen. Le Grill is Monaco’s Tour d’Argent—dated in some ways but purring along just fine and dandy.
Yoshi, Restaurant Joël Robuchon: Joël Robuchon offers something entirely different from Ducasse at the Hôtel Metropole, where the atmosphere is not quite so stuffy and formal. Nevertheless, the same rigorous attention is paid to the quality of the food. For Yoshi (4 Av. de la Madone; 377-9/315-1313; metropole.com), his first Japanese restaurant, Robuchon briefed chef Takeo Yamazaki to create a lively, contemporary menu, which would suit Monegasque tastes while preserving all the minimalist, healthy aspects of Japanese cooking.
The Restaurant Joël Robuchon (377-9/315-1510), also at the Metropole, is run by Christophe Cussac, who serves the master’s greatest classics as well as a clutch of new creations inspired by the Mediterranean, among them a tomato concoction that is beyond delicious. Devotees of Robuchon’s Atelier restaurants will recognize his trademark counter seating, fronting an open kitchen with teppanyaki. Serious stuff.
Bistrot de la Marine: Don’t go to the grave without setting eyes on Jacques Maximin, at least once. He has the face of a veteran movie star; he’s like a grumpy, washed-up De Niro, weary of snarling at people, utterly weary of wrestling with broad beans, hakes and flounder. Maximin is one of the last great French chefs left alive, but he has plenty of disappointed customers who, for the life of them, don’t understand where the genius of his fried anchovies is hidden, and likely never will. That’s how it is here. You’ll hear him bellowing insults at his staff, and after his explosions you’ll hear them speak of him in the hushed tones of worship. It’s astonishing. His cooking echoes his intensity. Try the authentic salade niçoise, from Jacques Médecin’s recipe: Like Maximin himself, it grates, groans, bellows and bites (anchovies, green peppers, fennel, onions, lemon…), but it also knows how to be gentle and vibrant (tomatoes, beans, egg yolk). C’est une belle affaire. $ At 96 Promenade de la Plage; 33-4/93-26-43-46.
Le Grain de Sel: The Côte d’Azur would be a pretty anemic sort of place without Marseille. Of the city’s myriad restaurants, I find this bistro, owned and run by chef Pierre Giannetti, to be extra special. Giannetti works his magic in a kitchen that is wide open to his dining room, so when you eat there, you can fully appreciate his style of precise concentration. His wonderful dishes include spinach shoots and lightly cooked, crunchy vegetables with sardines marinated in an orange vinaigrette; monkfish medallion a la plancha, Basque blood sausage with wild garlic and hazelnuts, rice with broad beans and tellina clams; and various skillfully constructed desserts, such as strawberries with avocado and coriander. All this is served with great good humor. At 39 Rue de la Paix-Marcel-Paul; 33-4/91-54-47-30.
Paule et Kopa: Marseille is above all a place of character and ambiance. And there’s no better way to experience this than at the true bistros—the ones the guides never seem to reach or mention. Their authenticity stems from a simple fact: They burst with life. On the Place aux Huiles, Paule et Kopa is Marseillais in every way. It serves excellent pizzas but also supions (small calamari) à la provençale; young and tender stuffed vegetables; Marseillais-style stuffed calves’ feet; gambas flambées au pastis; octopus salad and more. All this will be topped off with a shot of delicious lemon verbena liqueur, so you’ll remember to come back. At 42 Pl. aux Huiles; 33-4/91-33-26-03.
La Table du Chef: Bruno Gensdarme learned his trade in the Paris bistros of Guy Savoy, which means he should know all about bistros and their simple approach to gastronomy. His current establishment is in a commercial area of Cannes and consists of a long, narrow dining room with space for 20 couverts. The fare at lunch is invariably straightforward and fresh from the market; a carrot soup with (two) sautéed prawns was way above the local average for quality without breaking any significant barriers, as was a celery purée with jus de crustacées at the bar. My advice is to go in the evening, when Gensdarme brings rather heavier guns to bear than he does at midday, at which time the menu, fresh though it is, is quickly cobbled together according to what’s available. The Table du Chef has a loyal clientele and a not always agreeable loyalty of its own to the music of Michael Jackson. At 5 Rue Jean Daumas; 33-4/93-68-27-40.
Les Canailles: A top-notch bistro with a feminine touch, Les Canailles, which is in the same thoroughfare as the Table du Chef, has become highly successful locally for the simple reason that all its work is done with admirable care, and every recipe is skillfully handled. When I took a photograph of one of the dishes, the better to remember it, the lady in charge appeared at my elbow to inquire if I was in the restaurant business.… “You understand, other cooks keep sneaking in to steal our ideas!” That didn’t surprise me, given that the bill of fare that day was richly promising: roast cod, French fries prepared from scratch on the spot, veal flank with shallots, creamy polenta with lamb Bolognese, strawberries and meringue. Having said that, I wonder what these sinister rivals actually need to steal, because although the menu here is always lively, it is far from revolutionary. Perhaps they’ve noticed that the decor at Les Canailles is unusually bright and spruce, whilst its general atmosphere, attentive service and solid wine list could serve as an example for many another establishment, including one or two right down the street. At 12 Rue Jean Daumas; 33-4/93-68-12-10.
La Petite Cuisine: You know the drill: If a heavyweight establishment like the Villa Madie in Cassis opens a bistro close by, there’s an unspoken guarantee of superlative dishes, skill in their preparation and friendly prices. This usually works wonders, just as it has here in the lovely sea setting of Cap Canaille. There’s a lunch menu that includes a starter, main dish and dessert: octopus salad with semoule and piperade and a delicate, faintly peppery vinaigrette; followed by roast monkfish, velvet-soft mashed potatoes and a creamy basil sauce; then a baked cherry clafoutis with a sorbet by Kriek. At Av. Revestel, Anse de Corton; 33-4/96-18-00-00; lavillamadie.com.
La Passagère: The exquisite Juan-les-Pins hotel, the mythic haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was always enchanting, and now that its restaurant has been run for a year by Pascal Bardet, an authentic Ducasse protégé and mercenary of Mediterranean cooking, it’s even more so. Like Ducasse, Bardet combines immaculate technique and respect for his products with a level of finicky attention that is very nearly exasperating. The lunch menu is perfect, especially in springtime, when the terrace is bathed in sunlight: risotto with fresh young asparagus and Parmesan; a warm salad of clams, calamari, octopus and Borlotti beans, the juices thickened with crushed herbs. All this is seasonal, magical and faultless, an object lesson in how to cook this way. The service can be relentlessly formal, even comically obsequious, but this is all part of French gastronomic tradition. That said, sometimes ordinary niceness and simplicity are all you need to project perfect style. At 33 Bd. E. Baudouin; 33-4/93-61-02-79; bellesrives.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.