City guide: Montpellier (new and improved!)

“Montpellier? Not again. Didn’t you write about it back in March?”

Come on, you’re probably thinking it even if you’re not saying it out loud. And yes, you’re right. I wrote about the city in the Spring off the back of an impromptu visit prompted by a random conversation at an ER readers’ lunch with Phil and Kath, longstanding readers of the blog. And you can read that guide, if you want, and a lot of it still stands. It is an incredible city, a mixture of the old and the new, of biscuit coloured, sun-bathed houses and quaint little squares but also of craft beer and hipster joints.

It has beautiful green spaces, a very grand art gallery full of paintings of Jesus, pastoral scenes and tableaux from mythology, and a photographic gallery which, on my visit, was full of grainy black and white portraits of supermodels. But it also has street art everywhere, and street food to go with it. I read a stat somewhere that something like fifty per cent of the population of Montpellier is under thirty, and it feels like that: a city with more energy than almost any I’ve visited. It’s France’s eighth largest city, and yet nobody seems to know much about it. Well, I do now, and if you make it through this piece you will too.

Why an updated list so soon? Well, for no reason other than this: I went back. I spent a very happy week there on holiday earlier this month. And normally I would just make a few tweaks to my old article and leave it at that. But I ate so well, and drank so well, in so many places that never featured in my first guide (many of which surpassed the – already extremely good – meals I had back in March) that, rather than tinker around the edges, I decided to put together a mostly all new guide to the city. It is one of the best places I’ve ever been for loafing, for good food, for culture and to get a real feeling of a city as a living, breathing thing.

So if that even remotely sounds like your idea of a good time, have a read and maybe this will nudge its way on to your city break to do list for 2023. I know at least one reader of the blog found herself near Montpellier earlier this year and made a detour to the city, because she messaged me on Instagram to tell me she’d had a very enjoyable time working her way through my recommendations. Even if that happens just the once as a result of this piece, to me it will have been worth writing it. I can’t help it: I’m evangelical about the place now, you see, and it’s all Phil and Kath’s fault.

Where to eat

1. Abacus

Abacus is a tasteful, almost ascetic-looking restaurant on the edge of the Écusson, the old city. The dining room is gorgeous, but on our visit we sat outside on rue Terral enjoying the last of the evening sun and hearing the hum of the passing trams – and the following morning we had the insect bites to prove it.

The menu has a stripped-back simplicity to it too, with a choice of two, three or four courses and only a couple of options per course. I loved my tuna, barely even seared and full of clean mineral flavour (and the novelty value of hearing a Frenchwoman using the words Granny Smith – it was topped with crisp batons of apple – isn’t going to fade any time soon). Even better was a crisp pastry cigarillo crammed with rich roasted lamb, reminiscent of briwats I had many years ago in Marrakech, in another life.

26 rue Terral

2. Des Reves Et Du 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 only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street, particularly on Saturday morning when it felt like the whole city was there stocking up on bread for the weekend. 

But it was always worth joining. Even compared to the pastries elsewehere in Montpellier this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – madeleines, danishes, focaccia and a glorious slab of pissaladiere topped with sweet, reduced onion and spiked with wrinkled, pitted black olives and strands of anchovy. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as Reading has Costa Coffees. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne

3. Ébullition

Ébullition was probably my pick of the new restaurants I discovered on my second visit to Montpellier, a peaceful space where everything – the room, the welcome, the food, the wine and the service – were close to unimprovable. This felt like food a whisper away from Michelin star status, a real mixture of skill and imagination and a level above most of what I ate in the city.

My starter, a symphony of tomatoes from confit to sorbet, all sweetness and summer, was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time. Veal, breaded and rolled like flamenquin but with the genius addition of citrus, was an absolutely beautiful dish, served with a rich jus with the tiniest savoury hit of liquorice. They leave the jug of jus at the table so you can add more (which you do – repeatedly, unless there’s something wrong with you), something not enough restaurants do.

10 Rue du Pila St Gély

4. Green Lab

Green Lab is a falafel joint with two branches, one just off Place de la Comédie and my preferred one on rue de la Université. I associate top notch falafel with France after many happy meals at Paris’ legendary L’As Du Fallafel and Green Lab didn’t let me down. It offers a relatively compact menu of falafel pitas and platters with variations on a theme; my choice, the Silvergreen, was a beautiful Meditteranean take on falafel, with a pesto tahini and a goats cheese tzatziki. 

And if you think that sounds like cultural appropriation or vandalism, I’d say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. It was a beautiful, multi-layered, ridiculous bargain of a thing bursting with enjoyable mouthfuls. A particular thumbs up goes to the sticky caramelised aubergine dotted throughout: is any vegetable more delicious in the right hands or more awful in the wrong ones?

Green Lab
2 rue de la Université

5. Hop Smash Burger

You might think it’s a bit naff to have a burger in Montpellier, and you might have a point. But I was there for a week and that meant seeking out a variety of lunch options, and after walking past Hop Smash Burger a few times and looking enviously at their Instagram feed I decided to go for it. I was rewarded by possibly the best smashed burger I’ve ever had, and given the options in Reading that’s high praise. 

My burger had two beautiful smashed patties with savoury, slightly crispy, crinkled edges, excellent bacon and whole grain mustard (which I’ve never had with a burger, but worked brilliantly). Oh, and cheddar, because we’re in France and so they don’t bother with plastic American cheese. Paired with some fries dusted in Cajun spice and topped with crumbled feta – another brilliant combo which was new to me – and a NEIPA made specially for the restaurant by a local brewery it was about as perfect a lunch in the sunshine as there is.

Hop Smash Burger
9 Rue du Puits du Temple

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a very good 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 great little touch. 

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

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves

7. Le Couperet

On the first night of this trip to Montpellier, we planned to eat in a place called Rosemarie. It occupies possibly one of the prettiest squares in the old city and every picture they put on social media makes it look like an enchanting place to eat dinner under the stars. But they never responded to our attempts to book a table, so we cut our losses and ended up at Le Couperet, a French take on an American smokehouse, and I’m so glad we did.

They do two sittings every evening (including Monday, a night when many restaurants close) and they offer a menu which is delicious but limited. But you only need to find a handful of dishes you want to order, and that was no problem at Le Couperet. A selection of houmous and smoked artichoke dips started us off nicely and then they brought out a board groaning with the good stuff. Pulled lamb was terrific, especially with their homemade tomato relish, but the star of the show was a blackened pork rib, the bone dispensed with and the whole thing meltingly soft and tender. Le Couperet even smoked the potatoes used in their potato salad – how can you not love a place like that?

Le Couperet
3 rue des Tessiers

8. Les Freres Poulards

On my first visit to Montpellier, while drinking at the splendid Discopathe (more on that below) I spotted a rotisserie chicken restaurant opposite called Les Freres Poulards. If I ever come back here, I thought to myself, I’m having dinner there. Well, I did, and I did, and it was fantastic. A starter of coarse salami, sharp cornichons and agricultural terrine set me up nicely but the chicken was the feature attraction – a superb red label chicken cooked perfectly with tons of tender meat and crispy, gleaming skin. Add a little pot of sauce, juices and lardons and a hefty helping of potato dauphinois and all that’s left is to eat and luxuriate.

A British couple slightly older than us had taken the table next to us, and at the end of our meal we briefly got talking. They were here for a couple of nights passing through on their way back to their home in Spain. “What do you think of the city?” they asked and they were taken aback when we started waxing lyrical. It’s not very nice, one of them said, gesticulating at one of my favourite Montpellier streets. They were staying in what she described as the “Arab quarter” and they were wondering where the nice parts of Montpellier were. We directed them to the picturesque bits of the old city but, replete with beautiful chicken, looking at the beer festival taking place in the bar opposite, I couldn’t help feeling the whole place was wasted on them. 

Les Freres Poulards
27 rue du Faubourg du Courreau

9. 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 that jazz 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. 

On my second visit to the city I visited Les Glaces MPL most days and my favourite thing there was a strawberry confection shot through with mint and basil, summer in a cardboard cup. My only regret was that their tomato sorbet wasn’t on sale that day. 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 of the week.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac

10. Lipopette

Just down the street from Les Freres Poulards (above) and Le Discopathe (below) is Lipopette, another place on my hit list from visit one which I finally got round to on visit two for lunch on my final day. If I’d known how good it was I’d have bumped it up to an evening meal and really gone for it, because the menu was very clever and extremely wide ranging: you’d have called it fusion food if that term wasn’t so wanky. So Zoë had phenomenal croquettes to start, and I had crisp tempura prawns in a moat of black pudding purée leavened beautifully with something like lemongrass. The overall effect was baffling but profoundly brilliant. 

And then my main, the single best plate of food of my trip, played it far more trad with a creamy risotto, handfuls of the first deep amber girolles of the season and – oh happy day! – chicken thighs cooked to yielding with a perfect, brittle, crispy skin. If I could have got away with it, I’d have ordered it twice. Dessert was a dish called Hmm, c’est trop choco, là! which was, I’m delighted to say, chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate.

7 rue du Faubourg du Courreau

11. Pastis

Michelin-starred Pastis is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there on my first visit, 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 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).

3 rue Terral

12. Reflet d’Obione

Arguably I’ve left the best til last: Michelin-starred Reflet d’Obione is the one restaurant I visited on both of my visits to Montpellier and each time the tasting menu with wine pairings, by no means the kind of thing I normally go for, blew me away. It’s a small, comfortable, hushed restaurant with the kind of attention to detail (and attention to customers) that gets you a star, although it’s only held one for a couple of years.

Chef Laurent Cherchi – young, intense and moustachioed – comes over to every table and the rest of the time bosses a young, extremely talented brigade. On my second visit we had a table in the front room, overlooking the kitchen, which gave you a fascinating insight into just how much work goes into delivering perfection. But the front of house is every bit as accomplished and polished, talking through the dishes and the wines with charm and enthusiasm with perfect English (although every thank you is greeted with a whispered je vous en prie).

Every dish I had, across two visits, was stunning and provenance was given reverence, with all the ingredients and all the wines being completely from and of the area. Highlights included the most stunningly executed fish with a gratin of pumpkin and a Day-Glo orange sauce, a langoustine brushed with the deepest, most umami civet sauce and served with a tangle of wild mushrooms and a magnificent dessert of figs served something like five different ways with a divine cream spiked with green anis. Rarely do I love a dessert this much which doesn’t involve chocolate; it came paired with a local vermouth which had notes of pine and rosemary (if you ask me) or canard de toilette (if you asked Zoë).

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau

Where to drink

1. Bear’s House

In many other cities Bear’s House would be the craft beer bar in town and in that sense, it’s rather unlucky to be in Montpellier. A small bar on the northern edge of the old city, it had some decent outside space, enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and a good range of local beers on tap. They also have an impressive selection of cans and bottles from further afield, and I even spotted a few UK breweries in the mix. If you do happen to go to Montpellier as a craft beer fan – and I’ve not been to many small cities better for beer fans – you should definitely pay it a visit. Zoë is still rueing the fact that we missed a tap takeover by Cantillon while we were in town.

Bear’s House
26 rue de la Université

2. Broc Café

Broc Café is a beautiful cafe on a street opposite the botanical gardens, and on my first trip to Montpellier it was very hard to walk past it without stopping for a drink. On my second visit I didn’t even attempt to do so, and we had a thoroughly agreeable couple of hours sitting on the terrace watching Saturday night come to life in the city. Unusually for this kind of venue they have an impressive selection of craft beer from local breweries along with wine and aperitivi, and a special mention has to go to the staff who are brilliantly helpful and friendly, very proficient at suggesting drinks you might not have considered and work like absolute Trojans.

Broc Café
2 boulevard Henri IV

3. Cafe BUN

Cafe BUN was 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. I grew very fond of it during my first trip, and a morning visit there to plan the day ahead over a grand crème became a very happy fixture of my second trip to Montpellier. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was easily the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves

4. 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

5. 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, something I didn’t previously think was possible.

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 tested my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu the first time I visited 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. We made a beeline there for lunch on my return to the city and I had the most incredible pancakes topped with salty, crispy bacon. They bring a jug of maple syrup and leave it at the table, which strikes me as both very civilised and very decadent.

4 rue Glaize

6. Couleurs de Bieres Nord

Couleurs de Bières Nord is a cracking little bar in, as the name suggests, the north of the city. 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 skewed little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, a local brewery, and it made for an eminently suitable pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes

7. Hopulus Brewpub

Often, and I don’t mean this unkindly, craft beer places (like craft coffee places) can feel a bit thrown together on a budget. The stools are uncomfortable, the interior is death by chipboard and we all convince ourselves that that’s absolutely fine because we’re purists. Going to Hopulus I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a stunning space in the old city, all vaulted stone ceilings, like a cellar bar that happens to be on the ground floor. Like the next entry, La Barbote, they brew their own beers on the premises in a variety of styles and, also like La Barbote, they have a happy hour which will make you very happy indeed. I tried a Belgian-style quadrupel here and a blond lager and both sent me on my way with a spring in my step. They also do cheese, charcuterie and all the other wonderful things that just make beer that tiny bit better, and – crucially on a muggy September day – they have outstanding aircon.

Hopulus Brewpub
8 rue Collot

8. La Barbote

La Barbote was round the corner from my hotel on trip number two, it was the first place we stopped for a drink and I think we ended up there most nights for a snifter before venturing forth to our restaurant of choice. And actually, although it was perfect for that my biggest regret is that we didn’t stay there longer. It’s a microbrewery and they brew on the premises, offering a menu of a dazzling dozen or so beers at any one time. Everything I tried from them knocked it out of the park, from Tête Gourmande, their sweet but sharp pastry sour to their NEIPA Set The Controls, from a DIPA called Cortez to a thick impy called De Profundis with a nicely caffeinated bite.

It’s deceptively big and it filled up pretty much the moment people quit work every day, possibly because of an insanely good happy hour where a pint of anything costs you five Euros max until seven o’clock. Looking round it was a better advert for craft beer than so many equivalent places in the U.K. with a young and diverse crowd: if they have someone in the corner ranting about the Good Beer Guide I never saw them. They also do food in the evenings and I got to try their karaage chicken – it was magical, by the way – and some equally good, if messy, fish tacos. If you want a casual meal and a really good drink on the trip to Montpellier you’re surely planning by now, make a pit stop here: “it’s how Zero Degrees would be if it wasn’t shit” was Zoë’s verdict.

La Barbote
1 Rue des deux Ponts

9. Le Canotier

Le Canotier (the boater, apparently) is a little wine bar in the old city and we stopped there for pre-dinner glasses of Viognier and Minervois which I enjoyed very much. I felt thoroughly French sitting outside, sipping away and watching revellers wandering past in either direction, although that might have just been because of the sheer amount of passive smoking I was doing. Either way, I wish I could have stayed longer (and, possibly, inhaled less). 

Le Canotier
7 Rue des Trésorier de la Bourse

10. Le Discopathe

Le Discopathe was one of the happiest discoveries of my first visit to Montpellier. 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 Montpellier’s 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 – more on them below – 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.

On our second visit we got to explore some of the nearby restaurants (Les Freres Poulard and Lipopette, above) and when there’s a third visit there’s a nearby pizza joint called Pousse that I firmly have my eye on. But I also managed to fit in a couple of visits to Le Discopathe: it’s also worth noting that it’s one of Montpellier’s only craft beer bars that opens before about 5pm.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau

11. Le Reservoir

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, and had the feel of a place built in anticipation of demand, rather than because of it. But inside it was 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. I’m sorry I didn’t get to go back on my second visit for an afternoon of craft beer and pétanque – apparently you can play it on the premises.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre

12. 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 really well curated shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which offers an extensive introduction to Montpellier’s burgeoning craft beer scene and has plenty for you to squirrel away in your suitcase for the rueful journey home.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin

(Click here to read more city guides.)


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