Ezechiel Zerah

Described by some tourists as the new Barcelona, Marseille is a city leading a double life. Like many European hubs, Marseille is home to hip eateries, bars and concepts, yet the seaside city is also home to a vibrant urban culture heavily influenced by North Africa. Food writer Ezechiel Zerah understands both schools of thinking: part of a Jewish North African family, Zerah was born and raised in Marseille and is the editor-in-chief of magazine Z by Zencheff and founder of Pomelo Media. He dissects his hometown’s food scene and makes a compelling argument why Marseille being the city you should be looking to visit in France right now.

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An Erratic City with An Erratic Food Scene

Compared to Bordeaux or Lyon, Marseille’s food scene may have been late in catching on, but if you take Paris out of the equation, it is the French city that’s booming the most and in every category of dining. The one thing common to all of these categories is that things are, in true Marseille style, erratic. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. Contrary to Paris, the scene here is not composed in any way. Things can derail because business owners tend to seek out things that are much riskier. They’re not scared of being compartmentalised and are therefore freer to do as they please. Sometimes they lack a bit of marketing knowledge or structure, but that’s what makes the food scene here beautiful. 

The North African City in the South of France

Marseille is like a Little Tunis or a Little Algiers. We have a huge North African community that’s been here for a very long time. Though the only couscous I’m interested in is the one at my grandmother’s house, I tried this great spot called Chez Yassine in Rue D’Aubagne: a once-poor downtown neighbourhood that is now turning extremely hipster. The restaurant has always been there and does very tasty, very humble Tunisian cuisine that’s not pricey at all. It has a chickpeas dish called leblebi that’s so Marseille. They give you a bowl with half a baguette and you’re meant to tear apart the bread, put it in the bowl which they then take back to the kitchen. You don’t understand why they brought it to you in the first place: that’s what I mean when I say “erratic”. When you get the bowl back, it’s been filled with a thick broth of chickpeas, topped with tuna fish, harissa (Tunisian hot chilli paste) and eggs. You also get more bread to scoop up the sauce with.

A Restaurant That Embodies Marseille’s New Food Vibe 

AM par Alexandre Mazzia is the second restaurant in Marseille to earn three Michelin stars. It earned them rather swiftly: in six years, I believe. The restaurant is very small and located in a chic, residential neighbourhood where tourists don’t go. Alexandre Mazzia grew up in Africa so he’s got a lot of African heritage in his cuisine. His cooking resembles nothing I’ve seen before. It’s very colourful, very vegetarian and derailed. I remember a pain perdu dessert that had meat juice in it. All the bread is baked in-house and he makes a black, charcoal bread with its own butter pairing. Multitudes of dishes come rolling out and there’s a lot of information to take in. You can eat at the counter which is great because it’s incredibly fascinating to watch this guy in the kitchen. He gets almost physically absorbed. He incarnates that entire new food vibe of Marseille, even though fine-dining is not central to the city. The restaurant offers a Champagne pairing with bottles from small producers rather than the large Champagne houses. Outside of an apéro, it’s the first dining experience that made me look at Champagne as a perfect pairing for an entire meal. It’s not mentioned on the restaurant’s website but there is a €60 lunch menu which is a bargain considering you can end up eating 25 courses. 

“One of Those Places You Want To Make Your Daily Canteen” 

There is a bistro called Limmat that’s so small you can hardly spot it through the stairs that lead up to it. The young duo that run it isn’t from Marseille which is interesting to point out: a big part of the boom in the city’s food scene is tied to people that aren’t from here. Limmat serves simple plates: think moules et frites (mussels and fries) but the 2022 version. The fries are perfection and everything is done in an extremely refined and precise way. The sauce that the mussels are prepared in is complex in flavour. It’s one of those places that you want to make your daily canteen, especially since it’s not expensive: a meal at lunch is between €15 and €20. Everything there is so well-executed. 

Cool-Hunting in Marseille

I’m not a huge wine bar customer. Food is my main concern and so I’m more likely to explore wines in a restaurant setting. La Mercerie is considered to be one of the coolest restaurants in Marseille, and some of its former staff opened a more affordable spin off called Livingstone with a menu that’s all to share. There is an energy in these places that you can feel. At Livingstone, you’re dining so close to the streets that the cars are nearly touching you. It’s a cave a manger that only offers orange wines alongside very simple plates like courgettes with fresh ricotta and breaded and fried pork legs which isn’t something we’re used to seeing in Marseille. Although Livingstone takes risks, it does everything so well that it’s not unsettling in any way. The same guys are going to open a bakery and sandwich shop soon. 

A Classic Marseille Pastry

Marseille is a neglected underdog when it comes to pastry because Paris takes all the glory. However, you can find great sweet treats in Marseille. There’s a pastry I really love called le castel and is not famous among tourists. It’s a cake with a praline base that’s very rich and very Marseille. Whether it first originated in Algeria or in the French countryside is debated, but it’s very much a thing you would find in all the patisseries in Marseille, only around autumn or winter because it’s heavy. If it’s not made well, it’s truly inedible. Patisserie Sylvain Deppichaffray makes it extremely well and it’s the only place I’ll have it. Chef patissier Sylvain Deppichaffray formerly worked at Pierre Hermé and you can find Herme’s famous Ispahan (rose macaron with raspberries and lychee) in this patisserie as well. 

A City That Smells of Bread

Marseille is the one place that smells of bread in every corner of the city. The North African community contributes to this scent with its rustic, Maghreb-style flatbreads that I love dearly. The smell literally fills the air and the streets. You really can’t miss it, especially in the neighbourhood of Noailles in the centre. When you’re there, ask anyone where you can find a boulangerie Tunisienne (Tunisian bakery). 

The Finest Modern Bakeries

Maison Saint-Honoré is the most famous sourdough bakery in Marseille and now has three shops. It invented the bloomer which is somewhere between bread and brioche. It’s not as hard as bread but not as soft as brioche; is really small and is 80 cents each. It comes in different flavours including chocolate, praline and pistachio and you can have it for breakfast or as a sweet treat. It’s not very famous for some reason but I really recommend it. Pain Pan is also very good because it only focuses on bread and viennoiserie. It makes great focaccia by the slice. 

An Introduction to Marseille Street Food

Although France isn’t much of a street food country, Marseille is really big on street food. People here love to eat walking or standing up: another thing that’s special about this city. It’s important to visit L’Estaque, a very poor neighbourhood that makes up the history of Marseille and has a permanent park of food trucks with no wheels. There you can also eat one of the most Marseille things: : a panisse, beignets (doughnuts) of chickpeas that you eat warm with a pastis, for just €3.

How the Marseillais Do Pizza

In Paris, you can find everything from Chicago-style deep dish to Roman and Neapolitan pizza, making it the undisputed pizza capital of France. But Marseille has always been the country’s historic pizza city. For one, we invented the concept of le camion pizza (pizza truck). There are 52 of them around Marseille and none in Paris. More importantly, Marseille is somewhere you can still find affordable pizza. A giant square piece that’s enough for lunch is just €2. It’s almost as fat as a loaf of bread and covered with cheese and tomato sauce. This style of pizza was born in the 60s when an entire workforce moved from Naples to Marseille and brought its traditions with it. I live in a low-income neighbourhood and I love that I can still get my hands on these thick, traditional, Marseille-style pizzas in all the bakeries in the old town. When I was a student, they made the same one but in a round shape that they would top with fries and sauce blanche (Béchamel), then wrap into a fat doner-like sandwich: all for €2. 

My Go-To Pizza Truck

I don’t like the thin pizza they sell from trucks. There’s a guy called Gerald who was a  former cook at three-Michelin starred restaurant Le Petit Nice and now has a pizza truck called Chez Gé on Boulevard de la Blancarde, facing Pharmacie Hubert Germain. His pizza is not gastronomic at all. It’s the classic one that’s super thick and cheap – two bites and you’re out. If you manage to pin him down for a few minutes, the guy has got a million stories to tell.

Learn To Make Pizza From a Two-Time World Champion (Plus the Only Other Way to Taste His Pizza) 

John Bergh is a two-time World Pizza Champion from Marseille. He was trained by a Neapolitan guy and has a pizza truck just outside Marseille in Meyrargues: a 4000-person village next to Aix en Provence (you can email him to find out where he is). He opened a pizzeria that was awarded by Le Fooding, but he didn’t want to run it that way anymore, so he started a pizza school that’s now very famous in the industry. Every Michelin-starred restaurant that wants to introduce pizza in its kitchen sends its staff to do a John Bergh Formation at this pizza school. It’s €3000 for a week of training in this very small shop. There’s a pizza championship in France and every year the winner turns out to be one of his apprentices. John Bergh only makes sourdough pizza and keeps his starter in the basement. It’s so crusty that you can carry the entire pizza on three of your fingers and it won’t fall. He uses very good ingredients as toppings too of course. What’s funny is that you cannot buy his pizza because the place is only run as a school now, except at the end of the day, he gives out the pizza they made to people from the village. It’s really worth standing outside to get it because the pizza is out of this world. I can’t enjoy pizza dough in Marseille anymore because of him. 

Jewish-Tunisian Pastries in Marseille

My favourite address in Marseille is Maison Journo which is a little Jewish-Tunisian pastry shop that makes dishes you normally only find in family homes. It makes this Tunisian stew which is made with jute mallow that’s cooked for a long time with meat. It’s a dish that’s common in Egypt and other Arabic speaking countries (called mouloukhia) and you have it with bread. It also makes orgeat with almonds which is like horchata concentrate, plus a sweet homemade citronade that’s served at breakfast with some boulou that you dip into it. Boulou is like Jewish biscotti that grandmothers typically cut into different shapes. 

Jewish-Tunisian Pastries in Marseille (Part Two)

There’s a Jewish-Tunisian bakery that does challah and the town’s best fricassé: a fried bread typically filled with tuna, eggs, olives and potatoes. The name of the bakery is Maison Zemour which has nothing to do with French journalist Zemmour that ran in the presidential elections and is our version of Trump.  

A Fishing Port Serving the Best Seafood Dishes

The best seafood dishes you can try aren’t next to the sea, but in Les Goudes which is one of Marseille’s 111 villages. Les Goudes is a fisherman’s port that’s about 45 minutes from the centre. There’s a brasserie there called L’Auberge du Corsaire but everyone calls it Chez Paul. It’s kind of difficult to find a parking spot there, but once you make it, it’s really another world. Everything it serves is very good and very generous. If you order an entree, a main and a dessert it’s already too much food. If you want to spend a lovely evening away from all the troubles of the world, you should order a bottle of Corsican rosé along with some fried fish and a clam pasta with tomato sauce which is the restaurant’s secret sauce. It’ll cost around €50, wine included. 

A Seafood Restaurant (And Pastis Ad Backdrop) in the Centre of Marseille

La Boîte à Sardine is a great spot in the centre of Marseille. It’s kind of like a bar but is actually a restaurant. The interior of the place is very “Marseille-kitsch”, and, again, all over the place. The national campaign of Ricard pastis was shot there. The place is run by a woman and a man. The woman is the cook and the man is this groggy fisherman who gets the freshest products. They serve great oysters from Marseille and the surrounding area and sardine beignets. Because it’s seafood, it’s not cheap but it’s not expensive, either. 

A Japanese Fine Diner Celebrating Local Fish

There are probably two or three restaurants in Marseille owned by Japanese people. One of them is Tabi and does fine-dining sushi using local fish. It’s very luxurious. I think the chef Uemura spent one million Euros on the restaurant which is very expensive, especially for Marseille. You can also sit on the counter which is nice. Uemura used to catch his own fish in the past and used the Japanese technique called ikejime which doesn’t stress the fish. 

A Grocery With its Own Kitchen Serving Polished Sandwiches

Caterine is a specialty grocery with a kitchen that offers the option to dine-in or to-go.  It does gourmet sandwiches that aren’t luxurious, so nothing like truffles and bla bla bla. It has a fish kebab made from octopus meat that’s wow, and these delicious fermented potato balls.

Dairy Shops That Make Their Own Cheese

Dairy shops making their own cheese are trending all over France. It’s also something that’s booming in Marseille and some also make and sell fresh yoghurt and matured goat cheese. I love a spot called La Laiterie Marseillaise. You can watch the two women that run it make the cheese in front of you. It doesn’t get more local than that. 

How To Track Marseille’s Food Scene on Instagram

There are two Instagram accounts that are very active as far as Marseille’s food scene goes. One is Marseille en Bouche which is how I discovered Caterine and other places. The other one is Agathe What You Need which is run by photographer and journalist Agathe Hernandez, who is the Marseille correspondent for Le Fooding. 

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