There are few things I find more enjoyable than roaming around the south of France in search of delicious, thoughtfully prepared cuisine. It is a chronic hobby of mine. For the past seventeen years I have traveled the coastline from Theole sur Mer to sunny Menton, from the narrow, pedestrian-only streets of the old town of Nice to the chic, Disney-esque Principality of Monaco, from the glitz of Cannes to the grit of Cagnes, and almost everywhere in-between, in a never-ending quest for good food and wine. Along the way I have devoured bouillabaisse in Antibes, snails in Villefranche, and pizza in just about every place imaginable.
Lately, though, I will admit to being pulled north, away from the coast, more times than not for my culinary explorations.
Drive twenty minutes north from Nice or Cannes and you will find yourself in another world, one far removed from the bustling coast. Perched medieval villages dot the lush, mountainous countryside. Tiny vineyards produce beautifully complex wines, and around almost every bend in the road appears another idyllic spot waiting to be discovered. It is a spectacularly varied and beautiful landscape.
It is also chock full of good food.
My picks for the three best restaurants in the Riviera backcountry are, by most standards, modest establishments. There are no Michelin stars or celebrity chefs on my list. What you will find, though, are warm welcomes, fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and skilled chefs who care deeply about every dish they create.
To enjoy these restaurants you will need a car, a mild sense of adventure, and a little time, but don’t worry, like a fine wine left to breathe, you will be amply rewarded for your patience.
Bistro Le Donjon – Le Bar sur Loup
Bistro Le Donjon is located in the old Castle Keep on the Place Francis Paulet in the medieval, working-class village of Le Bar sur Loup. The town sits perched above the D2210, the winding mountain road featured in the car chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1953 film, To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Looking east from the old stone wall at the edge of the Place, the view across the Loup Valley to the Gorges du Loup and pic de Courmettes is sublime.
It is the perfect spot for an exceptional meal.
Chef and owner Thomas Gillespie does not pull any punches when discussing his food. On his website he plainly states “We are not in the business of reheating pre-made, industrially produced food”.
Dine at Bistro Le Donjon and you will understand that he means what he says.
The menu is usually quite simple, with a choice of two or three set menus featuring locally sourced meats or fish, fresh vegetables, cheeses, and delicious desserts. I will admit, more times than not, I find it difficult to get past the hamburger. It is as delicious a burger as I have ever eaten (I prefer mine with a slab of foie gras on top).
The wine list rightfully includes selections from several vineyards located within a few miles of the restaurant as well as wines from other regions in France. The service is casual and friendly and you will be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant, or delicious, dining experience.
In warm weather sit outside on the small wooden terrace and watch the pace of village life pass slowly by.
You won’t be disappointed.
Bistro Le Donjon
Place Francis Paulet
06620 Le Bar-sur-Loup, France
(33 4) 93 77 53 92
(Open for lunch and dinner. Prix-fixe menus from 21 to 58 euros. Closed on Monday, Tuesday, and Sunday evening.)
L’ecole des Filles – Le Bar sur Loup
Walk down the hill from Place Francis Paulet, through the winding, narrow, pedestrian-only streets that cascade down to the main road, and you will find L’Ecole des Filles. Housed in a former school for girls (hence the name), this smoothly-run restaurant is a gem. From the warm welcome to the kind, attentive service to the delicious cuisine, guests are comfortably and expertly ushered through a remarkable dining experience.
The menu is small but varied and always features simple, in-season ingredients, perfectly executed and plated (the duck is especially memorable). The wine list is diverse and reasonably priced, featuring both local and regional wines. In warm weather the draping linden tree provides ample shade for outdoor seating on the picturesque terrace.
This is French dining at its best.
L’Ecole des Filles
380 Avenue Amiral de Grasse
06620 Le Bar-sur-Loup, France
(33 4) 93 09 40 20
(Open for lunch and dinner. Prix-fixe menus from 26 – 45 euros. Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.)
La Barricade – Greolieres
This quiet, unassuming restaurant is located in Greolieres, a tiny village nestled halfway up Mont Cheiron overlooking the Cheiron Valley.
It is an isolated, beautiful place.
To get to it one must take the D6 up through the Gorges du Loup, a deep and narrow canyon cut out over centuries by the loup river. Once in Greolieres, a block off the Grand Rue on the Place de la Fontaine, husband and wife Pascal and Charline provide guests with a gracious reception followed by hearty, delicious fare.
The menu is quite diverse, usually including a variety of pastas, filet de boeuf, duck, tartare de boeuf, fresh salads, and occasional provencal specialties. La Barricade is well-known throughout the area for its delicious pizzas, cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven. I recommend the simple and sublime Pizza Margherita.
Pascal handles the front of the house with aplomb while Charline runs the kitchen. She makes all of the desserts in-house and they are not to be missed.
For country dining in a beautiful location you can do no better than La Barricade.
14 Place de la Fontaine
06620 Greolieres, France
(33 4) 93 59 98 68
(Open for lunch and dinner. Dinner only on Friday. Main dishes from 12 – 22 euros Closed on Thursday.)