France is hailed the world over one of the guard posts of fine dining, and no one takes this fact more seriously than the citizens of this country. It’s the combination of perfect natural topography and an expert hand to produce such staples as grapes for wine, dairy for cheese, and excellent wheat. The restaurants and their offerings are also very diverse from region to region, so while many travelers turn up in Paris and start collecting Michelin stars, more adventurous foodies can have a far fuller experience by roaming the country and trying the styles and specialties of different regions based on their natural bounty. From the world’s best walnuts in Grenoble to the rowdy bouchons of Lyon, then, here are ten great places to eat in France.
Situated in the shadow of the Alps in south-east France, Grenoble is something of a culinary cross-roads, bringing together local produce from the surrounding farmland with Swiss-style Alpine dishes and a strong Italian influence. The most familiar regional specialty is Gratin Dauphinois, a creamy potato gratin served in most restaurants. The city is ringed by walnut orchards, and their wrinkled fruit was awarded the prestigious Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1938; today these orchards produce over half of France’s total walnut crop, which can be enjoyed in carefully crafted cakes and tarts from the city’s myriad patisseries. The best fine dining restaurants are found in the city center, such as La Madelon, serving excellent regional dishes, and Les Terrasses, which has two Michelin stars. And the sizeable student population ensure there are plenty of decent budget options, too, such as La Fondue, serving the traditional winter food at very reasonable prices.
Capital of one of the world’s finest wine regions, Bordeaux has developed a gastronomic scene fit to accompany its array of world class vintages. This draws on traditions from around the rest of France, as well as produce from the Garonne River and nearby Bay of Biscay, creating a diverse culinary palette. There are some superb south-west meat dishes, such as wood pigeon, Pauillac lamb, Bazas beef, Bigorre pork and several delicious-looking platters based around tripe – the brave can pluck grenier médocain or tricandilles from a restaurant’s menu. For a top-of-the-range experience try Michelin-starred La Gabriel, or for something a little less pricey but equally colorful check out La Brasserie Bordelaise. Alternatively, diners with a taste for seafood and prefer a less formal atmosphere, head to Le Petit Commerce, cooking up sublime, no-frills fresh fish and shellfish
Up in the north of France, a flavorful Flemish influence seeps into Lille’s cooking. This is reflected in the frequent use of beer and hops, alongside the prevalence of delectable chocolate shops such as Guillaume Vincent. Terrific meat dishes - carbonnade de boeuf (beer-stewed beef), coq à la bière (beer-stewed chicken), potjevleesch (meat and vegetable terrine) - mingle with superb seafood sourced from port towns to the north and west. For a stylish eating-out experience, you can’t beat the Art Deco-decked seafood restaurant A L’Huîtrière, while the region’s meat is prepared with consummate skill at the historic butcher’s-shop-turned-bistro Le Barbier Lillois. Visitors travelling from the UK can catch a relatively easy ride to Lille, as it’s one of the stops on the Eurostar.
Dijon is the capital of Burgundy, and so immediately tingles the taste buds of wine and mustard lovers. In fact it has done so for years, ranking among France’s top gourmet destinations since the 15th century, when Burgundy was the ancestral home of Dukes who controlled swathes of what is now France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. The intervening centuries have provided ample time to evolve a host of local specialities that go far beyond just wine and mustard (although both find their way into many regional recipes). These include andouillette, a sausage made with pig intestines; poulet au meursault; garlic butter snails, and dishes that have achieved global fame such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. Chez Leon is a lively, welcoming place to try these regional specialities, while those seeking something more upmarket can choose between two jewels in the city’s culinary crown, Le Bistrot de Halles and Le Pré aux Clercs. Just don't ask for Grey Poupon!
With its pretty Old Town, warm climate and network of picturesque waterways, Toulouse is a terrific place to try quintessential southern French cuisine. This is typically rich and decadent, so if you want to enjoy the experience you’re gonna have to cast aside any notions of watching your waistline. Goose, duck and wild game take pride of place on restaurant menus, including such fabled foods as foie gras (fattened goose liver), cassoulet (bean, duck and pork stew) and Toulouse sausage. For a taste of grandeur, book a table at Michel Sarran, boasting an exquisite Italian terrace and two Michelin stars, or drop into Chez Carmen for a more convivial atmosphere.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, Reims found itself located disastrously close to France’s border with Germany, and was decimated first in WW1 and then again in WW2. It took decades to recover from the second bout, but a painstaking restoration effort has paid off, and today the famous Gothic cathedral looms over a town of beautiful boulevards, Roman remains and, best of all, an exquisite fine dining scene. It’s the main city in the Champagne region, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why it plays host to such a dense concentration of superb restaurants - this city of 180,000 people has four Michelin starred eateries, including the whimsical and expertly helmed seafood restaurant Le Foch and the chic seasonally-oriented Le Millénaire.
Two of Europe’s finest culinary cultures come together in Perpignan, located in Northern Catalonia, where gourmets are spoilt with a choice of traditional southern French dishes and Catalan Tapas. To this glorious smorgasbord, the French bring poultry like duck and geese, while the Catalans arrive with a basketful of olives, oil and ripe tomatoes. The city is also a mere 15km from the sea, which adds a sprinkling of seafood to the gourmet feast, while a wine list composed of great local vintages competes with cold Catalan beer to wash down the food. Of the restaurants in Perpignan, L’assiette Catalane does terrific tapas, Les Antiquaries offers fine French cooking, and fresh Mediterranean seafood can be savoured at Al Tres.
Alsatian specialities come with a strong German influence in Strasbourg, situated only a few kilometers from the border. This is seen most clearly if you order choucroute, better known to the world as sauerkraut, which is usually served in a great heap with sausage and other meats. Another distinctively German element is the use of sweet onion in soups and tarts. And then there’s the gorgeous and, to the uninitiated, somewhat disorientating tarte flambée, a north European version of pizza with a rectangular pastry base smothered in some combination of créme fraîche, onions, smoked ham, cheese and mushrooms. These unique and delicious specialities come alongside four restaurants with Michelin stars - Au Crocodile, Buerehiesel, Vieille Enseigne and Julien - and plentiful great affordable options, such as Chez Tante Liesele and La Stub.
Like any decent capital, Paris is a melting pot stewing together all the culinary traditions that run through the rest of France - as well, of course, as the world beyond. Whether you’re drawn to the moules frites of the Normandy coast, the decadent poultry of the south, the rich flavors of Lyon and Burgundy, or the fusion cuisine along the country’s eastern borders, do a little research and you’ll be able to find a superb chef cooking it up somewhere in the City of Light. And it has its own specialities, too, of course: pastries, crêpes, mustard, mushrooms, crème brûlée, chestnuts, camembert, brie and sweet liquors can all be found at their very best in Paris. Oh, and another speciality is the overpriced tourist trap, the profusion of which has rather damaged the city’s reputation in recent years - so don’t follow the crowds, just peruse the latest and local advice and choose a place that matches your tastes on that particular evening.
In recent years, Lyon has supplanted Paris as the discerning gourmet’s go-to French food destination. Like Grenoble, it’s located at the intersection of several particularly rich food and wine cultures - Provence, Burgundy, Beaujolais, the Alps - and does a marvellous job of integrating these varied influences into a distinctive culinary scene all of its own. At the heart of this scene are the bouchons, lively and informal small restaurants which took off in the 1930s, when the economic crisis forced affluent households to fire their cooks, who responded with admirable entrepreneurial verve by opening their own restaurants catering to a working-class clientele. They’ve flourished through the decades since, and bouchons such as the Café Comptoir Abel and Chez Georges remain the best places in town to try Lyon’s wide variety of typical dishes. These include salade lyonnaise, quenelles de brochet (long, thin dumplings swimming in crayfish sauce) and tablier de sapeur (marinated tripe coated with breadcrumbs and fried).