City guide: Montpellier

I never expected to find myself in Montpellier last month, as spring finally came to everybody’s rescue. Initially I was booked for a trip back to Malaga, a regular stomping ground, for warmth, sunshine and the kind of relaxation that comes from going back to somewhere you know well – no disorientation, no spending the first day finding your bearings, just the ease and delight of good meals in familiar haunts and lazy walks down well-remembered streets.

Anyway, a couple of things happened. The first was that Malaga was hit by unseasonal torrential rain, and Europe’s sunniest city became a cocktail of downpours and Saharan sand. Every day we checked Dark Skies but the forecast for the week we were there resolutely refused to improve. Granted, we’d probably have spent a fair amount of time sitting in restaurants and bars but the prospect of not getting any vitamin D hardly appealed, especially as at the time the U.K. was bathing in something of a mini heatwave.

The second was that I remembered a conversation I’d had at my readers’ lunch last November in the Lyndhurst. I was freshly back from Malaga that weekend, as it happened, and I got chatting at one of the tables with Phil and Kath about city breaks and how much we’d missed them since the start of the pandemic. And that’s when Phil and Kath let me in on the secret of Montpellier. It was a city they’d discovered by accident, on a stopover from Bordeaux to Marseille, but on discovering it they fell accidentally in love.

Phil and Kath went most years, they told me, and the more they talked about it the more indelible my mental note became. They’d never had a bad meal, they said: everything was beautiful and the city was a maze of tiny old streets, alleyways, squares and cafés, perfect for getting gloriously lost. So the week before my holiday I idly checked flights and accommodation and found that Montpellier was both easy and affordable to get to: less than two hours, direct, from Gatwick. I’ve had an idea, I said to Zoë. Half an hour later, everything was booked.

I’m extremely grateful that Phil and Kath came to that readers’ lunch, because Montpellier was everything they promised and more – a gorgeous city with loads to see and do (although I scratched the surface of that, because there were restaurants, cafés and shops that needed my urgent attention). The old city, L’Écusson, is indeed a wonderful maze of little lanes and sidestreets, with a tempting boutique, little square or sun-dappled restaurant terrace around every corner. But I also loved Les Arceaux, the area we stayed in, a little neighbourhood in the shadow (literally and figuratively) of the impressive aqueduct that looms over the west of the city. On our first morning there we went the market held under its arches, and wandered almost in a euphoric trance from stall to stall, wondering what it must be like to have regular, easy access to all that cheese, charcuterie, olive oil, wine and cider.

I don’t normally talk about accommodation, but the place we stayed was so agreeable that I must. Les 4 Étoiles is a grand 1930s house in Les Arceaux, and although it’s owned by Pierre it has been in his family for generations. The piano in the dining room belonged to his grandmother (there’s a framed picture of her over it) and Pierre encourages guests to play it: I didn’t, but I did hear notes shimmering through the house more than once. And our room was a luxurious but calm space, with a giant bed you could sink into. It had a little balcony and every morning I went out and looked down on the street outside, ecstatic to be elsewhere and, I suppose, somewhat at peace.

Pierre – chic, soft-spoken and unbelievably polite – was the perfect host, and breakfast in the dining room every morning was a delight, with good coffee, great bread from the bakery round the corner, local honey, fruit salad and pastries which I chose to consider mandatory. Our fellow guests were a real mix – from France, from Germany and from Belgium – and once I’d apologised several times for the English we had some fascinating conversations. It was interesting to get a different perspective: although I might consider the political situation back home tragic and rage-inducing, they were mostly amused by it. I expected them to be glad to be shot of us, as a nation, but if anything they were sad, and more than a little bemused.

Anyway, I had a fantastic week eating, drinking, shopping and generally being a flâneur, taking pictures with my new camera and enjoying a proper break for the first time in what felt like a long time. The food and drink scene in Montpellier was too big for me to even scratch the surface in four days, but every time I ruefully recognised that I wouldn’t get to visit everywhere on my list I mentally nudged items onto a different list, marked Next time. So with all that said, here’s my list of places to eat and drink in Montpellier – if it’s even half as effective as Phil and Kath’s sales pitch was to me, I’ll have done them proud.

Where to eat

1. Reflet d’Obione

Reflet d’Obione, near the Botanical Gardens (which, incidentally, I highly recommend) was a suggestion from Pierre and I’m so glad we took him up on it because our dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant was the best I’ve had this year, and for that matter one of the best I can ever remember. 

The Michelin Guide does such a bad job of selling the place that we nearly picked somewhere else. It says that it “unobtrusively reconciles gastronomy and gluten-free cuisine, cutting the levels of fat and sugar”. How dreary does that sound? But in reality, their nine course tasting menu was a magical experience. Everything was clever, precise and beautifully judged, each course was completely driven by the area and the seasons and the wine pairings – again, all of them local – were an absolute dream. We were in that hushed, conspiratorial space for something like four hours, the pause between every course just right, and I never felt rushed, turned or an inconvenience.

The good dishes were too many to mention, but the very best of them will stay with me for a long time. Chicken came served simply with salsify, but accompanied with a miniature tart made with offal and one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever tasted, a smoked chicken broth like an intensely savoury latte, the rim of the glass dusted with lapsang souchong. Fish with an orange blossom butter was a beautiful surprise, as was a lake of Vieux Rodez cheese with gnocchi and truffle.

I was struck that here, dishes used a few ingredients in different ways but without overcomplicating things, so different from the almost needy parlour tricks you sometimes see in the U.K.’s starred restaurants. My last Michelin starred meal in this country was at the Woodspeen, and I feel like I’m sullying Reflet d’Obione a little by even mentioning the two in the same paragraph.

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
https://www.reflet-obione.com

2. Pastis 

Pastis, also Michelin-starred, is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there, in a very tasteful dining room that I would say is possibly the most beautiful beige space I’ve ever seen, the acceptable face of taupe. The menu here’s a surprise one (no swaps, unless you have allergies) but every one of the surprises was joyous. My highlight here was a dish made with local duck, served simply – that less is more thing, again – but accompanied with a bread roll hollowed out, stuffed with coarse, herby confit duck and then liberally soaked with rich, sticky jus. I left full and happy (and slightly smudged, after also putting paid to a knockout bottle of white Corbieres).

Pastis
3 rue Terral
https://pastis-restaurant.com

3. Terminal #1

Street food’s yet to hit Montpellier in a big way – possibly because the regular food is simply so good, possibly because they have two rather grand food halls which meet that need. But out past the edge of the city, past an architecturally interesting area called Port Marianne (think Montpellier’s answer to Kennet Island, only more glam) you find the Marché du Lez, a gentrified street food market with lots of permanent traders. It’s sort of like Blue Collar Corner after a few hundred protein shakes. 

It feels like they built the infrastructure before the demand was there, because it was pretty empty when I visited, but just round the corner was the beautiful and buzzy Terminal #1 where I had an excellent lunch. It was worth it for the starter alone – a clean, almost mineral tuna tartare topped with avocado and what can only be described as the world’s best crisp, and an equally fine tuna tataki, only just seared on the outside. Lamb three ways – chop, slow-cooked shoulder and samosa, accompanied by a lavatorial smear of sauce – was less successful, but it was still well worth the trip out of the centre.

Terminal #1
1408 Avenue de la Mer
https://www.terminalpourcel.com/en/

4. Braise

On our last night, we headed out on Montpellier’s fantastic tram network to Beaux Arts, apparently the bobo suburb of the city. I didn’t get to see it in daylight (a great shame: apparently the street art is amazing) but I managed to eat at Braise, a restaurant and wine bar with over 500 different wines, an open kitchen and a wood fire.

And if not every dish completely hit the mark, the best of it was memorable: grilled, smoked mackerel with cauliflower purée and sharp little florets of pickled broccoli; short rib of beef cooked deftly, soft and indulgent with a nicely astringent coleslaw; a cheese course featuring some of the best Comte I can remember. This was simultaneously the smallest and busiest restaurant I visited, and a completely tourist-free zone, so this is the place for you if you want to try something more cutting edge.

Braise
42 Avenue Saint-Lazare
https://www.braise-montpellier.com

5. Le Bouchon Saint Roch

A recommendation from Phil and Kath, Le Bouchon Saint Roch was our choice for our first meal in the city. And it was a really good one – the restaurant practically glows on corner of a square in the old city, a warm inviting place it’s difficult to resist. Inside, the decor was a quirky celebration of pigs and pork in all their forms and the barrage of quirky French 80s pop had Zoë reaching for Shazam pretty much every four minutes.

The food was robust, earthy, unpretentious and absolutely perfect for the first night in a new city. I went to town on a very generous plate of charcuterie and then got stuck into a crumbly, almost-sweet boudin noir with a caramelised slice of apple. Dessert was all about the classics – a rich chocolate mousse loaded with cream and a rum baba so booze-soaked that even Zoë couldn’t handle it.

Le Bouchon Saint Roch
14 rue du Plan d’Agde
https://www.le-bouchon-st-roch-montpellier.com

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a great example of how to succeed in business doing just one thing very well. It’s all about the jambon beurre here, and all you have to choose is which bread you want and which of their hams you want in it. The bread, as everywhere in France, is phenomenal. The ham, prominently displayed and sliced wafer-thin for you, is a joy. And of course there are just enough sharp, crunchy cornichons to bring the whole thing together. Yours for something like five Euros, and a better lunch on the run is difficult to imagine: I chipped a filling eating mine, but it was still worth it. Afterwards, they brought out a coffee and a little piece of freshly baked cake for us on the house, a lovely little touch. 

Back in Blighty a couple of weeks later I picked up a jambon beurre from Pret on the run for my train. I always used to enjoy them, but Montpellier has ruined them for me.

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves
https://jbandco.fr

7. Des Rêves et des Pain

Just at the edge of the old city, near Montpellier’s copy of the Arc du Triomphe, this bakery was my go-to for a morning pain au chocolat. A little place which currently only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street. But it was always worth joining – even compared to the pastries at breakfast this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – cakes, pastries (sweet and savoury) and even the granola: if I’d had more room in my case, I’d have brought some home with me. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as London has Pret A Mangers. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne
https://desrevesetdupain.com

8. Les Glaces MPL

Les Halles Laissac is one of Montpellier’s two covered markets, and although it has a plethora of food stands selling wine, charcuterie, cheese and all the good stuff I was drawn to Les Glaces MPL which sells profoundly good ice cream. A massive array of flavours is on offer, and I can personally vouch for the salted caramel and my personal favourite, a stunning black sesame ice cream. Zoë went for chocolate and Nutella, although I think she slightly envied my more leftfield choices. The big names also have a foothold in Montpellier – I saw a branch of Amorino on my travels in the city – but I’d pick this place any day.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac
https://www.lesglacesmpl.fr

Where to drink

1. O’Petit Trinque Fougasse

This was a brilliant spot for a few glasses of wine, some cheese and charcuterie and a spot of people watching, along with a welcome opportunity to rest our feet after an afternoon of retail therapy. There are something like four reds and four whites available by the glass, ranging from thoroughly decent to bloody marvellous, and the small plates include sliced saucisson with a mild hum of offal, a gorgeous burrata with pesto, all manner of local cheeses and of course the eponymous fougasse studded with olive, which is flaky, indulgent and worth the price of admission alone. For beer lovers there’s a wonderful shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which proved to be an invaluable introduction to Montpellier’s budding craft beer scene.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin
https://www.trinquefougasse.com/petit/home

2. Latitude Café

Of all of Montpellier’s little squares, one of my favourites was the almost ludicrously beautiful Place de la Canourgue. It’s more about the square than the bars on it, but on my first night I had a marvellous time sitting outside Latitude Café with a glass of pretty anonymous red enjoying those first sights and sounds of somewhere new. It wasn’t the warmest of weeks in Montpellier, but I can imagine that once summer is in full swing this would be a beautiful place for a morning coffee or to while away an hour with a drink and a good book. I did hear more English (and yes, I’m afraid, American English) at neighbouring tables here than anywhere else, so bear that in mind if that’s not your thing.

Latitude Café
5 Place de la Canourgue

3. Le Réservoir

Many cities have some kind of craft beer scene, and the template is a well-trodden one: some big warehouse either in an industrial estate or near the docks, on the edge of town, usually requiring a taxi to get to (our own Double-Barrelled follows in that proud tradition). Le Réservoir is not quite like that. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and our Uber driver, who turned up in an impressively over the top lipstick-red Tesla, had never heard of the place. But it feels properly in the middle of nowhere, with the distinct whiff of agriculture from its neighbours. 

It’s relatively new – another example, like Marché du Lez – of being built in anticipation of the demand, rather than because of it. But inside it’s positively splendid, with twenty taps nearly all of which are devoted to local beer. The space is shared by two breweries – Brewing Bears, which does more conventional IPAs, and Sacrilege who specialise in mixed fermentation beers and saisons with all sorts of interesting fruit and weirdness going on. We tried a bit of both, and had a really fantastic afternoon doing it.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre
https://www.instagram.com/lereservoirmontpellier/?hl=en

4. Le Discopathe

The walk from the old city back to our B&B went down Rue de Faubourg du Courreau, a scruffy, lively street reminding me of Waterloo’s Lower Marsh, and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of the city. Much of that was down to Le Discopathe, a vinyl and craft beer shop that sold records by day and served more of that excellent local beer by night. 

You grab a spot at one of the trestle tables outside, get yourself a pint of something hazy, a bière d’ici, and just enjoy that feeling of being part of a buzz and bustle bigger than you. Sacrilege and Brewing Bears are well represented, but I also had a beautiful IPA from Brasserie le Détour. We became regular visitors during our holiday, and it was one of the happiest places in a city full of happy places. Opposite is a fantastic-looking rotisserie which immediately made it to the top of my list of restaurants to try on my next visit.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://lediscopathe.com

5. Couleurs de Bières Nord

To complete our little beer tour of Montpellier, Couleurs de Bières Nord is a lovely little bar. It’s opposite the exotically named Stade Philippidès, and there’s something about watching people running round the track that really puts you in the mood for a cold, crisp beer. The list here skews little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, (yet) another local brewery, and it made for a excellent pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes
https://www.couleursdebieres.fr/front-page/cdb/nord

6. Café BUN

Cafe BUN was probably my favourite coffee place in Montpellier with a great spot just off Place de la Comédie and plenty of outside space for watching the world go by. It was the trailblazer (Montpellier’s answer to Workhouse, I suppose) opening in 2013 as the city’s first speciality coffee house, and I grew very fond of it during my trip. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves
https://cafebun.fr

7. Coffee Club

I also enjoyed Coffee Club, a tiny place on rue Saint-Guilhem with a little space inside and a nice spot at the top of the hill. This felt a little more expat than Café Bun – it’s owned by a Brit, which may explain that – but it was still a really good choice if you wanted a morning off café au lait and to try something similar to coffee closer to home. Also worth mentioning, further down the hill, is the splendidly named Maisons Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which has a faultless selection of local wine, beer and other delicacies so you can take a little bit of the Languedoc home with you when you leave.

Coffee Club
12 rue Saint-Guilhem
https://www.facebook.com/coffeeclubmontpellier/

8. Coldrip

Coldrip, on the northern side of the old city, is in another absurdly pretty little square and also gets plaudits online for its coffee. Having perched at a table outside I can completely understand why – my latte was wonderful, and Zoë reckoned her mocha (complete with a little ramekin of Chantilly cream) was up there with C.U.P.’s: high praise indeed.

The brunch menu owes more to Australia than France – lots of smashed avocado, halloumi and the like – and watching it turn up at other tables did test my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu that day and it turned out to be a perfect final day lunch, really nicely done with a deceptively tasty coleslaw full of brightness and crunch and a delightful seeded brioche bun.

Coldrip
4 rue Glaize
https://coldrip-food-and-coffee.business.site

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