Review by Fiona Duncan, published 24th June 2003.
Meandering through France on minor roads is one of life’s pleasures, especially if you break your journey for lunch or dinner in a charming, unpretentious restaurant along the way, preferably where the French – rather than the tourists – go.
Reality, formost of us, though, is slicing through France on the motorways in order to gain maximum time for relaxation at the other end – and, perhaps, to keep the children in order in the back of the car.Is there a compromise? A fast journey combined with one memorable, soothing break during the day? Yes, but you have to know where to go; taking pot-luck may have been safe in the past, but these days there are too many disappointing restaurants in France to run the risk.
These 14 addresses, none more than 20 minutes from the nearest autoroute exit, many much closer, are all worth the detour. They are dotted along three of the motorways most used by us en route to holiday destinations in France. All are either in the countryside, or in villages or towns with easy access, and combine a delightful setting or ambience with interesting food. They are good value for money, and mostly inexpensive.To avoid disappointment, book ahead. Remember that opening hours (usually between noon and 2pm for lunch) are strictly adhered to, so plan your journey accordingly. Prices are per person without wine. The dialling code for France is 0033.
North-East Channel Ports to Brittany
La Bonne Pâte
Three reasons for visiting this restaurant in the attractive village of Rue: exceptional food, very fair prices, and a warm welcome. Dishes are mostly Italian: try the wonderful misto di pasta, made with tasty,market-fresh ingredients and firm, perfectly cooked pasta; and to follow, a classic Italian pudding. At £4-£4.50 for a main course, you are unlikely to find another restaurant locally that offers such value. Better still, owners Pascal and Maryse want you to feel as if you are eating in their home. Rue des Frières, Caudron, Rue (03 2225 6516). Closed Mon. From £13.50. A16 exit 24 (Rue- Nouvion) four miles.
L’Auberge de la Varenne
Eight years ago Pierre Davoine and Frédéric François opened this successful restaurant in an enchanting village near Bosc-sur-Buchy. In an old inn with exposed beams and wood panelling, it is cheerfully decorated in yellow and blue. The three perfectly pitched set menus and the à la carte show that the proprietors know exactly what their customers want – excellently cooked and presented, reasonably priced regional dishes. Perennial favourites include feuilleté Normand sur salade, foie gras de canard en terrine au vin doux and magret de canard au cidre. 2 route de la Libération, Saint-Martin-Osmonville, Seine-Maritime (02 3595 0813). Closed Sun evening, Mon, late Dec to early Jan. From £20. E44 exit 10 (Forges-les-Eaux) four miles.
Hôtel du Château
On the shores of Lac Tranquille, at the foot of the 15th-century fortress that was the childhood home of the writer Chateaubriand, this hotel and restaurant has views over châteaux, gardens and lake. Christian, chef and host, prepares dishes that combine specialities from sea and land: lobsters from the restaurant\'s own tank, "genuine" Chateaubriand steaks, and home-baked bread. 1 place Chateaubriand, Combourg, Ile-et-Vilaine (02 9973 0038). Closed: Sun for dinner except Jul, Aug; Mon lunch, Mon dinner Oct-Apr; mid-Dec to mid-Jan. From £11.50. N176-E401 exit at Dol-de-Bretagne is about 10 miles.
Channel Ports to the South-West
Ambassade de la République de Montmartre
Gerberoy is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France and the Ambassade, at the foot of its ramparts, one of its loveliest buildings. You get a genuine welcome from Jean-Pierre His; his wife Daniele, the talented chef, prefers to stay in her kitchen. She uses local ingredients, and makes almost everything herself. Choice is limited, but the two set menus provide excellent balance and quality at a fair price. Marbré de foie gras de canard aux pommes et au Loupiac, l'aumonière de l'ambassadeur, foie gras poêlé et Saint-Jacques and filet mignon de porc are her signature dishes. There is a charming terrace and a view of the forest of Caumont. 2 allée du Jeu du Tamis, Gerberoy, Oise (03 4482 1650). Closed Sun evening, Mon, Tue evening. From £11.50. A16 exit 15 (Beauvais-Nord) about 12.5 miles.
Le Rivage Position and food make this ordinary-looking hotel worth a detour. It's in a peaceful spot on the bank of the Loiret, with a shady riverside terrace. The cooking of chatty, friendly chef-patron Jean-Pierre Bereaud is regionally based and uses local produce. Try pan-fried lamb's sweetbreads with warm vegetables served with carrot and orange jus. Continue, perhaps, with striped mullet in layered cabbage with bone marrow served with Tarbes beans; finish with a selection of iced red fruit. 635 rue de la Reine-Blanche, Olivet, Loire (02 3866 0293). Closed Sat lunch; Christmas to mid-Jan. From £18. A71-E19 exit 2 (Olivet) four miles.
Les Tilleuls Outside, it's a bland modern building beside the Cher on the road to the stunning Abbaye de Noiriac. Inside, there's a warm welcome, and the other (serious) diners are reassurance that this is a place that offers local cooking of a high standard. The menu changes seasonally; specialities include guinea fowl with foie gras and Berry lentils, grain-fed pigeon and beef tournedos with Menetou Salon red-wine sauce. Bruère Allichamps, Cher (02 4861 0275). Closed Mon and other times - check when booking. From £13.50. A71-E11 exit 8 (St-Amand) nine miles.
Auberge St Roch This is everyone's dream of what a country village auberge should be. Opposite the church on the village square, what might otherwise be called a local café and bar extends through three small dining rooms where the Mouliniers serve food that is considerably better than average country fare. The three menus, all inexpensive, would not be out of place in a much smarter restaurant. Typical offerings are a fan of trout with chanterelle mushrooms; Limousin beef in a creamy cep sauce; and roast pigeon on a nest of mushrooms. After leaving the motorway and taking the next left, watch for a right turn at the crux of a well-marked 90-degree left bend. The Saint Ybard sign is almost overgrown in the hedge. Saint Ybard, Uzerche (05 5573 0971). Closed Sun evening, Mon; Christmas. From £8. A20 exit 44 (Lubersac) three miles.
La Terrasse Set in an 11th-century château on a low rise overlooking the Dordogne, the making of this restaurant is its vine-shaded terrace. In cooler weather, the main dining room is pleasant, too, and in quiet periods food is also served in another intimate, stone-vaulted room. You will be treated to beautifully presented regional food: melt-in-the-mouth foie gras, lamb raised on Quercy's uplands, earthy truffles, and cabecou, the smoky-sweet goats' cheese from nearby Rocamadour. Interesting fish dishes - try fillet of sea bass roasted on a bed of fennel - and daily-changing desserts. Meyronne, Lot (05 6532 2160). Closed late Nov to Mar. From £16. A20 exit 55 (Souillac) four miles.
Le Gindreau Le Gindreau, in a former village school, isn't the sort of place you stumble across, but it's worth going out of your way for this superb restaurant which, over nearly 30 years, Alexis and Martine Pelissou have developed into one of the best in the region. Prices remain surprisingly affordable. M Pelissou anchors his food in tradition, while creating fresh, light dishes. The desserts are almost a shame to eat. You sit either in the high-ceilinged "classrooms" or on the terrace. Saint-Médard, Lot (05 6536 2227). Closed Mon, Tue lunch, Tue dinner Sep-July; first two weeks Mar, mid-Oct to mid-Nov. From £16.50. A2 exit 57 (Cahors Nord) 12.5 miles.
Channel Ports to Provence
La Côte 108 Serge Courville is something of a celebrity chef in Picardie, and this is his Michelin-starred restaurant. In stylish surroundings, he changes his imaginative menus seasonally, mixing classic dishes with innovative, contemporary ones: lively, appealing food. Try his millefeuille de tourteau au Parmesan, langoustines rôties au beurre d'agrume, carré d'agneau rôti aux épices douces and crème brûlée a la bergamote. There's a sommelier, and a serious wine list. Berry-au-Bac, Aisne (03 2379 9504). Closed Sun evening, Mon, Tue evening; mid- to late July, late Dec to mid-Jan. From £18.50. A26-E17 exit 14 (Guignicourt) 2.5 miles.
The charm of Langres, a fortress city that has changed little since the Enlightenment philosopher Diderot grew up here in the 18th century, is all the more appealing if you also try the creative cooking of chef Patrick Durdan at this restaurant, part of a small hotel, Le Cheval Blanc. Dishes on the seasonally changing menu include the foie gras poêle au miel d'épices, the noix de Saint-Jacques à la vinaigrette de pommes vertes and a ragoût de morilles à l'oeuf cassé. For dessert, try the imaginative soupe chaude des fruits rouges en vapeur de violette. 4 rue l'Estres-F, Langres, Haute-Marne (03 2587 0700). Closed Tue, Wed lunch; Sep to Jul; last two weeks Nov. From £16. A31 exit 6 (Langres-Gray) nine miles.
Le Petit Paradis Anne and Jean-Marie make this restaurant the best in Beaune. Great food, great ambience (intimate, no frills) and a couple who are living for their work. When I asked why they didn't expand the operation (there are only about 30 places), they said "We're just fine as we are - we don't want to spoil the experience." This gem is down a backstreet just behind the main pedestrian zone. Charm, and value for money. Reservations essential. 25 rue du Paradis, Beaune, Côte-d'Or (03 8024 9100). Closed Mon, Tue; mid-Nov to mid-Dec, two weeks Mar, one week Aug. From £10. A6-E15-E21 exit 24.1 (Beaune) two miles.
Le Cep "I have decided to devote my cooking entirely to the cuisine de terroir," says Chantal Chagny, who cites the 18th-century gourmand Brillat-Savarin as her inspiration. "I would only want to serve langoustines if I lived by the sea." She has dropped a Michelin star since her change of direction, retaining just the one plus a well-deserved Bib Gourmand good value symbol. But her food is as memorable as ever, including a remarkable coq au vin, which takes around 100 pints of wine and several days to prepare, with all the ingredients separately cooked in goose fat. The hand-written menus are a useful introduction to the cuisine of the region. Place de l'Eglise, Fleurie (04 7404 1077). Closed Mon; Sun dinner, Tue lunch; mid-Dec to mid-Jan, one week Feb, one week Aug. From £13.50. A6-E15 exit 29 (Macon-Sud) or exit 30 (Belleville); about 11 miles from both.
La Treille Muscate This charming ivy-covered inn in a village perché is infused with the spirit of Provence, from its sunny ochre walls and cheerful Provençal fabrics to the deliciously simple regional food. Inside, floors are tiled, furnishings are wrought-iron, and dried flowers add a touch of colour. Outside, there is a glorious shaded terrace with expansive views of the Rhône valley. The chef specialises in "home-made", seasonal cooking, featuring the same dishes on his set menus and à la carte, such as tarte fine au thon et fenouil confit, joues de cochon au citron et au gingembre and aumonière d'agneau confit au picodon. Cliousclat, Drôme (04 7563 1310). Closed Wed; mid-Dec to Mar. From £16.50. A7-E15 exit 16 (Loviol) or exit 17 (Montélimar Nord); about four miles from both.