2 Rue de l'Aumône Vieille
Tel: 33 4 42 27 37 19
Southwestern French cuisine is the raison d'être of this refreshingly casual, energetic restaurant. The entire staff seems to be of college age, including the chefs, who cook out of a semipublic kitchen, and the casual, friendly wait staff, some of whom still have braces on their teeth. The interior decor is negligible; go for the sun-filled narrow garden at the back, where you'll share the space with in-the-know locals. Duck and goose are everywhere on the menu, including the Starlette salad, a rich mix of marinated sautéed rabbit livers, duck rillettes, and foie gras atop some token greens. The house specialty is a tourtou of duck, a stuffed warm crêpe that is creamy, warm, satisfying, and pleasantly unlike the regime of olive oil and shellfish that reigns everywhere else in Aix. Wines are cheap, local, and cheerful. Jacquou may not be straight out of a Peter Mayle book, but it's a refreshing jolt of youth and energy in this sometimes sleepy-feeling region.
Opens daily at noon for lunch and 7 pm for dinner, April through September, and Tuesdays through Saturdays, October through March.
Tel: 33 4 66 77 51 63
In spite of a backcountry location that requires serious map-reading skills and a strong stomach for switchback mountain roads, the Demeures du Ranquet won a Michelin star in 2006. However, those with a certain notion of Michelin-starred glamour may be in for a shock when they arrive at this Gard Valley restaurant near Nîmes. The decor is utterly anonymous, as much Jersey Shore as it is Provençal. Touches like mismatched lamps can be charming or sloppy, depending on your perspective, but chef-owner Anne Marjourel has obviously dedicated all resources to the food. Most of the vegetables are grown in the biodynamic garden just outside the dining room. Dishes are exquisitely simple, but each ingredient is lovingly rendered. The menu changes often, but tends to be heavy on lamb. Spoon-tender lamb is served in a bowl, almost like a soup. An appetizer of cod, artichoke heart, and spinach is subtle and earthy, and the almost frighteningly tender baby lamb chops are redolent of wild rosemary and thyme. Definitely make reservations, and come early: This country inn closes down by 10 pm, and the otherwise friendly and attentive staff will not make efforts to disguise their eagerness to go home. The restaurant may still be going through ambience growing pains, but the food proves it to be a legend in the making.
Open Thursdays through Mondays noon to 1:30 pm and 8 to 9:30 pm.
71 Rue du 14 Juillet
Tel: 33 4 66 75 25 42
As Provence grows in culinary stature, travelers have to try a little harder to get to the truly simple pleasures. You're more likely to find them at the region's edges, in places like rustic little Cabrières, where lights still go out early and the main public forum is the post office. The restaurant here, L'Enclos des Lauriers Roses, serves up uncomplicated, earthy fare in a plain setting—red tiles on the floor, plastic tablecloths covered with Provençal motifs. Clients are largely locals who come to comb through the extensive wine list's well-priced offerings. Rich fare includes brandade de morue, a creamy cod stew that arrives in a puff pastry sack drizzled with garlicky olive oil. Pike perch is a light main course, perfectly cooked and set off by a frozen tomato coulis, while a joint of lamb that has slow-roasted for five hours is straight-ahead comfort food. This is the real thing, a totally authentic experience free of any touristic glitz.
Open daily noon to 2 pm and 7 to 10 pm.
Montée de Gordes
Tel: 33 4 90 72 04 90
Though it has its own gift shop, L'Estellan is anything but a tourist trap. Located in the Lubéron valley east of Avignon near Gordes, the clientele here is largely local, but the food is remarkably sophisticated. Many dishes play with sweet-and-savory combinations: An amuse-bouche pairs olive tapenade with vanilla extract, and a tart combines quail and fig compote. Salads are very fresh, if a trifle staid; skip the pot au feu–style poached pike perch in favor of the rich cod and haddock hash topped by an aromatic marjoram sauce. Wines are local and quite reasonably priced by the glass or pitcher. A glassed-in terrace and outside seating make the most of the rear garden in summer and fall, though inside dining is set in a classic beam-ceiling Provençal room. The friendly service can be a tad on the leisurely side, but you didn't come to Provence to hustle, did you?
Open daily noon to 1:30 pm and 7 to 9 pm.
Rue de la République
Tel: 33 4 90 90 60 34
This is the home of Provence's most relaxed culinary thrills. Rare is the two-Michelin-starred restaurant that is as open and friendly as Wout and Suzy Bru's bistrot in the tiny hill town of Eygalières. Sitting on the town's main commercial street, it has none of the entry-room fuss associated with fancy French dining. Typical Provençal decor is taken upscale with glazed-tile floors and plastered ceiling posts in the two warm dining rooms, which seem urbane and rustic at the same time. This theme carries over to the menu: From the house cocktail of Champagne and Campari onward, everything is an elegant take on regional classics. Highlights include a "canneloni" of rare tuna with foie gras and pine nuts, sole with lightly fried pigs' foot, a symphonic king crab appetizer that's served with poached oysters and truffled mashed potatoes, and a croustillant, literally a crunch of roast suckling pig that combines textures like few meat dishes can. Every ingredient sings in simple, subtle, and rewarding combinations. The wine list covers the world of high-priced Bordeaux and Burgundies, but is also encyclopedic with the local Côteaux-de-Provence, Bandol, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What ties it all together is the tremendously friendly service: The staff is young, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable to a fault.
Call ahead for hours.
7 Rue Pasteur
Tel: 33 4 66 53 93 95
A crimson-red, low-slung dining room just off Aigues-Mortes' main street, the Café de Bouzigues is a ramshackle, homespun affair that's miles away from Michelin-starred fanciness. The low ceilings and dark interior are clues that this is an "authentic" place to sample locally sourced delicacies—but the kitchen supplies enough youthful attitude and attention to detail to keep the café from being kitschy. The menu includes local oysters in a chaud-froid presentation (both cooked and raw), rabbit stew, and the local specialty, steak from the black bulls who roam the Camargue plains and sometimes end up as contestants in the regional bullfights. A pissaladière, an onion-confit pizza, is perfectly caramelized and smoky with anchovies. Rabbit haunch with a risotto of fluffy red Camargue rice is strongly flavorful yet far from overpowering, and a dessert of farmer's cheese with fig jelly is a perfectly simple sweet-and-savory combination.
Opens daily at 7 pm.
Tel: 33 4 97 08 84 08
Deep in the Camargue is that rare bird, a hotel-restaurant that's more like someone's home...because it is. Owner-patron Jacques Bon was born here, and loves to share his 17th-century beamed stone farmhouse with its perfect-pitch undesigned country antiques decor with guests. In the case of dinner, this is an even more special experience, since the few tables are not just near, but actually inside the kitchen—the kind of heart of the home with giant black range and hearth that features in most people's dreams of Provence (or of New Jersey, for that matter). Expert chef Julien Banlier uses what grows and is raised locally: beef and seafood, produce from the mas's gardens and, occasionally, the unique red rice of the Camargue. As you can imagine, reservations are essential.
10 Rue Villars
Tel: 33 4 42 37 09 00
In a former candy factory is a mini village (there's also a cooking school, a wine shop, and an épicerie) offering Aix some overdue modern cuisine. Reine Sammut, one of the top female chefs in France, started the restaurant. She moved on in 2005, but her former chef de cuisine, Franck Dumont, is at the helm of this fashionably playful kitchen. Enjoy "gravlax" of beef with hand-cut fries and wasabi mayonnaise, or dorade à la plancha—medium-edgy dishes that match the branché Tribeca loft decor of exposed aluminum pipes, tall red banquettes, and white chairs against dark slate walls and floors. Some say it's an overpriced pose with patchy service, but all of Aix seems to be coming anyway.
Tel: 33 4 90 54 33 07
There's nothing trendy, deconstructed, or reconstructed about this classic of the region, chef Jean-André Charial's domain for the past three decades—it's just right as it is. The stone-walled restaurant with its arched windows, wood-beamed ceiling, and iron carriage lamps plus its shaded garden tables is neither too dressy nor too louche, and likewise the menus, rigorously simple and based firmly in the cuisine of the Baussenque region. Pride of place goes to what's just been picked from the extensive gardens, and any arlequinade de legumes printaniers or ballade dans notre jardin or petits farcis (a Niçois dish of stuffed vegetables) on the menu should be seized upon—few chefs dare to give a nice young vegetable its head like Charial does. Fillets of red mullet with basil—a signature dish—are similarly deceptively simple; suckling pig roasted at low temperature with fennel confit and a leg of lamb en croûte are showier, but still sublime. Afterwards, try to save room for the impressive cheese board—all are from this region—and for another Baumianière signature, the crêpes soufflés au Grand Marnier. The 30 bedrooms, by the way, are wonderful, with a mix of modern and traditional furniture. Some even have outdoor terraces.