As a destination along the Riviera for families and cruise ship passengers, Nice has plenty of restaurants peddling pizza and beer. Fortunately, that’s not the end to the story of dining in this Côte d’Azur city. There are also true gems among Nice’s restaurants, where the culinary traditions and fantastic agriculture of southern France yield superb cooking from talented chefs. Charming bistros serving traditional Niçoise cuisine, haute Michelin-starred houses and sunset-drenched cocktail destinations all help to make a visit here delicious. Here are seven spots worthy of attention.
Brothers and chefs Gael and Mickaël Tourteaux make high art of flavor at this small, Michelin-starred restaurant where jacketed waiters oversee a prix fixe whose three, four or seven courses are bookended by scads of amuse-bouches and mignardises. Settle in with an expertly blended martini and admire the interior’s whimsical wood cutouts as a lengthy parade of architectural bites ensues: tuna with miso and broccoli; smoked haddock with lemon caviar; sardine and potato cream with quinoa, tamarind and exquisite little sprouts in a glass shaped like a sea urchin.
The chefs like visual puns. Soy-marinated, flash-seared mackerel on vinegared rice chips with celery cream and wood sorrel comes perched in a bowl of mackerel spines — a clever presentation. But the food is also toothsome, the cooking heartfelt. Delicate smoked swordfish strewn with herbs and salted lemon sits atop scrumptious zucchini risotto. A deboned rack of Provençal lamb comes paired with lamb shoulder confit and a pissaladière ravioli, a fabulous marriage of earth and sea.
The finest wine is at the end: a bittersweet Gros Manseng from Gascony’s Alain Brumont. Its honey-and-almonds flavor complements a slew of sweets, including a pipette filled with water-based kefir, dried fig and lemon. Sucking this strange treat from its small glass vessel, you feel almost naughty.
Reservations recommended; closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday and Monday. US$200, with wine pairing.
25 Rue Gubernatis. Tel. 4-93-62-53-95
Of course a table at this well-appointed restaurant near the port is hard to come by: Chef Jan Hendrik’s food is superb, and so is the service. Hendrik’s native South Africa is the theme. On slate-blue walls beneath crystalline sconces, oil paintings depict the lush landscape that influences Hendrik’s cooking. An amuse of seared scallop, melon and toasted corn on tapioca pearls is graced with gelée of rooibos, the plant from which South Africa’s rich bush tea is made. A waiter pours in a corn and melon gazpacho.
Many of the dishes are finished at the table. Servers with scissors snip garnishes from an herbal still life in the dining room. Staff ladle a sundried tomato and olive relish — a Provençal twist on the spicy Soweto relish called chakalaka — over a corn purée, which is a riff itself on South Africa’s corn porridge. Fit like puzzle pieces atop it are medallions of seared tuna.
Like all the food, the dish is beautifully composed. A langoustine ravioli wears an infant cucumber, flower attached. With it comes an aromatic blend of Riesling, Viognier and Chardonnay from Bouchard Finlayson. Pistachio-crusted lamb with coconut cream and lamb neck bobotie — a version of Hendrik’s native meatloaf — follows. And so the meal goes, a brilliant mélange of Côte d’Azur and South African Cape.
Reservations required; closed Sunday and Monday; lunch served Friday and Saturday only. US$165.
12 Rue Lascaris. Tel. 4-97-19-32-33
Eighteen years ago, chef Dominique Le Stanc quit the two-star-Michelin Chantecler to take over this beloved bistro near the Opera House. Here, he cooks local classics, starting with an exemplary ratatouille, the tender eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper and onion bound by a fresh tomato base so thick, rich and garlicky that you could stop the meal right there and be sated. But don’t because there are more earthy pleasures to come. The chef gives petits farcis — stuffed and roasted baby vegetables — a boost of umami flavor from exactly 5 percent veal and Parmesan mixed into the vegetable stuffing, your serious-minded server will tell you.
He will also bring you a sample of the “stockfish,” so you can be certain it is to your liking before the chef wastes a whole bowl on you. Of course, you will want it. With olive oil swirled in, this potent salt cod, potato, tomato and olive stew tastes like what the Côte’s most soulful fisherman might offer you for supper.
Plastered in photos and clippings depicting its 45-year history, the place is tiny. You must wedge yourself in. But you’ll endure the squeeze, eating worshipfully as the silver-ponytailed Le Stanc works in the narrow, open kitchen at the back.
For dessert, indulge a traditional oddity: a tart bathed in powdered sugar and stuffed with a sweet-savory filling of Swiss chard and pine nuts, an iconic send-off to a meal in this tiny chapel dedicated to Niçoise cuisine.
Reservations required; closed Saturday and Sunday. US$60; cash only.
4 Rue Raoul Bosio; no phone (walk by and make a reservation)
The most lusty cooking in Nice is at this wine bar near the promenade where diners and owners alike seem part of a happy family. There’s a fine balance between tradition and trend here. White-washed rock walls lined in bottles give the room the feel of an old cellar, but one dressed in red linoleum tables and pop-art posters. Gregarious host Sébastien Perinetti walks you through the chalkboard menu, describing the natural wines in depth. A 2014 Métisse, a rosé blend from Languedoc, melds pomegranate brightness with oolong tea tannins. It pairs with the whole meal.
Chef Elmahdi Mobarik lets his organic ingredients sing, accompanying them with maverick flourishes: Black rice beds local lamb; juicy fresh purslane drapes mackerel sashimi. White beans from nearby La Brigue come steaming with hunks of grilled cucumber and crimson tomatoes on top. Creamy nduja sausage adds meaty funk to the dish. Mobarik places a fried duck egg over pesto-dressed haricot verts and then dusts it in grated bottarga. It tastes like the breeze off the ocean at a coastal farm. He stuffs full-flavored heritage chicken with garlic-enriched grilled bread and yogurt. The parsley-strewn, pebble-size potatoes with it are meltingly soft inside crunchy skins.
For dessert, a humble prune clafoutis topped with candied citron couldn’t be more pleasurable, pits and all.
Reservations recommended; closed Wednesday lunch and Saturday and Sunday. US$80.
23 Rue Meyerbeer. Tel. 4-93-79-09-24
Just south of the port, near the entrance for the Corsica ferry, sits a 20-foot pillar of rock perched in the water beside a cove frequented by locals. In the 19th century, a restaurant in the form of a sailboat sat atop it, and here, the denizens of La Belle Époque came for repast. In the 1940s, the rock hosted a series of platforms from which fearless souls swan dove into the Mediterranean below.
Today, the only diving is into platters of tempura-fried shrimp, squid risotto and icy cocktails, for a restaurant has returned to the landmark site. Set on three levels, all boasting panoramic coastline views, this posh spot is the place for a signature blood orange and rosemary mimosa or a grand cru white Burgundy to enjoy on a couch or at table amid the well-heeled, après-beach crowd.
Though the food isn’t the highlight of the experience, those crunchy, succulent prawns do go beautifully with the drinks. And, if you’re arriving for happy hour from the water, you can moor your yacht here while you sip.
Reservations recommended; US$100.
60 Boulevard Franck Pilatte. Tel. 4-93-26-53-02
Olive & Artichaut
The couple Aurélie Marion and Thomas Hubert run this cozy restaurant in the Vieille Ville. Sit outside in a quiet alley, in the cool back or up front, where you can watch the chef cook finds from the Cours Saleya market. Hubert worked for Alain Ducasse at Monaco’s Le Louis XV. His weekly chalkboard menu is not fancy, but his ingredients are top-notch and skillfully prepared. Here, you eat your vegetables. A salad-topped beef tartare lacks the expected raw yolk, but it’s vibrant with olives and vinegary tang. That yolk shows up poached atop the salade niçoise, featuring le marché’s sweetest tomatoes and snappiest radishes.
Meat eaters dig into the foie-topped filet of beef. Local John Dory, crisp-skinned and meaty, is surrounded by a forest of sautéed mushrooms, root vegetables and baby greens on a plate painted with artichoke purée and pesto. It’s especially satisfying paired with a lip-smacking Rolle from local Domaine de La Source, one of several organic wines on the compact list.
But the best dish is last: An “adventure” dessert takes diners on a journey. One night it was a young, organic coconut, served multiple ways. The fruit’s fragrant water, slick flesh and sweet milk (the latter churned into ice cream) made for a pure, perfect finale to a summer supper.
Reservations recommended; closed Monday and Tuesday. US$75.
Olive & Artichaut
6 Rue Sainte Reparate. Tel. 4-89-14-97-51
Old World meets New, West meets East at this lively spot in Old Nice. Portugal, Peru and Asia inspire the menu; America informs the vibe. Cheery servers joke with you, and the kitchen staff, on display at a wraparound bar, send plates of bristling seafood flying out. You can eat phenomenally in a jiffy, while admiring the depiction of an octopus-headed woman or one with a sailboat riding her bouffant rendered in blue on the white tile walls.
The counter fills quickly with small plates, many of them raw. Dolloped with avocado cream and passion fruit, sweet, slippery scallop ceviche is like the candy of the sea. Whitefish ceviche is more traditional. Dressed in pickled red onion, crunchy toasted corn, yam purée and bright citrus, it’s a gorgeous balance of sweet and tart. Enormous oysters come on the half shell, but they’re better still chopped into a fruits de mer tartare seasoned with spicy flying fish eggs and tucked back into the shell. A chef will just-graze raw salmon with a blowtorch flame before tucking it in with edamame, ponzu sauce and housemade kimchi. All of it is clean, light and lovely.
For a heartier dish, fresh gnocchi girds meaty stewed octopus. Enjoy it with a crisp white blend from the Côtes de Provence’s Château Mouresse, but don’t neglect the gratis bread and anchovy butter that comes with your meal. Wholesome French dairy is much improved when punched up with a hint of the ocean’s depths.
Closed Sunday and Monday. US$60.
4 Rue de l’Opéra. Tel. 4-93-85-96-15