It may be the country which invented food, but when the god of gastronomy bestowed his favors on la douce France, he may have blinked as he made his passage across this palm-lined part of the southern coast.
You can pay a lot of money for a totally indifferent meal in Cannes – as many film festival habitues know to their cost. But you can also do well if you follow two ground rules.
Rule One – and with a tiny number of exceptions – avoid any place on one of the main restaurant rows: the Croisette, the old Port, the rue Felix-Faure and the rue Saint-Antoine.
Rule Two – for a really good meal while you’re in Cannes – with the same bare few exceptions – leave Cannes.
First, the exceptions. For scalp-collectors, Cannes has a small sprinkling of Michelin stars and Gault et Millau toques, notably the Royal Gray restaurant in the Gray d’Albion hotel, where chef Jacques Chibois has staked his claim as a rising star of Gallic gastronomy. For maximum credibility, inform your host (you weren’t thinking of paying that $120-a-head bill, were you?) that in summer, Chibois flies in his morels from Canada.
A severe headache
During the festival, however, you’ve probably got other things on your mind. Like hanging out. Go to the Majestic Terrace and rub shoulders with the mighty as you spend $35 on a piece of grilled fish. For a slightly cheaper trip to the center of the business, hit the beach restaurants at lunchtime. They all do more or less the same thing, and all cost more or less the same. Two hours later you won’t remember what you had, and if you forgot to get the waiter to put up the sun-umbrella, the rose will have given you a severe headache.
The one really good, authentically local Cannes restaurant is La Mere Besson. It’s smart enough to impress any guest whose head is likely to be turned by tablecloths, and it’s got the best food in town. You have to like Provencal food, which means you have to love garlic. Go on Fridays, and eat the aaoli – boiled fish and local vegetables served with garlic mayonnaise. Book without fail. For cheap and honest, three good choices. There’s Le Dauphin, a family restaurant offering $11 and $14.50 three-course menus lunch and dinner. You can have the same daurade grillee as at the Majestic for a supplement of about $2.75 to the more expensive menu.
There’s La Pizza, a no-reservation multi-storey barn on the old port with a wood-burning oven and totally reliable Italian-style pizzas. And there’s La Flammeche, slightly more expensive, which sets itself apart from the pack with its attention to fresh ingredients on its simple menu of mainly grilled food.
Outside town, many go to Tetou at Golfe-Juan. Americans love the off-hand service and find the requirement to pay cash cutely barbarous. Some adore the bouillabaisse. Others find the place expensive and coarse. Really magnificent bouillabaisse – and wonderful fish of all kinds – is served at the Bacon in Cap d’Antibes, complete with huge picture windows overlooking the sea, a room of almost Californian crispness, and great service.
It’s expensive, though all but the most sturdy trenchermen find the so-called “sampler” bouillabaisse degustation more than ample. Otherwise, head for Mougins. Roger Verge’s Le Moulin de Mougins is perhaps not the groundbreaker it once was, but it’s still a French institution. And there are three other Michelin-saluted restaurants there, of which La Ferme de Mougins with its garden is probably the prettiest.
A note on drinking: First, do it. You’re in France now, there are no warning labels on the bottles or scare stories in the papers, and it’s okay. Second, if you want to drink Bordeaux or Burgundies, go to Bordeaux or Burgundy. Here, drink either the unspectacular but steady Estandon-brand Cite de Provence, or go for the more upscale southern types, such as Bandol (mainly red and rose) and white from Cassis.
Back in Cannes, where to schmooze? Hotel bars apart, there’s only one candidate: the Petit Carlton. By midnight, the sidewalk is crammed with journalists and other revelers – the gala screening grandees in their tuxes, and the others in their own uniform of polo shirts and slacks. Be there to do what everyone else does: drink, gossip, lie, backbite and hope that – soon – you’ll be home.