French Food Revolution: The Dawn of the Cave à Manger

Antonin Borgeaud

In Paris, a wine bar–tapas bar hybrid is sweeping the city and bringing with it exceptional cuisine at affordable prices.

On narrow rue Saint-Maur in the 11th arrondissement, chef-owner Camille Fourmont has just flicked on the lights of La Buvette (67 rue Saint-Maur; 33-9/83-56-94-11) for the evening. The fourth-generation Beaujolais winemaker Marcel Joubert has stopped to deliver wine. Two Americans peruse a selection of wines before taking a seat at one of the mismatched wooden tables. La Buvette, a former dairy with paint chipping off the walls and a mosaic floor, looks like a wine shop. Bottles of natural wines from small independent makers are stacked in a cabinet along one wall and can be purchased to go, but a mirror scrawled with descriptions of dishes like burrata with raspberry powder and mackerel with yuzu help communicate the space’s larger mission: This is a cave à manger, a style of restaurant that has revolutionized Paris’s dining scene in recent years.

In her book The New Paris: The People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement ($30; Abrams, April), author Lindsey Tramuta defines a cave à manger as “a cross between a wine bar and a tapas bar with a special liquor license that allows patrons to drink alcohol only if they order food”—as is the case at La Buvette. Other caves à manger opt for the more expensive Grande License necessary for full bars and restaurants but operate their business in the more flexible cave à manger style. “It's even more laid back than a wine bar,” says Tramuta. “I like to go to these types of places before a dinner reservation or to finish the night because there's a warmth and intimacy about them.” While using these spots for an apéro (the French version of happy hour) or post-dinner drink is common, some patrons make it their evening meal. The food is often simple and might include a selection of charcuterie and cheeses or composed plates. “Just a little snack and a glass of wine is sometimes all you want,” she says.

L'Avant Comptoir and La Buvette. Getty Images; Antonin Borgeaud

According to Julien Pham, founder of the French food agency Phamily First, the origins of the cave à manger can be traced back to 2009 when chef Yves Camdeborde opened L’Avant Comptoir (3 Carrefour de L’Odeon; 33-1/42-38-47-55). Suddenly diners were clamoring for a spot at the standing room only bar for French hors d’oeuvres: a waffle topped with ham and artichoke, pig’s foot croquettes, blood sausage macaron. It was such a success, Camdeborde opened L’Avant Comptoir de La Mer, a seafood cave à manger next door, and L’Avant Comptoir du Marché (14 rue Lobineau) in Marché Saint-Germain last year.

La Buvette opened in 2012, and many of the most exciting restaurants currently in Paris—La Cave à Michel, Clamato, Martin, Le Grand Bain, Vivant, and Freddy’s—can be counted as caves à manger. Young Parisians are flocking to them for their convivial atmosphere and excellent food and wines, offered at reasonable prices. “These places are an evolution of bistronomie,” says Pham. “Chefs want even more freedom and caves à manger are breaking down another wall.”

At La Buvette, no small plate costs more than 11 euros, but Fourmont’s white bean dish, composed behind the bar of Spanish beans, lemon zest, and a glug of quality olive oil, has become nearly as revered as Alain Passard’s Arpège Egg. She says a well-known magazine editor from New York recently came in asking for her “famous” beans. “I came up with this the day before I opened four years ago. It’s just a can of beans, a good can, but it’s so simple,” she laughs.

Tramuta says one reason for the proliferation of the cave à manger is the fact that it’s less expensive for a business owner to set up their venture this way. It requires fewer staff then a typical restaurant. Pacchio in the 9th arrondissement opened as a restaurant in 2016 but switched to a cave à manger formula this past February—too many tables went vacant when a party would neglect to show up for its reservation. At a cave à manger, reservations are not required, and in some cases not accepted. In a city where dining out has historically been treated as a formal affair, this new approach is nothing short of a revelation.

La Buvette. Antonin Borgeaud

The Short List

La Buvette: Camille Fourmont’s cave à manger serves small plates for less than 11 euros (don’t miss her “famous” white beans) and natural wines to go. 67 Rue Saint-Maur; 33-9/83-56-94-11.

L’Avant Comptoir: This standing-only bar serving natural wine and small plates is credited with launching the cave à manger movement when it opened in 2009. Chef-owner Yves Camdeborde followed up on the success with seafood-focused L’Avant Comptoir de La Mer next door, and L’Avant Comptoir du Marché (14 rue Lobineau). 3 Carrefour de L’Odeon; 33-1/42-38-47-55.

La Cave à Michel: Romain Tischenko co-owns the tasting menu spot Le Galopin but the French Top Chef winner prefers to cook at the cave à manger next door—a collaboration with caviste Fabrice Mansouri. Tischenko works absolute wonders in the tiny kitchen behind the bar, whipping up dishes that range from very simple hardboiled eggs with homemade mayonnaise to more complex veal tartare with capers and arugula. 36 Rue Sainte-Marthe; 33-1/42-45-94-47.

Clamato: This seafood cave à manger from the same people behind Michelin one-star Septime, doesn’t take reservations and that means you will likely have to wait for the chance to order dishes like wild sea bass ceviche with radish and cilantro, and octopus with Egyptian beets and smoked pork, but it’s worth it. The accompanying natural wine list is heavy on whites like Chablis and Savoie that pair perfectly with the briny cuisine. Don’t pass up the maple syrup tart for dessert. 80 Rue du Charonne; 33-1/43-72-74-53;

L'Avant Comptoir. Yves Duronsoy / Courtesy L'Avant Comptoir

Martin: The tag line at this cave à manger is boire et manger, “drink and eat,” and young Parisians come to do both in equal measure. The back bar is a wonderful place to grab a glass of natural wine, but there are also wooden tables for dining on small plates (nearly all under 10 euros) that might include cauliflower with anchovies, and Jerusalem artichokes with hollandaise sauce. 24 Blvd. du Temple; 33-1/43-57-82-37;

Le Grand Bain: Former Au Passage chef Edward Delling-Williams is helming the kitchen at this new Belleville restaurant with the spirit of a cave à manger. It is possible to reserve a table, but the large rectangular bar is reserved for walk-ins and small plates like razor clams with green tomato and butternut squash with pickled walnut. The natural wine cave offers gems like Alexandre Bain La Levée 14, a dry and complex sauvignon blanc harvested by hand and made without synthetic products. 14 Rue Denoyez; 33-9/83-02-72-02;

Vivant: A cabinet filled with excellent natural wine dominates this narrow space with a white marble bar and geometric tile floor. The chef, who worked at Aux Deux Amis and the Plaza Athénée turns out excellent small plates like pasta with almond pesto and a housemade chocolate bar with curry for dessert. 43 Rue des Petites Écuries; 33-1/42-46-43-55;

Freddy’s: This wine bar/tapas bar on pretty Rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Prés focuses on grilled small bites like lamb kabobs and duck hearts. The no reservations spot only offers bar and counter seating so it’s best for small groups. 54 Rue de Seine.

Pacchio: At this 9th arrondissement cave à manger, guests can tuck into Mediterranean small plates cooked by a Japanese chef, like bavette steak with roasted carrots and harissa, and white asparagus with smoked ricotta. The strictly natural wine list includes selections from up-and-coming vintners like the Auvergne’s Patrick Bouju. 75 Rue de Rochechouart; 33-1/40-36-06-22;