So you’re on the French Riviera with friends, staying above Beaulieu-sur-Mer, known to all as Beaumont-sur-Mer in the 1980s comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and you’ve just got engaged; where do you go to celebrate?
The Riviera is littered with starred, highly expensive and pretentious restaurants where you struggle to find anyone with a bank balance less than the GDP of a small European country. But in Villefranche-sur-Mer you will find the restaurant where you should actually be dining – La Mère Germaine.
Michelin rated, but not starred, La Mère Germaine, like many venerable French establishments, is run by the descendants of those who founded it, and has been taken to ever greater gastronomic heights by each successive generation. Perhaps the greatest example of such a dynasty is La Maison Troisgros, run by the third generation of the Troisgros, which has held three Michelin stars since 1968.
Established in 1938 on the water’s edge at Villefranche-sur-Mer, the coastal town between Nice and Monaco, La Mère Germaine has had quite a history. Founded by Germaine Halap, the restaurant became a home from home for the US 6th Fleet during the war. Madame Halap became something of a surrogate mother to the officers, NCOs and sailors, with ships passing the details of “Mom Germaine” and her restaurant to each other. The US Navy officially adopted her and even produced a film about her; a book entitled Mother of the Sixth Fleet was published in 1959. Not only is there a naval history to the place, there’s also an artistic history, thanks to Jean Cocteau dining there regularly while in town painting the Saint-Pierre Chapel. Over the years, many well-known individuals have dined there.
Despite such an illustrious history, “Mom Germaine’s” successors continue to run a restaurant where, no matter who you are, you will be treated the same, have immaculate service, and be allowed to relax and to dine on perfectly executed dishes. The ethos is that of providing the best food and service without being fancy and ostentatious; they achieve this perfectly. Their reputation is such that people travel from all over the Riviera to dine there – while I was there a number of chauffeured cars turned up with diners from Monaco.
The menu offers meat but why you’d order it while sitting at the water’s edge in the calm, balmy peace of a Riviera night, I can’t imagine. The menu reads like a roll call of the greatest fish, each of which will be skilfully prepared in the finest traditions of French cuisine.
The speciality to start with is the rockfish soup. It’s the perfect example of a French fish soup, flawlessly smooth but meaty with that deepness of flavour that comes from using the best seafood, homemade stock, and plenty of time. Served under silver service and with a traditional second helping, it’s topped off with croutons, rouille and parmesan; it really is not to be missed and worth travelling for in itself. John Dory (St Pierre) expertly grilled for two makes a fine main course but, if you fancy something more old-school French, then there’s the mushroom stuffed sea bass that is covered in a sauce and baked.
La Mère Germaine is better by a country mile than any of the equivalent restaurants on the French Riviera and, while not cheap, you’ll get out without having to sell the shirt off your back. As a setting it’s superb and the silver service is immaculate. More importantly, the service doesn’t feel over the top, showy or oppressive, which is testament to the fact that the restaurant has been around so long and able to refine its skill. Everything comes together to make for a perfect evening.