Even though it’s been one of the world’s wine capitals for centuries, Bordeaux has never been a culinary heavyweight like Paris or Lyon. Not so today. On my most recent trip to the city—just a two-hour ride by high-speed train from Paris—it was clear it has become a trending destination. After a representative from the tourism office, several of my hotel’s staff, a couple of winemakers, and practically every chef I met had all revealed they were newcomers, I had to wonder: Is anybody in Bordeaux these days actually from Bordeaux?
But I could see why they’d put down roots here. Two decades of revitalization projects have transformed a dusky port into a pedestrian-friendly, optimistic city. I walked the UNESCO World Heritage circuit of merchants’ townhouses carved with lions and scallops and the arresting Place de la Bourse, whose Age of Enlightenment Stock Exchange Hall had shut early in the face of a yellow vest protest. Yet even that tumult couldn’t discourage a sea of people from strolling and riding bikes in the spiffy docklands-to-park conversion along the waterfront on a sunny afternoon.
The city’s renaissance isn’t limited to architecture: Beginning about five years ago, Bordeaux started going crazy with good new restaurants. In particular, ambitious young chefs from around France and beyond sensed an opportunity in what was missing: a thriving, diverse food scene. Unencumbered by the city’s somewhat staid gastronomic past, they’re creating modern bistros with global sensibilities.
I say bistros, but often these establishments display multiple identities, like Symbiose, which is a cocktail bar or café, except when it’s a restaurant with a five-course tasting menu. It’s as if, unleashed in virgin territory, entrepreneurs are trying out every conceivable dining concept they can imagine. This culinary freedom is matched by adventurous wine lists with bottles from small Bordeaux estates, plus selections that explore other parts of France and the rest of the world, including biodynamic and natural wines.
I didn’t check out every new bistro—that would take weeks—but the most exciting spots, profiled here, made me want to return as soon as possible for more.
Atelier Des Faures
Roman Winicki gave up a promising public affairs career and joined forces with his Bordelais wife, Claire Ivaskevicius, to open this tiny counter with a few tables near the Marché des Capucins. The concise blackboard menu varies daily, except for his surprisingly good—and just surprising—pastrami gyozas, which are always on offer. (He also makes a wonderful sweet potato and rice vinegar version; see the recipe here.) His cooking is full of clever ideas: mackerel two ways (smoked and marinated) with potato salad, grilled sausage with pickled onions and homemade cheese crumbles. Wines focus on indie labels, such as Château Jaulien, whose producer grows lilies of the valley in addition to grapes. 48 rue des Faures, Bordeaux; 33-09-86-42-45-45; facebook.com/atelierdesfaures
An ex-Parisian by way of southern France, Romain Schlumberger named Lauza after the lauzes (stone roof tiles) of his native Aveyron. This new-wave restaurant, on a pedestrian street lined with honey-colored centuries-old buildings, proposes multiple dining options: outside on the cobbled terrace or inside, either in the casual-hip bistro or at well-spaced tables in a lovely back room. The short menu is the same wherever you sit—updated classics like blood sausage with nicely bitter frisée and waffle chips or silky lentil soup with toasted brioche, mushrooms, and bacon. 5 rue du Hâ, Bordeaux; 33-05-56-52-76-59; lauza.fr
On a recent evening, a group of twentysomethings, attracted by the light and activity in Cent 33’s kitchen, clambered onto stools at the chef’s table next to the robata grill. Chef Fabien Beaufour, a veteran of Maison Pic and Eleven Madison Park, has massive windows installed so both cooks and guests benefit from ample natural light. At his chic-casual spot, Beaufour mixes styles with dishes like a trompe l’oeil clementine (it has a foie gras interior) and grilled black cod matelote, a nod to the region’s traditional red wine fish stew. 133 rue du Jardin Public, Bordeaux; 33-05-56-15-90-40; cent33.com
After ogling the oysters, abundant flowers, and cheeses at the Sunday Quai des Chartrons market—each item displayed with respect and attention—cross the street for an incredible lunch at this busy, affable bistro. In his open kitchen, chef Louis Richard cooks terrific food that’s equal parts Escoffier and Robuchon (who in fact was a mentor), such as hake with gingery leeks and potatoes. And if you go, don’t miss his artfully composed lasagna. With its layers of creamy béchamel and squash and accompanying herb salad, it made me feel like I’d just won the vegetarian jackpot. On the open-minded wine list, I found some far-flung favorites, among them the brilliant Jo Landron’s Amphibolite Muscadet from the Loire Valley. 2 quai des Chartrons, Bordeaux; 33-09-70-98-62-20; restaurant-pastel.com
This fresh, creative bistro is a group project from a trio of transplants: chef Léo Forget; his wife, Marion; and their partner, Romain Grenet. Mets Mots is their joint renewal scheme; the restaurant’s name and decor—one wall is papered with newsprint—evoke the restaurant’s (and neighborhood’s) printing-house past. With a stellar pedigree (Pierre Gagnaire), Léo is fluent in both the sophisticated multicourse format and the simple market lunch. The cabbage salad with diced apples was extraordinary in its details: Fine shreds of red cabbage, a perfect vinaigrette, and a hidden spoonful of fromage blanc richly coated everything as I dug into the bowl. 98 rue Fondaudège, Bordeaux 33-05-57-83-38-24; metsmots.fr
Other Great Bistros
The balletic collaboration between Gaël Morand’s wine list and Tanguy Laviale’s freewheeling palate is the heart of this 20-seat bistro-slash-wine-shop. The five-course tasting menu changes every day. 62 rue Abbé de l’Epée, Bordeaux; 33-09-72-45-55-36; garopapilles.com
La Fleur Au Fusil
Téo Barazer’s seasonal dishes like porgy tartare and oysters with chive whipped cream go well with Marion Méténier’s mostly organic wines, plus desserts like citron-cream choux puffs. 8 cours Georges Mandel, Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc; 33-05-56-09-98-11
This bare-bones bistro serves small plates like a two-bite blood sausage pastry, spiced lamb chops, razor clam ceviche, and vegetable dumplings sauced with smoked-chile foam. Don’t skip dessert. 1 quai Sainte Croix, Bordeaux; 33-05-56-78-97-10; letaquin.com
Maison Claude Darroze
Young restaurateur Jean-Charles Darroze pulls his own generation to this country inn for his fabulously affordable lunch. The list of lesser-known Bordeaux is wonderful with the tight market menu. 95 cours du Général Leclerc, Langon; 33-05-56-63-00-48; darroze.com
Scottish expat Daniel Gallacher improvises within the classic repertoire for creations like pear sorbet with tarragon meringue and yogurt whipped cream. 59 rue Georges Bonnac, Bordeaux; 33-05-56-98-43-08; facebook.com/restaurantracinesbordeaux
Crowds seek out the hidden bar (behind a clock) for craft cocktails and small plates. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Félix Clerc offers a tasting menu in the front room. 4 quai des Chartrons, Bordeaux; 33-05-56-23-67-15; facebook.com/symbiosebordeaux
How to Get There
The Air France–KLM network flies to Paris from 13 North American cities (airfrance.com), from which Bordeaux is just over two hours from Paris by high-speed train with plenty of free wifi. raileurope.com
Where to Stay
The city’s new five-star boutique hotel, Le Palais Gallien, occupies a renovated 19th-century mansion. Through the light-filled garden courtyard, modern rooms with heated balconies overlook a sleek pool. palais-gallien.com