Frédéric Mistral once famously wrote about Cassis :
“Qui a vu Paris, et pas Cassis, n’a rien vu”.
I once wrote infamously (and not very helpfully) about Cassis that “all the restos around the pretty port are much of a muchness — bouillabaisse and daurade, with the local speciality — oursins.”
But I think that it’s about time I summoned up the nerve to try and unravel the restaurants of Cassis — after all, it’s one of our favourite places (out of summer season) and we have now tried every local quayside restaurant at least twice — and our preferred venues have seen us far more frequently…
Let’s start at the beginning. There are two simple reasons for visiting this picturesque fishing port :
1/ Sheltering under the highest cliffs in France (Cap Canaille) on one side, and with the magnificent Calanques the other, even when a mistral sends a chill up the backbone of the rest of Provence, you can sit out in a portside restaurant in Cassis in shirtsleeves, soaking up the view in the sunshine.
2/ Its 12 domaines, making up one of the oldest and smallest AOC’s of France, produce the best white wine in Provence. Brilliant seafood match.
When you arrive in Cassis, the first challenge is where to park (which is why this is Smart- Car-Land). I’d recommend Parking Viguerie. Then it’s down the pretty paved backstreets to the port — and here there’s only one place to have your apéritif — the Bar de la Marine, where you can share a €24 bottle of Domaine du Bagnol white Cassis wine (from Jean-Luc Génovesi the urbane Président du Syndicat des Vignerons de Cassis). Accompany this with a freshly opened platter of sea urchins from the rubber-booted-and-gloved fisherman on the wharf opposite at 2.50 euros per person. Bliss already).
Now you have to choose your restaurant. This means you join the wandering and wondering throng on the waterfront examining and comparing the relatively similar menus around the harbour, in the traditional twelve o’clock “quay quandary”.
First off let’s kick out the ones we’d not revisit, and why: Romano’s because it’s expensive, snobby, has slow sevice — and why do you want to eat Italian in one of the best French fishing villages on the Mediterranean coast? I also won’t get taken in again by La Poissonnerie, which purports to have the freshest fish on the port — having started as a fishmonger. We’ve had elderly mealy-textured prawns and very average food and service here, overdecorated with naff orange segments and pink grapefruit. Chez César has also gone downhill disappointingly recently.
If you want really good, fresh seafood try La Paillotte or Le Grand Large. The tables in La Paillotte (Ian’s favourite) are, in my opinion, too squashed together for comfort, but it has one of the great views over the brightly painted wooden fishing boats (“pointus”) lining the harbour. You are also welcomed by good-humoured staff and healthy portions of well cooked food. Their €22.80 menu is excellent value, and the salads are great. Le Grand Large, overlooking the beach rather than the harbour, is my personal choice — impeccably fresh seafood, shellfish opened on demand and in full view, a 23 euro menu, a busy brasserie atmosphere with characterful serveurs. They also serve fish ‘by portion’ rather than ‘by weight’ so you know what you’re ordering, with no nasty surprises when the bill comes. And their very obviously loyal clientele is a tribute to their continuing high standards.
More ‘constructed’ menus can be found at Chez Gilbert and Nino’s. Both are “posher glassware and linen tablecloth” affairs, and extremely enjoyable. Gilbert’s menus are 22 & 30 euros, with irreproachable food and service. Nino’s is a Cassis institution, where the waiters are jolly but the menus steeper (33 euros) and unchanging — though they have interesting suggestions du jour to break the routine. And they have recently bought up the 2 next-door houses to extend their terrace area (when you book in advance, as you should, ask for a window table where the bright bougainvillea frames your superb view of the port). We also like their attitude to the wines of Cassis: every one on their list (they offer a white from every domaine) costs the same price — 25 euros — a democratic statement that doesn’t, however, necessarily go down well with the producers.
That gets us neatly back to Cassis’ great white Marsanne-filled wines, which go so well with the locally trawled fish. And — sorry — it makes the reworking of Mistral’s epic lines absolutely unavoidable :
“Qui a bu Paris, et pas Cassis, n’a rien bu”.
Revisited them all over time!
The biggest change has happened at Nino’s, which has extended to double the size with a bigger terrace area — though there’s quite a lot of kitchen noise in the dining rooms, with the new set up. There are also 4 really super-chic rooms upstairs, now. The menu is 34 euros now, and wines 26 euros. Personally I think they don’t change their menus often enough, but the food is good, and the staff charming. The parmesan wasn’t home-grated.