Don your best Breton shirt and adopt an air of detached nonchalance because we’re going Gallic with Sydney’s best French restaurants.
Macleay St Bistro
Situated at the “Paris end” of Macleay Street (i.e. the furthest away from Porky’s), this small neighbourhood bistro has withstood the vagaries of the area for more than 30 years. In the face of culinary arrivistes, this grande dame has persisted with tradition, eschewing nouvelle cuisine in favour of bistro classics. You’ll find locals (and sometimes their pooches) seated at their favourite outside tables every night of the week. The menu comprises Australian produce in classic French compositions, such as Sydney rock oysters with eschallot mignonette, organic grass-fed eye-fillet steak tartare and Tasmanian salmon with beurre blanc. The list of weekly specials appears on a blackboard and may include duck confit, steak diane and French onion soup. The dessert menu also sticks to what the French know best: chocolate fondant, crème brûlée and profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce. On weekends there’s brunch (think croque monsieur and mushroom and gruyere omelette) and, in other good news, Macleay St Bistro is BYO.
73a Macleay Street, Potts Point; (02) 9358 4891
If there’s one thing Australia and France can agree on, it’s that steak and potato is a meal fit for a king. In Australia, you can find a very decent steak and chips at your local pub; in France, it’s the slightly more sophisticated steak frites at the neighbourhood bistro. At Felix, another pitch-perfect Merivale creation, chef Nathan Johnson presides over a kitchen that makes a high art of the dish, serving a 250-gram Jack’s Creek sirloin with red wine jus and snail butter. To kick things off, there’s an impressive seafood station brimming with oysters, Balmain bugs and prawns, as well as house-made charcuterie. If you choose to sidestep the steak, there’s roasted duck breast with madeira jus and a fragrant rotisserie spatchcock. For dessert, talk a companion into the tarte Tatin for two, served with calvados crème fraîche and cinnamon ice-cream. The dining room, complete with chandeliers, bentwood chairs and a pewter bar, is a piece of Belle Époque-inspired elegance. Oh, and the champagne list? It makes for inspiring reading.
2 Ash Street, Sydney; (02) 9240 3000
This diner recently joined Macleay St Bistro in representing Gallic flavours in Potts Point. The locals approve so you’ll have to get in early if you want a table (there’s no bookings for groups of less than six). If you’re with a larger party, take up one of the semi-circular wood-and-leather booths and survey the room: white marker on the mirrors announces the day’s specials in a space that abounds with copper and capable waitstaff in snazzy navy aprons. Chef Jo Ward, former owner of Bloodwood in Newtown, has created a compact menu of people-pleasers such as spanner-crab omelette, chicken-liver parfait and braised lamb shoulder that falls apart with only the slightest provocation. A one-kilogram “T-Rex” steak frites with black-pepper jus is the perfect choice for a large table of carnivores after some civilised nibbling at entrées of oysters, pissaladière and smoked-cod croquettes. Ward’s co-owners/colleagues, including industry vets Baci Moore (ex-Spice Temple) and Josh Dunne (ex-China Doll), take care of the rest: the welcome is warm, the wine list is 300 deep and the ambience is spot-on.
Shop 1, 50-58 Macleay Street, Potts Point; (02) 9332 2100
Occupying a large portion of the ground floor of the Suncorp Place office tower, Bistro Guillaume does a brisk trade from the morning onwards. A pâtisserie counter turns out croissants and lunchtime baguettes for office workers to tote back to their desks, while corner-office execs sit at the banquettes, making deals over côte de boeuf. Service continues right through to dinnertime.
Australia may have taken Guillaume Brahimi to our collective bosom but the chef remains resolutely Parisian in his approach here – think onion soup, terrine, escargot and moules marinière served with chips. The steak tartare is perfectly fresh, served with house-made potato crisps and some well-dressed leaves. The twice-baked cheese soufflé comes, handily, in three sizes, which is just as well because the light-as-air mound, redolent of roquefort, demands everyone has a taste. Any bistro worth its salt has to perform in the frites department and Guillaume’s are pleasingly golden and crunchy. And just when you think satiety has been reached, the dessert trolley makes its rounds. A sweet tooth’s fondest sight, on any given day there could be mille-feuille, Valrhona chocolate mousse, Paris-Brest and crème brûlée.
259 George Street, Sydney; (02) 8622 9555
Leading the charge on Chippendale’s revitalised Kensington Street is Bistrot Gavroche, a French eatery at the bottom of a 19th-century rum warehouse, now known as The Old Rum Store. Banquettes, an elegant carved wooden bar and bentwood chairs make it easy to feel as if you’re on a Parisian sojourn, an effect bolstered by the all-classics menu. Expect old-school French fare such as sole meunière, Niçoise salad, duck confit and tarte fine (the single vegetarian option). Linger over the cheese platter – the French find the habit of beginning meals with cheese indefensible – or go all-out with the dramatic flambéed crêpes Suzette to finish. On weekends, the dining room buzzes with a brunch sitting and a menu that does many things with eggs (poached, boiled, with hollandaise, in an omelette, baked in a quiche and fried in a croque madame) and, most importantly, includes a bottomless glass of sparkling rosé.
1/2-10 Kensington Street, Chippendale; (02) 9281 6668
Back in 2000, two Frenchmen hard at work in a London restaurant concocted a plan: to open their own eatery in Sydney. Cut to a decade later and Ludovic Geyer and Xavier Hiltorel have achieved their long-held dream – and Sydney has got a fine French bistro in the CBD. Bottles of pastis, framed images of Josephine Baker, flickering candlelight and traditional aperitifs set the mood in Bistro Papillon’s cosy dining room, presided over by Xav. In the kitchen, Ludo turns out satisfying traditional French dishes such as rabbit and walnut terrine with grilled baguette, boeuf bourguignon and white-bean cassoulet with confit duck, which are promptly whisked to the table by French-accented waitstaff. There’s also a regular raclette night, the cheesy main event preceded by escargot, tarte flambée and salad niçoise.
98 Clarence Street, Sydney; (02) 9262 2402
There’s a reason so many of Sydney’s French restaurants adhere to the bistro style rather than nouvelle cuisine or Michelin-style fine dining: the food is consistent, reliable and delicious. Woollahra’s Bistro Moncur (there’s another Moncur in Mosman) has earned institution status on the city’s dining scene for abiding by its bistro roots (as established by founding chef Damien Pignolet and carried on by Daniel Menzies). That’s exactly what’s required by well-to-do Woollahra locals: they like their spanner-crab omelettes swimming in silky beurre noisette, their steak tartare hand cut and their crème brûléed. As for the wine list, it’s possible to drop the price of a small, rundown car on a bottle of Grange, though it’s equally acceptable to spend $65 on a very quaffable Thick as Thieves Pinot/Gamay from the Yarra Valley.
116 Queen Street, Woollahra; (02) 9327 9713
Spiral down two floors into postwar France and discover a restaurant Sydney has long yearned for. A raucous bar to the right. To the left, a dining room housing a baby grand piano, slow-spinning ceiling fans, mismatched period art and wine bottles placed on shelves during the build to gather dust as if they’ve been there forever. This is the fairground of gun chef Dan Pepperell, who’s giving French bistro classics a punch. Nardin anchovies and cultured butter ride toasted sourdough, while blushing flank steak gets a slap of Bordelaise butter. Hubert captures the heart of hospitality and the very purpose of restaurants. Très bon. –Anthony Huckstep
15 Bligh Street, Sydney; (02) 9232 0881
Few things in life are more pleasing than a reliable local. This honest French restaurant is housed on the site of what was arguably Australia’s most influential French restaurant for more than 30 years, Claude’s. In a nod to the past, they’ve kept part of the name but none of the baggage of expectation. This is no temple of fine dining. Yellow cushions dot grey banquettes opposite Scandi bistro chairs in what is essentially a solid drop-in bistro. Sea-urchin butter adds luxury to poached chicken breast; miso and egg yolk smother pretty pink strips of flank steak; and lime cream disappears into a delicate rhubarb and ginger soufflé. St Claude’s isn’t trying to reach the nose-bleeding heights of haute cuisine but it’ll do very nicely, thank you. –Anthony Huckstep
10 Oxford Street, Woollahra; (02) 9331 3222