This article was also published in the Financial Times.
At 1.15 pm in the middle of a busy Sunday lunch, a waiter looking every inch the schoolteacher appeared from under an arch separating the restaurant from the bar and kitchen at Café de la Fontaine in La Turbie, high above Monaco in the south of France.
Although he was wearing a red apron with the café's name on it and below that, with some justification as we were about to discover, the phrase Bonne Cuisine, he was carrying a damp cloth and a piece of chalk. He went up to the blackboard that lists the menu (another lists all their wines), rubbed out the words gigot d'agneau pommes purée (leg of lamb with pureed potatoes), which had obviously just sold out, and wrote in its place foie de veau (calves liver). Forty five minutes later he fulfilled this role again, writing up a breast of duck and osso bucco in place of two other sold-out dishes.
Café de la Fontaine is the kind of bustling bistro which many believe has become all too rare in France these days. It is very friendly, extremely good value in what is otherwise an extremely expensive part of the country, but, as in so many other places that are so obviously popular with the locals, the service can be somewhat slapdash.
From the moment I finally caught our waiter's eye, however, delivery was very prompt. On the blackboard were five starters, of which the best were a creamy leek tart, served in vast slices, with a tomato and well dressed green salad, and an equally generous bowl of ravioli topped with broccoli. They arrived even before we had time to taste the equally fresh bottle of Triennes 2008 rosé (26 euros).
No sooner had these been cleared away than a young waitress was back with our main course. A hefty entrecôte with frites and a sauce Béarnaise, two generous plates of lamb with Provençal vegetables, a slightly inept seafood risotto (more like seafood rice pudding), and several very well cooked pieces of rabbit with olives, carrots and polenta. The high proportion of meat on the menu may be due to the fact that the butcher, Chez Lino, is next door.
Over our lunch we were entertained by the bustle and sheer number of locals, the elder women sporting the fur coats of the Riviera on this sunny spring afternoon while the younger men sat outside close to their bikes.
Our waiter returned, again in a schoolmasterly frame of mind. When one of our party couldn't decide between the tiramisu and the savarin with pineapple and rum for dessert, he said, 'I know what you should have. There are two portions of lemon tart left that are not on the blackboard. That's the best thing to have.' And he was right.
Three courses with the bottle of wine, one beer but no coffee came to a very reasonable (for these parts) 166 euros for five. But before we headed back on the 20-minute drive to Nice airport there was just time to take in two of La Turbie's much older attractions. The first, not suitable for those with vertigo, was the view from the promontory down to Monte Carlo, the Mediterranean and the coast along to Italy, as pictured above. The second was to look up at the remains of The Trophy of Augustus above us, built by the Romans over 2,000 years ago and to wonder what they ate here as they first walked through this beautiful but now highly developed corner of France.
Le Café de la Fontaine, 4 Avenue du General de Gaulle, 06320 La Turbie. Tel: 04.93.28.52.79. Open 7 days.