In France, the traditional bistro is on the way out. It started in Paris a few years ago, when a bunch of young, talented, worldly chefs began to open restaurants that were entirely against the norm. The French, bored by their own food and wine industry, embraced chefs like the Australian James Henry, who served craft beer with seafood at his restaurant Bones in the 11th arrondissement.
Across the city, stuffy wine lists were thrown out and steak frites made way for small plates and ceviche. Now, the revolution has made its way to Nice, a sparkling, creative city on the Cote d'Azur, known for its inspiring, warm light and bustling atmosphere.
Here, you'll find acclaimed chefs cooking at pop-up restaurants in co-working spaces, casual degustations made with hyper-local produce, and natural wine in cheese caves that previously wouldn't dare pour anything but the traditional. The service is warm, and unexpectedly friendly – everyone wants to tell you what their restaurant is about.
Lavomatique is a tiny spot (eight tables or sit at the bar) on a side street next to one of Nice's busiest squares. Hugo Loubert, a young chef from Normandy, ripped out the washing machines that previously lined the walls (no prizes for translating the name) and replaced them with an open kitchen. The sign out front that says "lavomatique" in classy cursive remains intact, but flyers tacked to the window advertising washing prices have been replaced by daily lists of small plates and French natural wine.
Loubert's menu reads like one of those international restaurants that's trying to cater for everyone, a lovely blend of French and international, cooked in a delightful setting. On the day I visited, there were falafels and tahini, deep-fried anchovies, barbecued mackerel and plates of Tuscan salami. Everything was plated up artfully on ceramic small plates, and served with delicious wine by the glass. Reserve a table and dine late for the best atmosphere.
Just outside of the Old Town, La Part Des Anges is a wine bar from Olivier Labarde, the French chef and sommelier affectionately known as Nice's natural wine aficionado. About 800 varieties of organic vin are artfully arranged in vintage suitcases or stacked on the shelves at this lovely shop, which serves a two-course lunch between noon and 2pm, and a light dinner in the evenings. Cheese, bread and charcuterie are available all day, as is the wine (there's no charge for corkage). The food is traditional and made with local ingredients, and it's great, but the best part of La Part Des Anges is Labarde's exceptional knowledge of wine, and his willingness to forgive your bumbling French and chat to you about it. He also owns La Mise au Verre, which is in a similar vein, and around the corner – it's open every day (a gastronomic rarity in this town).
Dinner at Pure & V is non-negotiable, and worth the admittedly exorbitant price tag. The hype for this delightful restaurant from chef Mathias Silberbauer, a graduate of Relae in Copenhagen, is growing every day. The influence of his former kitchen is obvious in the hyper-local menu, which features experimental dishes such as sea bream with elderflower blossoms, mackerel ceviche with kohlrabi, and desserts with parmesan, sage, smoked butter and elderflower. Go for the full-blown degustation (there's a smaller version available at lunch), or just sample a few small plates and ask sommelier Vanessa Masse (formerly of Verandah, in Antwerp) for something lovely off her wine list. Though it's scarily close to the busiest tourist strip in Nice, this place is a true delight, and serves undoubtedly some of the best cuisine in the city. Book ahead (there are only eight tables), or risk missing out.
Though it's not particularly appealing to go underground while on holiday on the Cote d'Azur, La Cave du Fromager is worth the trip. A cheese cave in the Old Town, this place has a seasonal menu that features the likes of zucchini risotto and pan-fried cod, but forget about the mains, because as the name implies, it's all about the cheese here. Highlights are the 16-month-old Comte and Morbier fondue for two, the "unlimited buffet of cheeses" for €26 (about $40) and the baked camembert with hazelnuts and honey. The charm here is the blend of old and new. It's a candlelit underground stone cellar serving rustic French meals, but the sommelier has a beard, a fondness for Bon Iver and a crush on natural wine – he'll match your meal of cheese to a variety you've never heard of.
Nice is home to two branches of Aperitiv, a boutique food and wine store entirely dedicated to the art of snacking before a meal. One is by the port, the other is at the top of the city's main shopping street, just before Marche de la Liberation, a local food market that is a much better option for fresh produce than the popular Marche aux Fleurs in the city centre (just so you know). At both stores, locally made snacks such as olives, bread sticks, cheese and charcuterie line the walls and fill display cabinets, and they're surrounded by shelves of natural wine, modern vermouth, local craft beer, and an extensive collection of spirits. Aperitiv is one of the only places in Nice where you can buy "exotic liquors" such as craft whiskey, rum and sake. Picnic hampers are available, and recommended – take one down to the main beach at sunset, sit on the pebbles and watch the sun go down before dinner.
Lastly, over at Peixes, chef Armand Crespo is doing great things with seafood. He runs two other, much more traditional bistros in the city, which continue to do well mainly because they've racked up great TripAdvisor scores. Peixes is steadily climbing up the ranks itself, but it can sadly be a little hit and miss. Get it on a good night however, and you'll be treated to an inventive seafood feast that's fresh out of the ocean. Ceviche and delicate plates of sashimi are the specialities, but I say get drinks, fresh oysters and whatever is scrawled onto the menu as the catch of the day. If you're planning on visiting the Opera de Nice, Peixes is just around the corner and a popular spot for a pre-show meal – theatre directors have been known to duck in during interval.
La Part des Anges, lapartdesanges-nice.com
La Mise au Verre, lamiseauverre-nice.com
Pure & V, 15 Rue Bottero, Nice
La Cave du Fromager, lacavedufromager.com
Peixes, 4 Rue de l'Opera, Nice