Ask any Frenchman and he’ll tell you that French cuisine is the apex of all culinary achievement. Whether you believe that particular morsel of jingoism (however deserved it may be), one thing you can always be sure of is that French haute cuisine can usually be found at the apex of the price scale.
North Americans have been programmed to think of French restaurants as stuffy, candle-lit purveyors of meats under heavy cream sauces served on linen tablecloths by aloof waiters – and some are just that. But most French people rarely venture into such rarified environs. No, for the average Jean, the simple, fresh and economical dishes offered up by the neighbourhood bistro are the go-to of Gallic gastronomy. So, if you’re looking for a taste of Paris, Provence or Poitou, why not follow their lead and hit up one of the city’s better bistros?
Café Salade de Fruits
This oh-so-tiny (dare we say bijou?) Kitsilano eatery spills out from its wood-paneled corner into the lobby of the French Cultural Centre. Daily specials and a weekly table d’hôte are written out on the requisite blackboard, while the classic bistro menu (unchanged for years) offers up temptations like the excellent lapin confit aux olives and a top-flight magret de canard sauce cassis. No need to worry over wine choices since there are only two: red and white. Reservations recommended. Mains $19 — $25, 1551 W. 7th Ave., 604-714-5987
Les Faux Bourgeois
An East Side hot spot since it opened in late 2010, Les Fauxbo as the regulars call it, captures the true essence of bistro dining: good food at unbelievable prices. Whether you’re spoiling for a steak frites in a green peppercorn sauce or coveting a rich coq au vin, you’ll find it on the authentic French bistro menu. A carefully edited wine list (by the bottle and by the glass) complements the casual atmosphere. Reservations required because Les Fauxbo is always packed. Mains $16 — $19, 663 E. 15th Ave., 604-873-9733
Chef Andrey Durbach’s (La Buca, Cafeteria) casual French restaurant is a fixture in its Cambie Rise neighbourhood. While the à la carte menu tends to run on the higher side of affordable, management has relaunched the much-missed, three-course table d’hôte featuring such traditional fare as Alsatian onion pie, soupe de poisson, beef bourguignon with Boursin cheese mashed potatoes and berry crêpes with crème fraîche at $38 per person. Or, if it’s date night, $99 gets you dinner for two, a bottle of wine, mineral water and coffee. 3369 Cambie St., 604-873-3131
The newest French bistro to open in Vancouver is a labour of love for owner John Blakely (Bistro Pastis), who has taken over the former Café de Paris location in the West End and transformed the aging fine dining restaurant — where he worked as a busboy when he first immigrated to Canada — into a light and airy corner café. Service starts early with café at croissants at 8 a.m. and continues late into the night. The French-meets-West-Coast menu features three types of mussels (traditional white-wine Meunière, Moroccan with cilantro and chili and a chorizo-laden Basquaise) as well as three types of tartare (steak, tuna and salmon). But the real standouts are the house-made boudin noir served with roasted apples and pomme purée and the sinfully sweet and flaky Armagnac-laden tarte tatin, individually made to order. Walk-ins welcome. Mains $19 — $25, 751 Denman St., 604-687-1418
A Gastown institution as much for lunch as for dinner, this cozy neighbourhood haunt is all oak panelling and black-and-white tiles with the owner’s penchant for flea-market finds lining shelves around the room. Not only does it have a terrific front patio for alfresco dining and apéritifs in the setting sun, it also boasts one of the city’s most romantic tables in its private wine room alcove. For lunch, nothing beats the beet and green onion salad with warm goat’s cheese. But if its dinner you’re after, the duck breast served on a bed of frisée with lardons and pine nuts is about as Parisian as it gets. Reservations recommended. Mains $21 — $27, 216 Abbott St., 604-669-0033
Image courtesy of Le Parisien.