Where to Wine & Dine: Bordeaux
by Chuck Hayward
For anyone traveling to the wine regions of France, it’s assumed (and rightly so), that an immersion into local cuisine should be part of the experience. After all, what is a trip to Burgundy without eating escargot or fine dining while visiting Champagne? So it goes without saying that a trip to Bordeaux will be incomplete unless you dip your toes into the local dining scene.
But the geography and the way business is conducted in Bordeaux conspire to make it difficult to indulge your appetite as thoroughly as your palate. And while the wines of Bordeaux resonate across the globe, the local cuisine has yet to achieve such recognition. A recent check through the latest Michelin Guide reveals far fewer starred establishments in Bordeaux than in Burgundy or Champagne.
But the wine industry, for the most part, is located far away from the city itself. Many negociants have offices downtown, but tastings are often conducted at their new warehouses located in suburban industrial parks. If you want to visit the wine country, it’s almost an hour to Margaux, where the Haut Medoc wineries begin in earnest and an hour should you decide to travel east to the Right Bank. As in other wine producing areas, one would expect a plethora of places to eat in and around the wineries themselves, but it is surprisingly quiet. Just finding a morning coffee and croissant in Margaux or Pomerol (or some palate-cleansing afternoon ale) can prove difficult, let alone a small café for lunch. This lack of culinary infrastructure is due to the fact that wineries in Bordeaux are more likely to wine and dine their guests at the chateaux, rather than have them eat at a local establishment.Bordeaux’s geography is one reason why its food is not as well known. The city itself is quite pleasant, with a very charming downtown section full of narrow alleys and paths closed to traffic. There are plenty of small wine bars and cafes to experience and the action is pretty lively from early evening and into the night. The river itself presents a grand vista, with the new tram system and wide sidewalks providing a never-ending string of breathtaking views of the city, as well as of the bridges that link it to its neighbors across the water. Old warehouses have been renovated and a new modern bridge just opened, bringing even more energy to the riverside in a renovation reminiscent of San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
With all the time travelling to and fro, from the city to wineries and back, it’s often hard to find time to explore the downtown. I can say this from experience, as JJ Buckley as a team has rarely spent much time in the city during our trips to en primeur.And with the price of Bordeaux wine these days, one might want to save money and eat out on a budget. So here’s a guide to one night in Bordeaux (with your wallet in mind…):A Night in Bordeaux…On a Budget
To start the evening, make it over to Grand Bar Castan (2 Quai de la Douane), perfectly situated along the river and at the entrance to the city’s old sector. As the oldest bar in Bordeaux, there’s a Belle Epoque feeling to the café, with its stained glass sign and tiled floors, but the interior’s quirky decor adds a decidedly contemporary flair. Sit outside on the terrace with a pastis and enjoy the view of the river and the Ponts de Piere and Saint-Jean, watching the colors change as the sun sets behind you. If there’s inclement weather, hang out at the bar and chat with the friendly staff.
If wine sets your evening’s tempo, head to one of the best deals for drinking wine on the planet. The Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux(CIVB) is the marketing and promotional agency for Bordeaux and they operate a wine bar in the center of the city. Housed in a beautifully remodeled 18th century building, the Bar a Vin (3 Cours du 30 Juillet) pours over 20 different wines in Speigelau stemware for 2-8 euros per glass. These insane prices encourage you to experiment with some of the region’s lesser known wines, such as sparkling Bordeaux or clairet (a dark-hued rose that is the basis for what the English term ‘claret’). The majestic room is supplemented by small alcoves where you can have a more intimate experience and if you’re hungry, order up a plate of charcuterie or cheese knowing that two glasses of wine will cost less than your nibbles.
If there is any theme to be found when dining in Bordeaux, it revolves around beef. So once you’re done at the Bar a Vin, hop across the street for a great deal at L’Entrecote (4 Cours du 30 Juillet). Part of a chain that includes locations in France as well as a new place in New York, this no reservations restaurant is so popular that there’s always a line, usually dominated by locals. The menu is simple: full platters of sliced beef saturated in a proprietary sauce composed of butter and spices along with a mound of homemade frites and their house red (Bordeaux, of course). The wait’s not long – there are three floors of diners all eating heartily and cheaply. If you avoid dessert, two people can get out for fewer than 50 euros.
Most folks might call it a night at this point but for those who want a nightcap, Cafe Brun (45 Rue Saint-Rémi) is a required visit. This old bar, located on one of the busiest streets in the old town, is always packed. With its youthful crowd, it has a vibrant feel as local university students listen to groovy music while drinking Belgian ales, shots or Champagne.Another option that’s popular among locals and wine industry types is La Brasserie Bordelaise (50 Rue Saint-Rémi), centrally located in Bordeaux’s old section. Always packed with an active bar and an expansive series of small dining rooms, the focus is on beef (try the excellent tartare) but there are more options available including fowl, fish and pastas. The wine list includes a wide range of Bordeaux along with a small selection of other French wines.
Below are five wines you could expect to see on a wine list at a Bordeaux bistro… But we’ll save you the airfare to France when you buy them from JJ Buckley!!It’s not hard to strike up a conversation with patrons or the DJ manning the decks. Whether you spend the night dancing on the bar, or simply enjoying a nightcap before heading back to the hotel, you can hit the highway for your next wine adventure knowing you experienced at least one night like a Bordelaise local.