There are fewer more beautiful, stately and fun beach cities in France (“town” is a world that really does not apply, given the size of the place, and how busy it is) than majestic Biarritz. And majestic it is, or perhaps more accurately, imperial, even: what used to be a charming and sleepy fishing village morphed remarkably fast into a busy resort area favoured by the wealthy, the minute or so that back in 1854 Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie de Montijo established Villa Eugénie as their new summer home. So you know all the parvenus of the world just had to be there too, even though it might have taken them a while to figure out where exactly Biarritz was on the map.
And location location location doesn’t just work in real estate, but here too: the location really is important, for Biarritz is nestled on one of the most beautiful beachfronts of the entire world. I repeat, the world. On France’s sweeping Atlantic coast, less than 50 kilometers north of the Spanish border, Biarritz is blessed with golden sunsets and silvery waves: indeed, it is the best place to surf in Europe, and it attracts the similarly inclined from all everywhere. In fact, come summertime, upon leaving behind the city’s charming downtown alleys to reach the scenic walkways hugging the shoreline down below, you are far more likely to come across someone holding a surfboard rather than a shopping bag. But there are of course plenty of those holding shopping bags too: the international elite likes to call Biarritz home, following in the footsteps of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway who presided here during the city’s golden age. The generally held belief is that it was screenwriter Peter Viertel who acted as the sounding board for the city’s more modern-day fortunes, who while in Biarritz back in 1957 for the cinematic adaptation of Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, sang the praises of the Grande Plage to anyone who would listen. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But clearly, men and women do not live by surf and shopping boutiques alone: good food and wine are absolutely necessary to make the “fun in the sun” equation work, and thankfully, Biarritz boasts plenty of delightful places where to sit, have a bite, and take a swig. Actually, it seems to me that the city’s laid back beach ambience carries over to the food and wine scene too: for a city with such a storied past, there is a noteworthy lack of truly “grand” wine bars and restaurants. There are many good ones, and some one star Michelin places are certainly fine addresses to dine in, but nothing really sticks out. Tellingly, there are no two Michelin star places in the vicinity and the one star establishments, that I repeat are perfectly fine, are still mostly of the laid back type, offering solid, well-cooked meals with properly sourced ingredients but without delivering any specific fireworks (not that there’s anything wrong with that: after all, if I want fireworks, I go to a fireworks factory, not to a restaurant). For the most part, the wine bars offer the typical dishes of France’s hearty Basque cuisine, all often imbued with a strong Spanish influence: hence, pinxos (or the anglicized “pinchos”) which is the local word for tapas, can be had everywhere. Bt so can too the French classics of cassoulet, steak frites and entrecôte. What follows is my personal “favourites” list of Biarritz wine/pinxos bars; most are located right around the central old town located covered market of Les Halles. Actually, if you don’t mind eating at a table top counter, some of the best places to eat and drink in Biarritz are actually right inside the Halles.
L’Artnoa (56 Rue Gambetta, +33 5 59 24 78 87)
L’Artnoa is an absolutely lovely address, even quite elegant in its look, that boasts a good selection of wines and simple nibbles such as bellota ham, foie gras, and charcuterie and cheese plates; wine and food lovers will find something to meet every palate and price point. L’Artnoa is also a wine shop, so you can do what I do, and after your time spent there, buy a bottle or two and taste back at the hotel the many local wines you have no chance of ever finding back home.
However, “caveat emptor”: of the 600 or so labels carried, most are biodynamic and/or natural, so if those wines aren’t your thing, you might want to look elsewhere. The problem of course is never if a wine is “natural;” or “biodynamic” or not, but whether the thing smells so bad and taste so that it will make a horse faint. But if you know which producers whose wines are safe to buy, rather than dump down the drain, then you won’t have a problem and will greatly enjoy your time here.
Bar du Marché (8 Rue des Halles, +33 5 59234896)
First opened in 1938, right next to the covered market, I quite liked my time here, so much so that I ended up coming a couple of times during my one week stay in the city. Pinchos, shishito peppers, garlicky mussels, calamari, foie gras, Basque sheep’s cheese, steak and frites and all the usual local fare have the lion’s share on the menu and those are in fact the dishes you should be targeting too. Wines are simple but well chosen., and service is harried but friendly.
Bar Jean (5 Rue des Halles, +33 5 59 24 80 38)
Right opposite the Halles du Marché in one of the narrow alleyways that run alongside the long building that houses the city’s covered market, Bar jean is one of the oldest and most typical wine bars in Biarritz. Usually packed with both tourists and trendy locals sitting at small cramped tables covered with dishes, the traditional Basque dishes and pinchos (tapas) are fairly priced and copious in size if not always the most flavourful in town. But the food is mostly delicious and well-cooked, and sipping on an aperitif here prior to going for dinner is a real Biarritz institution. The wine list is also quite good, one of the better ones in town.
Haragia (26 Rue Gambetta, +33 5 35466892)
Haragia in basque language means “meat”, and so it cannot surprise that here both delightful pinchos and grilled meats (beef, pork, lamb or duck) share the spotlight, accompanied by the always present fries and salads. Naem the beef, name the cut, and chances are you will find it here: filet de boeuf, cassoulet, grilled sausages (chorizo), cotelette de veau, and travers de porc will all have you grinning from ear to ear.
Les Contrebandiers boasts a usually packed outside space, a quite compact wine selection, service that is very friendly and rather quick given how busy the place is, prices that are affordable, and a cozy, casual ambience that will have you not wanting to leave anytime soon. Pintxos, Basque hams, grilled sausages of various kinds, piquillos, and roast chicken are all winners here.
Les Halles de Biarritz
A very stylish covered market that became my home for breakfast, lunch and dinner on more than one occasion during my week-long stay in Biarritz, Marché aux Halles de Biarritz was built in 1885 and it really is a grand construction. It is also full of stalls serving high-quality ingredients for your cooking pleasure, and many will cook some of them right there and then for you to consume at the counter. Fruits, vegetables, baked goods, fresh fish and meats, cheeses, hams, and more are just waiting for you. I personally liked to sit at the counter of ine stall that had excellent raw fish and mussels that they’d cook right there and then, plus a couple of good Champagnes and Chablis that were just delicious with the simply cooked but very fresh food (fresh oysters for 6 euros).
Puig&Daro (34 Rue Gambetta, +33 5 59233045)
Rather snug but stylish, Puig & Daro has above quality food and wine, indeed it may well be the best or second best such address in the city. Brandade de morue, marinated anchovies and some xistora (fast-cured sausage) are all top-notch. I found the food generally a touch more rustic but also more flavourful than at similar wine bars the Halles area is peppered with, so if you’re the type that likes bolder dishes this is the place for you. Certainly the wine choices are very fine.