With its line-up of traditional French and provençal cuisine at unbeatable prices, the cosy little Le Bistrot is another great dining bargain in the Old Town of Aix en Provence.
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Outside, in the quiet rue Campra not far from the Cathedral, a handful of tables with jaunty red checked cloths jostle for space on the narrow pavement. Inside, though, Le Bistrot is surprisingly spacious compared to many eateries in this part of Aix.
Within its typical exposed rock walls are two simply furnished dining rooms on the ground level. You can choose between "low" and "high" tables (with bar stools).
There's yet more space in the vaulted basement, where a lounge area is set up and special events such as wine tastings or live music are organised in the evenings.
Jazz music plays, very softly. Le Bistrot seats over 50 covers, but you'd be advised to book ahead in summer. Here's why.
We were slightly surprised to see that all the tables were pre-set with steak knives. The reason was soon clear. The restaurant offers a plat du jour (dish of the day) for a knock-down price: 9.90€ when we visited a few months after it opened in 2015. Even compared to other excellent deals on offer in the Old Town (see the nearby L'Alcôve and Vintrépide for more), it's impressive.
On that occasion it was onglet (skirt steak or hanger steak: there's no exact equivalent in English) and probably 90 per cent of the clients were eating it.
Most seemed like regulars and for some this was perhaps one of the few restaurant treats they could afford: the people on the next table paid for their meal with food vouchers.
But fine dining is an everyday necessity in France, not a luxury. I'm surprised it isn't written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Our onglet was small but succulent and perfectly cooked. It came accompanied by mashed potatoes, salad and a little beaker of rich gravy.
There's no choice of plat du jour, but other à la carte dishes are chalked up on the blackboard. The line-up majors heavily on meat and fish, though there are some vegetarian choices among the starters.
They've all been given rather silly jokey names, complete with exclamation marks. Espèce de Cornichon! Crise du Foie! Cours de Géographie! You need to get the printed menu to find out what they are (the ones mentioned above are terrine with gherkins, veal liver and regional salad). And you might still require a translation, as it's in French only.
Le Bistrot has an imposing wine list, including an unusually wide range of wines by the glass or carafe. This isn't always a good thing, though, as the bottle or box you have selected your glass from might have been opened quite a while ago.
We ordered a carafe of Macon which tasted a little stale. A vin de Provence might be a wiser choice and you'd certainly be on safe ground with one of their dozen or so single malt whiskies.
The desserts are the main weak spot. Our home-made milk chocolate mousse was over-sweet and not very chocolatey. The dessert of the day, a chestnut moelleux (a sort of cake-cum-pudding) looked stodgy, though we didn't taste it.
But nearby a party of four seemed well pleased with their vast mountains of profiteroles. Most sweets came smothered in Chantilly cream from an aerosol.
The service was really outstanding: prompt and smiling, even though they were extremely busy. The food voucher couple queried their bill. No problem. Could we have a receipt? Of course.
One last thoughtful touch: unlike many restaurants in the Old Town, Le Bistrot has wheelchair access and has even sacrificed some space for a large toilet for disabled clients.
Visited November 2015
Where: Le Bistrot, 5 rue Campra, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 42 23 34 61.