If you want to eat shellfish in Marseille, Chez Toinou has been the place to go for over half a century, a cherished local institution just off the Canebière a few steps from the Old Port.
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Chez Toinou started life as a street stall and a large, luscious display of marine delicacies to take away, pictured below, both as it is now and back in times past, is still found right in front of the entrance. Inside, you can eat much the same range in what claims to be the largest shellfish restaurant in France.
The restaurant at Chez Toinou reopened in autumn 2013, after having been closed for refurbishment throughout the summer. And the format has changed. Gone is the waiting staff: now it's self-service.
While starters and desserts are picked up at the counter, you order up your main course and wait for the staff to appear with it, calling out your number. This can get a bit chaotic at times but it mostly seems to work.
There are small plates of fish and shellfish as starters, such as salmon tartare (with optional portions of soy sauce, ginger and wasabi for Japanese diners) or sardines en escabèche (in a sharp vinegar marinade) and the seriously hungry will find a small self-service selection of traditional desserts such as lemon tart.
In terms of main courses, the restaurant still offers moules marinières: mussels with chips (good, chunky chips, by the way, not French fries).
And here's a welcome change: whereas before there was no cooked fish option, Chez Toinou now has a small selection of fresh fish (sea-bream, cod, salmon, etc.) prepared en papillote (in an envelope of alumunium foil).
There's no plat du jour, though since the menu is presented on a LCD television screen, the line-up clearly varies to some extent according to the season. It's still all in French only, but staff are around to help you out. As before, Chez Toinou doesn't do bouillabaisse.
But its crowning glory remains its shellfish: oysters of all categories, mussels, prawns, lobster, whelks, crab, clams, scallops, and all sorts of other goodies, depending on the time of year.
These come as the restaurant's trademark large ceremonial combination platters of seafood on crushed ice accompanied by half lemons and various dips and condiments (you can either compose your own platter or leave it up to the restaurant team to choose for you).
Curiously, despite the Marseillais' voracious appetite for seafood, this strip of the Mediterranean is itself not especially rich in shellfish, apart from its celebrated sea urchins (and even these are declining in quantity).
Toinou's produce is sourced mainly from elsewhere in France, though there might also be mussels from Holland or lobster from North America.
Modestly priced house wine is available by the glass or carafe to wash it all down or there are posh bottles if you want to splash out.
Chez Toinou's other big bonus point is that it's open 365 days of the year, from late morning to late evening, at least until 11pm.
And the kitchen remains open throughout the afternoon (still all too rare at good French restaurants) apart from on Sundays, when Chez Toinou closes for the day at the end of the lunchtime service. It also offers - rather expensive - home deliveries and recently opened a sister outlet in Aix en Provence.
The restaurant is busier than ever, but there is plenty of seating inside on multiple levels and you're unlikely to have to wait long. Expect a mixed clientele of locals and tourists.
Visited November 2012 and September 2013
Where: Chez Toinou, 3 cours Saint Louis, 13001 Marseille; 58 avenue Henri Malacrida, 13100 Aix en Provence. Website for Chez Toinou