17 August 2017

n.d.p. in marseille: les buvards, 13002

For a number of reasons, only one of which was my lack of money, the Native Companion and I wound up in Marseille for a micro-vacation earlier this month.

My ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was to visit a few winemakers in Bandol, a 40 minute drive east. Her ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was it would permit her to bring her small dog. We spent one day in Bandol visiting winemakers in the company of a small dog. The rest of the time was spent failing to turn up good restaurants in sweltering late-summer Marseille.*

The one outstanding exception was Les Buvards, a ramshackle natural cave-à-manger two blocks north of Le Vieux Port. When I asked how long they've been open, raven-haired co-proprietor Laetitia Pantalacci replied, "It'll be a decade come Beaujolais Nouveau," which is about the best answer I could hope to receive. As we sat down on one of the street-facing tables, the NC remarked that she'd never heard anyone mark time in terms of Beaujolais Nouveau before. I assured her it wasn't that unusual, for a pioneering natural wine establishment.

Owned and operated by Pantallaci and her partner Fred Coachon, Les Buvards comprises part of a tight-knit circuit of influential caves-à-manger - including Le Verre Volé in Paris, Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, L'Arsouille in Rennes, and La Part des Anges in Nice, to name the more prominent - who were instrumental in popularizing natural wine in France throughout the 2000's. Long and narrow, Les Buvards consists of a kitchen opening onto a tiny bar in the restaurant's rear, a middle dining room lined with wine shelving, and a quasi-terrace section opening onto a quiet stretch of Grand Rue.

The walls of the quasi-terrace are stacked historical empties from Domaine du MazelMarcel Lapierre, Pierre Overnoy, Château Sainte Anne, and so on - a visual history of the French natural wine movement.

The selection of full, available-for-purchase bottles at Les Buvards is slimmer than many of its aforementioned peers, though I may have simply arrived during a seasonal diminution of stock. I didn't mind at all, so happy was I to find a good wine selection in Marseille, which otherwise remains a land of pastis and cheap beer. Moreover, Les Buvards offers the occasional modest back vintage, like a 2013 Bandol blanc from Château Sainte Anne.

It proved to be in glorious, saline form, its tension and finesse giving the lie to the sad majority of winemakers who insist one must block malolactic to make refreshing whites in Provence. (I wish I'd brought bottles back to Paris. The day following our meal at Les Buvards we tasted a range of vintages with the Dutheuil family at Château Sainte Anne, and this 2013 still sticks in mind as a highlight.) Château Sainte Anne's whites and rosés all undergo malo, and are a zillion times more satisfying for it.

The Native Companion, as one might guess from her epithet, is French, and accordingly finds burrata more novel than I do. Her craving paid off at Les Buvards, however. It was among the freshest and most flavoursome I've tasted in France.

Freshness, simplicity, and quality of product typified the entire meal, from a light minestrone bedecked in pesto, to a seared aged steak whose Japanese seasoning was so nuanced as to transcend its cliché.

Restaurants can to some extent be judged by their clientele, and Les Buvards, in the dog days of August, drew a tasteful and serene mélange of locals and informed visitors, who all chatted amiably across tables. The bar serves until the impressive hour of 1AM, which, in addition to making most Paris natural wine bars look like curfewed pre-teens, renders a meal at Les Buvards particularly leisurely and pressure-free. On a similarly slow summer evening at comparable restaurants in Paris, one would visibly perceive, like a gasoline vapor in the air, the kitchen's desire to close, the staff's keening ache to refuse new tables. I suppose that is why people go south.

* I've spent years enjoying Alec Lobrano's many articles on the dining scene in Marseille, only to discover, upon visiting Marseille, that the majority of restaurants he has endorsed in the Guardian, Saveur, etc. have closed. Not just for summer - for good.

Les Buvards
34, Grand Rue
Tel : 04 91 90 69 98

Related Links

A 2010 Télérama piece on Les Buvards, noteworthy for extraordinarily bad photography.

A 2011 Gilles Pudlowski piece on Les Buvards, noteworthy for not containing the phrase "natural wine."

A 2011 piece on Les Buvards at Love Spots, which despite the name is a blog about things to do in Marseille, not brothels, although presumably those also exist in Marseille.

A justifiably adoring 2015 piece on Les Buvards at So Food So Good.

Bert Celce's excellent 2011 report of a visit to Château Sainte Anne at Wine Terroirs


  1. I don't think I'd like to be referred to as 'the Native Companion' or even 'my Native Companion' - it sounds a little too dehumanising and probably isn't her distinguishing quality. Also it calls into question who she is in your life more than if you'd called her your friend or whatever. Sorry if I'm treading on unsafe ground. It's a woman thing.

  2. It's a David Foster Wallace homage that I began seven years ago on this blog. Just a device to retain anonymity of girlfriend, who might understandably not wish to be publicly implicated in my freeform musings on wine and restaurants.

  3. Les Buvards sounds wonderful, even if they do tout themselves as a "natural" wine bar. I wish I knew about it on my 2 visits to Marseilles.

  4. Sorry you missed out on another number of great places in Marseille. Les Buvards is great but there's much more to discover...