Bistro inferno: Melbourne's French restaurant love affair is heating up

Is steak frites the essential hallmark of a bistro, or is it more about the atmosphere?
Is steak frites the essential hallmark of a bistro, or is it more about the atmosphere? Photo: Joe Armao

Starch and a good-quality iron have become just as essential as cutlery at some of Melbourne's hottest new restaurants, as they channel the look of French bistros, right down to the white tablecloths.

Nearly a dozen bistro-inspired establishments have opened in the past two years, including Hemingway's Wine Room in East Melbourne; the mod-looking Bar Romanee in Yarraville; and Bar Margaux, where New York meets Paris in a CBD basement.

Melbourne is in the midst of a French love affair, and we're not done yet.

Next month Her Bar, part of the 270 Lonsdale project, will begin seating customers for croissants in the morning and duck frites at night. Come January, Scott Pickett will open Smith Street Bistrot in Collingwood, flipping his Italian diner Lupo into a restaurant paying homage to his French training and time working at Paul Bocuse Restaurant in the 1990s.

So, what defines a bistro in 2021? And who decides who gets to use the label?

"It's where there's a lively atmosphere, where the food is recognisable, where it is chic but friendly, and the service is fairly efficient and quick," says Gabriel Gaté, perhaps Australia's most well-known French chef.

Bar Margaux blends Parisian bistro looks with touches of New York, while the menu features French onion soup and duck frites.
Bar Margaux blends Parisian bistro looks with touches of New York, while the menu features French onion soup and duck frites. Photo: Supplied

If it sounds familiar, it's because Melbourne has been blessed for many years with the likes of legendary France-Soir, ultra-cosy Bistro Thierry and rock-solid Philippe, the basement bistro of Philippe Mouchel.

It's certainly not new, but the bistro has a newfound appreciation.

"I think people like it because it's classic," says Anna Quayle, Bar Romanee's chef and co-owner, who trained under acclaimed chef Pierre Koffmann in London. "They know they're going to walk in, have a nice champagne, have some oysters, and sit back and relax."

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Gaté says there have been "lots of trends of restaurants that are fabulous". "But you cannot take your parents or kids because they are just too modern."

Pickett's Smith Street Bistrot will serve mid-week plats du jour (daily specials) such as beef bourguignon or a wagyu cheeseburger, designed for locals who may visit several times a week.

Bar Romanee has declared Monday steak night, plating prime cuts with bearnaise, slaw and fries for $30. But Quayle also has handmade gnocchi and Korean-glazed fish wings on her menu.

Creme caramel and other French favourites will be served at Scott Pickett's Smith Street Bistrot when it opens in January.
Creme caramel and other French favourites will be served at Scott Pickett's Smith Street Bistrot when it opens in January. Photo: Alex Squadrito

"I just cook what I like to eat. The technique and the base that I got from Koffmann comes through … but we work with the produce we have and what's the best outcome for the dish."

The big question is: can you even call yourself a bistro without steak frites on the menu?

"In this day and age there's probably not as many rules as there used to be," says Pickett. "But I think for your quintessential, ultimate, old-school bistro, that's got to be a mainstay." 

Gabriel Gaté believes the defining feature of a bistro is the chic yet casual atmosphere.
Gabriel Gaté believes the defining feature of a bistro is the chic yet casual atmosphere. Photo: SBS

According to Gaté, "let's say it would be expected in many places in the world".

Despite their association with steak frites, souffle and creme brulee, Gaté says these establishments are in fact specialists in creating a mood.

Pickett agrees. "It sounds funny coming from a chef but it's not all about the food. Something I've picked up over the last 12 to 18 months is that restaurants don't always have to be [for] a special occasion."

After seven years in South Yarra, Entrecote recently opened the doors to its new Greville Street location, which doubles ...
After seven years in South Yarra, Entrecote recently opened the doors to its new Greville Street location, which doubles down on a Parisian look. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Ever-popular Entrecote is a master of mood, especially at its new home on Greville Street, which looks every bit the Parisian brasserie with its black-and-white tiled floors, wicker furniture and mirrored columns.

Perhaps the appeal of the bistro right now is that it's fabulously uncomplicated. They're places that bring people together over simple meals and they feel like a communal living room. And right now, that's a novel concept.

Five bistros to try from The Age Good Food Guide 2022

The institution: France-Soir

In Yarraville, Bar Romanee styles itself on a French bistro with white tablecloths, wine bottles on display and plenty ...
In Yarraville, Bar Romanee styles itself on a French bistro with white tablecloths, wine bottles on display and plenty of timber furniture. Photo: Joe Armao

You'll likely get jammed into a table where waiters bump you as they scurry past, but once you understand that this is as true a slice of Paris as you will find in Australia, everything becomes part of a rambunctious floor show.

Must-order: The trifecta of lamb brains in caper sauce, duck a l'orange and creme brulee.

11 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9866 8569, france-soir.com.au

Omnia's dry-aged honey roasted duck for two has become a signature.
Omnia's dry-aged honey roasted duck for two has become a signature. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

The technically brilliant: Omnia

An upmarket let's-grab-dinner bistro that also works for special occasions. The offering is straightforward but the philosophy is profound: honour the craft of cooking and the art of restaurant dining.

Must-order: The roast duck for two: tender breast with crisp, glossy skin, alongside a pressed brick of slow-braised leg meat.

Escargots in a garlic and Pernod butter sauce at Bar Margaux in the city.
Escargots in a garlic and Pernod butter sauce at Bar Margaux in the city. Photo: Chris Hopkins

625 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 03 8080 8080, omniabistro.com.au

The neighbourhood gem: Bar Romanee

The decor is as smart as a classic French bistro and the mood is neighbourly, with friendly and knowledgeable waiters.

A seafood bar is a key feature of Entrecote's new dining room, which draws heavily on the brasseries of Paris.
A seafood bar is a key feature of Entrecote's new dining room, which draws heavily on the brasseries of Paris. Photo: Eddie Jim

Must-order: Chef Anna Quayle changes things up often but steak is a constant: a smaller cut for one and something big, beefy and bold to share.

25 Anderson Street, Yarraville, 03 9687 8451, barromanee.com

The fabulous: Entrecote

Entrecote's lobster frites join several different steaks with fries on the menu.
Entrecote's lobster frites join several different steaks with fries on the menu. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

A place where your frothy French fantasies come alive, this house of fizz and steak frites recently moved to Greville Street and it's bigger and more fabulous than ever.

Must-order: Steak frites with secret herb butter, followed by tarte au citron.

142-144 Greville Street, Prahran, 03 9804 5468, entrecote.com.au

The surprise find: La Cachette

A seasonal carte pays respect to produce over technical trickery at this unpretentious prix fixe bistro led by chef Matt Podbury, who worked at London's feted Lyle's.

Must-order: The menu changes week to week but with two choices available for each course, you can try every dish if your fellow diners are willing.

Steampacket Place, Geelong Waterfront, Geelong, 0478 522 996, cachette.com.au

The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published November 30 with presenting partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.