Some of the best dining bargains in Aix are to be found behind modest, even scruffy facades in the dark, narrow, winding back-streets of the Old Town and L'Alcôve is a prime example.
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It's run by Olivier Ros in the kitchen, while his business partner, Pierre Chatelain, presides over the front of house. The two men previously worked together in restaurants around the world, and Ros has served time in one of Heston Blumenthal's gastropubs in Bray, near London.
L'Alcôve, which opened in April 2011, is their first joint independent venture and, thankfully, avoids fancy Blumenthal-style molecular experiments.
Its recipe for success is simple: basic, often classic dishes lifted by high quality ingredients, imaginative garnishes and the occasional unexpected twist.
At lunchtime there's a keenly priced two- or three-course set menu of the day with a choice of two starters, two mains and three or four desserts. A slate outside the door tells you what's cooking. Once you're seated, Pierre comes to your table to recite these choices, and he'll repeat them in English if you want.
At dinner the food comes à la carte and there's a slightly wider selection of more elaborate (and more expensive) dishes which changes monthly.
In the evening booking is advisable, especially in summer as L'Alcôve is small and word has got around about it.
At midday on a December Tuesday, the restaurant was busy (though not full), with a clientele of locals and what seemed like a large office party.
Pierre was on his own looking after the tables, but his welcome was warm, informal and efficient, without making anyone feel rushed.
Lunch that day featured cream of cauliflower soup or carpaccio of scallops for starters. We ordered the latter, which came nicely garnished with lamb's lettuce, seeds and a zesty raspberry coulis.
The mains were swordfish with parmesan risotto or a succulent roast half-poussin with oyster mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes.
The house wines, served by the glass, vary but are generally local; on our visit, the white was a fruity Teres vin de pays from the Var. Desserts (apricot tart, chocolate pudding) were supplied by a local pâtissier and were fine if unexceptional. Coffee came smooth and strong.
In winter, the service is focussed on a cosy little traditionally provençal vaulted cellar seating around 30 covers and brightened up with white-washed walls and fresh flowers.
Diners of restricted mobility should be aware that this room is accessed down a narrow spiral staircase, though there is one table upstairs in the ground-floor lobby and a couple more sit outside on the pavement in the hope of sunny days.
In summer, this outdoor space is expanded to seat 20 and the action is centred there. The location might not be as good as the Cours Mirabeau or the Forum des Cardeurs for people-watching, but for an intimate meal that won't break the bank, L'Alcôve - like the even cheaper Le Bistrot - is hard to beat.
Visited December 2012
Where: L'Alcôve, 19 rue Constantin, 13100 Aix en Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 42 96 47 29.