Steak frites and créme caramel? Trés bon. Diners are hooked (again) on bistro classics. We've rounded up the best French restaurants in Australia.
When Melbourne chef Scott Pickett was imagining what his new Collingwood restaurant, Smith St Bistrot, would look like, he travelled back in time to 1920s Paris. “It was a romantic period, a bit sexy and very lavish,” says the chef. “Sourcing the antique silverware and décor was such a great experience. We had everyone involved, even my mum.”
It may be a century on from the Montmartre of the Roaring Twenties but Parisian-style bistros, with their chic interiors and classic menus, are back in fashion. Smith St Bistrot joins the likes of Melbourne’s Bar Margaux, Bistro Gitan and Bon Ap’ in the French stakes, while in Sydney, it’s almost impossible to get a last-minute table at Restaurant Hubert or Bistrot 916. Meanwhile, Brisbane classic Montrachet has found new life in Bowen Hills and in Perth, Guillaume Brahimi’s Bistro Guillaume is an ever-popular crowd-pleaser.
At Smith St Bistrot, the gritty streets of Melbourne’s inner city are forgotten as diners enter a space that offers brass countertops, marble tables, leather banquettes and cloudy mirrors. There’s even a wrought-iron balcony shadowing the dining room. And the menu? Escargot vol-au-vents, filet de steak au poivre and, yes, crème caramel. “French food has always been a cuisine I enjoy,” says Pickett, who runs the Scott Pickett Group and oversees seven restaurants including Chancery Lane, Matilda and Audrey’s at the new Continental Sorrento. “It’s romantic food that can either be very simple or painstaking to master. But that’s the beauty of it.”
In Sydney’s Paddington, chefs Nicholas Hill and Harry Levy, with Matt Fitzgerald, opened Porcine in 2021, creating a “French restaurant above a bottle shop”, as they put it. Nestled in a first-floor space above natural wine shop P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants, Porcine follows the Gallic tradition of offering excellent dining that’s a flavourful alternative to higher-priced brasseries. Call it French comfort food.
Hill says the Australian bistro trend follows a pattern established in Europe over the past 10 years, as young chefs sought out small or inexpensive locations to launch their own venues. “I noticed a few years ago that the younger generation of chefs were doing bistros again in Paris and London,” he says. “Rents aren’t cheap and big fit-outs are expensive. Doing this is a way for us to have some freedom and also serve the food we love.”
Porcine may be named after the French word for pig but Hill says his menu also explores the lighter aspects of the cuisine to satisfy Australian palettes. “We like looking back to the ’70s and ’80s in France, when dishes became a lot lighter.”
For Pickett, the beauty of the bistro lies in its sense of discovery. “Guests are looking for an all-around experience now, something a bit out of the ordinary,” he says. “It’s got to be about the food and drinks but adding a touch of another place and time certainly elevates the experience. I think we all don’t mind being out of Melbourne for an hour or two after the past few years.”
A shining star in Sydney’s burgeoning bistro movement, Bistrot 916 in Potts Point is run by a trio of big names in ex-Hubert head chef Dan Pepperell, sommelier Andy Tyson and chef Michael Clift (who just so happens to be Neil Perry’s son-in-law). Take a seat at a table on the footpath or inside the moody dining room and order like you’re on the Rue de Rivoli from a menu on which all the classics – chicken liver parfait, duck or steak frites, scallop quenelle, oeufs mayonnaise – are represented. A sibling venue, Pellegrino 2000, opened in February in nearby Surry Hills, adding an Italian accent to the bistro theme.
Smith St Bistrot
Chef Scott Pickett faced a challenge after closing his Collingwood restaurant, Saint Crispin, in 2019. A transformation into an Italian venue, Lupo, didn’t last so Pickett decided to create something exceptional at the site. The result is the magnificently realised Smith St Bistrot, which offers French classics with some wiggle room for mod-Oz flourishes. Choose yellowfin tuna tartare with quail’s egg and gaufrette (lattice-shaped potato chips), King George whiting with crayfish and cucumber or fricassée chicken with tarragon and carrot. Order a bottle of French wine (most wines are natural or organic) and linger over a dreamy crème caramel or strawberry soufflé while you admire the room.
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This Mount Lawley favourite takes the concept of the stylish Paris/ New York bistro and makes it fresh in three distinct spaces. Co-owner Liam Atkinson presents bistro standards with touches of Australian sangfroid in dishes such as “crab toast” of blue manna crab with lemon, mayo and pickled celery on brioche or Wagin duck confit, frites and sauce béarnaise. If a booking is hard to come by, a new sister venue in Highgate, Bar Rogue, with its attractive snacky menu of oysters, charcuterie and cocktails, is a handy alternative.
You might expect meat-heavy eating at a restaurant named for a pig but rest assured there is much to discover at this Paddington hotspot. The menu starts with oysters and builds through vegetable plates such as endive with plum, capers and mint. Still, pork eaters will find their spiritual home via offerings that may include truffled pork and prune pâté or the pork chop with “choux farci”, a Jurassic looking dish of meat, bone, crackling and jus. The pricing is tight, with many items under $30, so you can return without breaking the bank.
With green leather banquettes lining whitewashed brick walls, vintage French advertising posters and quaint pendant lights, this new Hyde Park outfit looks every bit a traditional bistro. Paris-born co owner Fabien Streit trained in Burgundy and brings a bank of culinary techniques to the kitchen. The menu is deeply classic – French onion soup, duck confit, salade niçoise, ratatouille and boeuf bourguignon – but nobody’s complaining when the cooking is as confident and delicious as this.
This Milsons Point eatery has a wide brief. As well as serving Gallic classics in its stylish dining room, there’s also a boulangerie and a deli, should you need a baguette or some charcuterie to take home. Chef Billy Hannigan recognises that Australians generally prefer their food less butter-rich than the French and has adjusted his technique accordingly. “Many of our dishes will be recognisable to those who enjoy traditional French bistros but my technique is a lot lighter,” he says. Try the stuffed John Dory with champagne sauce, rotisserie chicken with sauce colbert or hand-cut steak tartare.