What’s Eating at Nate’s Butter: Amusing Our Mouths Through the Emerging Montpellier Culinary Scene

There is nothing special about my taste buds. I have – I don’t know, a normal amount of them? When I’m swirling wine around my mouth to determine what hints and aromas exist, I invariably taste chocolate, strawberries, and/or butter because, well, I want to taste these foods all the time. I’m also very suggestible, because in that same scenario if someone says, “I sense a touch of saffron along with perhaps a note of elderberry,” I think to myself, “Dang, why didn’t I register that?”

Is that a hint of poppy seed or a splash of buttermilk I taste?

“So then, if your taste buds are pedestrian,” you might ask, “what special credentials do you have to write a food post?”   

Let’s start with this fact: I love food. Like, as I’m finishing lunch I’m already thinking about dinner and maybe breakfast the next day. Although I was a relatively picky child, these days I will at least try almost any type of food and will invariably like or at least appreciate it. On our most recent trip to Europe, for example, I was asked by the server filleting my fish if I’d like to try the fish’s eyes as, according to him, it’s the part of the fish with the most health benefits. I enthusiastically said “Sure!” and proceeded to eat one. It was tough, so I opted against eating the second, but I’m so glad that I at least gave it a whirl.

One of the few things I did NOT eat

Along with trying a sufficiently broad and diverse set of foods, I’ve also graced many a restaurant with my presence in both the United States and Europe, and as a result I understand the differences in approach between the two. One obvious difference is that meals in Europe – and especially in France – are much more of a dance, a celebration. This dance starts with gathering the freshest fruits and veggies at the local farmers market, moves along to planning out how to bring out the best in the ingredients derived from the local terroir, and consummates with a fabulously slow, subtle, and beautiful meal in which friends and strangers alike can bond, share stories, and laugh. Let’s just say that this is not a culture that casually picks up a McRib and eats it while driving to work. (And is the McRib still a thing?)

Just take a look at these beauties and try not to salivate

So no, I’m not qualified nor am I hoping to start a Netflix documentary called “How to Avoid Food Fails and Nate Stories” or “Anybody Please Feed Nate” or even “What’s Eating at Nate’s Butter”, but I believe my combination of experience and openness gives me at least enough insight to provide you value in the all-important question of “Where should I eat today?”, at least in our cherished Montpellier.  I promise the last imagined documentary title sounds much grosser than I intended and was simply meant to be a play on “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. Sometimes I can’t sway where the pen falls.  

Why get one stick when you can get two?

Research is Tough, But Someone Has to Do It

Our evolution as travelers over the last several years has gone something like this:

  1. Start with casting a broad net of exploration (11 countries in Europe in 2016).
  2. Decide on our favorite country and focus most of our time and energy there. (The answer: France)
  3. Find our “second home” in our favorite country so that we can build our community and slowly learn the language. (The answer: Montpellier, starting in 2019)

Despite dealing with multiple setbacks, including a worldwide pandemic, we have managed to spend around 15 months in Montpellier in the last five years. This is enough to know the city pretty darn well – and what a fantastic city it is!

Beautiful Montpellier sunset

As we are true foodies at heart (and belly), it is unsurprising that France is our country of choice. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that the food is what brought us to Montpellier initially. The primary reasons we chose this lovely city included copious amounts of sunshine, clean air (often as a result of strong winds), ease of transportation without a car, great beach access, friendly people, and fantastic medical services. Existing within France’s borders, we expected the city would have a baseline of quality food, but during our stay in 2019 we wouldn’t have classified Montpellier as a ‘foodie’ city in France as it didn’t (and doesn’t) have the pedigree of Paris (with its 100+ Michelin-starred restaurants) or the history of Lyon with its famed bouchons. But although the Montpellier culinary landscape can never reach the heights of Parisian cuisine, our experience in 2024 indicates that Montpellier has an up-and-coming, vibrant, and outstanding gourmet food scene.

How about food on the beach?

Over the past few years, we’ve done our ‘research’ so that we’re able to confidently tell you the scoop on the restaurants in Montpellier you must go to as well as a few ‘hidden gems’ in case you desperately need to know where to get a great croissant, for example. We’ve experienced numerous French food fails that have honed our French food radar, giving us an adequate understanding of the flow and timing of it all. Basically, we know when to procure our yummies, where the markets are, and which grocery stores and restaurants are open on pesky days such as Sunday and Monday.  As a result, for our 2024 Montpellier excursion we felt ready to tackle a difficult but important challenge – eating our way through Montpellier for ‘research’ – or at least that’s what I’m calling it.  

I even went to the weird chicken place. It did not make the cut.

It’s Really All About Amusing Our Mouths

Recently, Terra and I experienced a fantastic four-ish course lunch. I say four-ish because oftentimes four courses in a gourmet French restaurant turn out to be five or six courses.

Does this look like four courses to you?

My favorite (and the most standard) extra course is the ‘amuse bouche’ – a small starter course which literally translated means ‘to amuse the mouth’. Ah, how I love French.

Our mouths were absolutely amused

During this multi-course extravaganza, the servers used several different phrases as we navigated our meal. The phrases I recall are ‘Bonne degustation’ (‘Enjoy your food’), ‘Bonne continuation’ (‘Keep eating! And good luck doing so!’), and ‘Bonne terminé’ (‘Enjoy finishing this ridiculously long and unbelievably delicious meal’). Speaking of a meal’s length, it is not unusual at all to spend three hours enjoying lunch and upwards of four hours at dinner. For some reason gourmet French restaurants think that if you choose going out for dinner that you want at least seven courses, and right before bed no less.

Yes, you’ve had seven courses already. But how can you turn down this?

For the sake of this blog, I’m choosing to co-opt these phrases to help classify the restaurants, as follows:

  • Bonne Degustation – Restaurants you must experience while in Montpellier
  • Bonne Continuation – If you want to keep going after the first list, try these
  • Bonne Terminé – Before you are done with your eating adventures, try these hidden gems!

Note that on the first two lists (Bonne Degustation and Bonne continuation) I’m only including restaurants contained in the Michelin guide, and only those which are accessible via public transport or Uber from the Montpellier city center. Anything in the Bonne Termine list is considered a ‘hidden gem’ as it has not been picked up by the Michelin guide. I’ve chosen to only apply a score to restaurants that appear on the Michelin guide as they should expect a higher degree of scrutiny given their presence on such a select list. 

Peas have never looked so appetizing

Additionally, although we went through an impressive list of restaurants within the month of May, we couldn’t possibly go to ALL the restaurants. Therefore, the list is incomplete, so much so that it perhaps warrants another trip soon. To that end I’ve listed some restaurants that we still need to go to (or return to) and welcome any comments from readers regarding the quality of these restaurants.

Lastly, I’ve included some criteria to try and distinguish what each restaurant does extremely well from what they do very well. The criteria I’ve chosen include ‘story’, ‘yums’, ‘feels’, and ‘do you care that I’m here’. Here is a bit more information on each:

  • Story: Does the presentation follow a theme, or does it seem random? Is the food creative and beautiful? Is the restaurant unafraid to try something new? Are they trying to run a restaurant that is sustainable and respects the environment? Can vegetarians as well as meat eaters derive the same amount of enjoyment? Is there a reason I should be here versus any other place?
  • Yums: Is the food, you know, delicious?
  • Feels: Does the ambience and setting match the moment and align with the ‘story’? Do I lose myself in the moment and lose track of time? Do I feel like I’ve stepped through the closet into Narnia?
  • Do you care that I’m here: Admittedly I am more difficult than their average customer, as I’m a predominantly English-speaking individual trying to learn French and (when possible) preferring to operate in French. Does the staff have time for me? Are they interested in my story at all? Taking a step back, have the owners populated the restaurant with the right number of staff so that you feel taken care of without being harassed? Does the staff have the right level of experience for the vibe that the restaurant is trying to project? Does the owner or head chef greet me at any point during the meal?  

I have not included ‘price’ in the criteria because across the board Montpellier is very affordable compared to larger cities such as Paris, and (with few exceptions) the prices are all similar enough that it didn’t really factor into our feelings about each place. If you are price conscious I recommend going to these spots at lunch as they are always more affordable than the dinner menu. As I’ve mentioned lunch generally has options for fewer courses, which is a good thing for those of us with limited belly space.

Without further ado, let’s get to the rankings!

Let’s just say this restaurant scored highly on ‘Yums’

Bon Degustation – (Don’t miss these spots)

Cena

We experienced both lunch and dinner at Cena, and all that I can say is “Wow!”. The creativity of the menu was outstanding. For example, the chef plays with the concept of doing one food in multiple different ways (see, for example, the image of ‘3 Cheeses’ which went well beyond a typical cheese board by showcasing three very different ways to present cheese). The setting was fantastic, and the servers were impressively able to communicate a very complicated menu without missing a beat. The staff was able to accommodate a vegetarian member of our party without missing a beat in flavor or creativity. This restaurant does not yet have a Michelin star, but I predict they will next year. Bravo!

Story: 10/10
Yums: 10/10
Feels: 10/10
Do you care that I’m here: 10/10
Total score: 40/40

The ‘feels’ are quite good here!
Three cheeses, including one as an ice cream

Reflet d’Obione 

This amazing Michelin-star restaurant in Montpellier old town is just as good as Cena, although the setting is a bit muted by comparison (which is by design, I believe). This restaurant has the honor of being the only Michelin Green Star restaurant in all of Montpellier. The green star is awarded to restaurants that are at the forefront of sustainability. The star of the show at this fantastic spot are the vegetables, and according to the Michelin Guide the chef even offers a full vegan menu. The focus on sustainability goes beyond the locally sourced ingredients and bio wines, all the way down to fizzing their sparkling water in-house to cut down on the supply chain as much as possible. The chef came out during the meal and greeted every single party in the restaurant, which was so shocking that it took me a minute to understand what was happening. Clearly, the superpower of this place is the immense amount of thought and care that go into every aspect of the meal that ends up in front of us. Given the worldwide climate crisis, restaurants like this are leading the way in teaching us what food sustainability truly means.  This restaurant deserves every award that has and will inevitably come its way.

Story: 10/10
Yums: 10/10
Feels: 10/10
Do you care that I’m here: 10/10
Total score: 40/40

Everything about this place was “Wow!”
I wish I could adequately describe the deliciousness of this dish

Ébullition

One translation of ‘ébullition’ in English is ‘exuberance’, and there is no doubt that the owners of this cozy restaurant have a zest for their craft. Not unlike Reflect d’Obione, vegetables are the star of the show whereas meat plays more of a supporting role. Like the two restaurants above, the creativity of the cuisine was top-notch. What really stood out to me about this restaurant was the attentiveness and geniality of the staff. The staff (including one of the co-owners) had a personable approach that many restaurants tend to miss – either because the servers are too busy, or they are too self-conscious to interact in a personable way with a predominantly English-speaking crowd. This is a place you don’t want to miss.

Story: 10/10
Yums: 10/10
Feels: 9/10
Do you care that I’m here: 10/10
Total score: 39/40

Possibly the most beautiful dish of our entire trip

Mahe

Of all the restaurants on the ‘must go’ list, this is the one that we’ve been to the most, although somehow this was the first time the weather has been nice enough to sit out on their outdoor patio. Don’t let the fact that this is a bit out of the way keep you from coming. This restaurant has flair, for sure, but it’s also a model of consistency. Every dish we’ve gotten there has been stellar. Our favorite this time was a crusted lamb dish which reminded me of a favorite dish my mother-in-law makes. We will come back here each time we are in Montpellier.

Story: 9/10
Yums: 10/10
Feels: 9/10
Do you care that I’m here: 9/10
Total score: 37/40

One of the only breaded dishes we enjoyed
I may have briefly turned into an asparagus during this trip

Bon Continuation – (Keep going! And good luck!)

MaMaison

Initially we were impressed by this restaurant because we found it during a time of desperation – our first full day in Montpellier (before we could even get groceries) which also happened to be one of the biggest holidays of the year (May Day). The setting is fantastic, with lots of little nooks and crannies that offer different dining experiences. The staff is extremely helpful, and the food is quite yummy. It’s worth a visit!

Story: 8/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 10/10
Do you care that I’m here: 9/10
Total score: 36/40

Not just green but also white asparagus

Temps d’Aime

Technically this restaurant is in Latte, a suburb of Montpellier, but I included it as it’s quite easy to get to (either by Uber or on the path leading from Montpellier to the Mediterranean). From what I can tell, it’s really the only reason to visit the otherwise cheesy Port Ariane area. We’ve been there a couple of times now and both times we’ve been impressed by the quality of the food and the attentiveness/friendliness of the staff (including the owner). This is a great spot to go if you want a non-fussy experience with a consistently great menu and great wine pairings.

Story: 9/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 8/10
Do you care that I’m here: 9/10
Total score: 35/40

This dessert lasted all of about two seconds

Les Bains des Montpellier

We’ve been here possibly more than any other restaurant on this list. The setting of this place, with an inviting courtyard in the middle of an elegant building in the old town, is possibly my favorite on the entire list. The food is also consistently stellar, with the tuna (for example) that I had there being one of my favorite fish entrees of the entire month in Montpellier. This place gets marked down a bit because, in my opinion, the portions are too large. Additionally, the last time we were there the staff were running around like the place was on fire, and as a result our desserts were forgotten about for quite some time. Overall, this is well worth a visit while in Montpellier.

Story: 8/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 10/10
Do you care that I’m here: 8/10
Total score: 35/40

Did I mention that France has upgraded its mocktail game?

Jardin des Sens

This is a Michelin-star restaurant and the most expensive restaurant on the list, so it’s safe to say that we had higher expectations for this experience. The staff was friendly but seemed quite junior for such a nice place. We are clearly English speakers, but our French is typically good enough to navigate 90% of the experience in French. However, unlike most other restaurants they didn’t really know what to do with us and this led to a disjointed experience. The food was very good and quite creative, but the overall menu was more meat-heavy than any of the other restaurants on this list, leading us both to feel much heavier afterwards. This probably is getting knocked down a point or two because my expectations were so high.

Story: 9/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 9/10
Do you care that I’m here: 8/10
Total Score: 35/40

Beautiful and delicious
“I was amused,” says the mouth

Terminal #1

Oh, how we enjoyed this restaurant in previous visits! Unfortunately, (for us anyways) the magic is lost. The food is still great, but the rest of the experience is lacking. The interior décor is unique, for sure, but after visiting a few times it looks more like I’m eating in a department store that sells high-end lighting. We were there with our best French friend, and the servers seemed to only want to interact with her and avoid us. On a couple of occasions, they threw down the food and ran away without explanation, and in general the staff seemed incredibly junior. We’ve been to this spot every time since we lived in Montpellier, but I think moving forward we’ll skip it and go to other more deserving places.

Story: 8/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 8/10
Do you care that I’m here: 7/10
Total Score: 32/40

Even the disappointing experiences were beautiful

L’Arbre – Le Restaurant

My initial assessment is that you should only ‘continue’ here if you are desperate. Granted, the food tasted great, but in the up-and-coming Montpellier food scene you are going to need a lot more than that. The menu was unimaginative and, unlike all the other restaurants on the list, was basically just an a la carte list of items. The aesthetic was terrible – there were no rhyme or reason to where the tables were set, and we ended up basically sitting on top of a couple who were loudly acting like this was their first time in a nice restaurant. In our case, ‘do you care that I’m here’ gets a low score also as the server was encouraging this behavior which had no place in a nice restaurant setting. In fairness, we only visited this place once, but given the plethora of options I won’t be coming back. Well, except for the rooftop bar, which is magnificent (see below).

Story: 6/10
Yums: 9/10
Feels: 5/10
Do you care that I’m here: 5/10
Total Score: 25/40

Delicious and creamy

Bon terminé – (Don’t miss these hidden gems!)

Restaurants

Not all of the restaurants we dined at were on the Michelin Guide. I mean, how snobby do you think we are? (10/10 I’m guessing) While I’m sure there are a plethora of deserving restaurants on this list, I’d like to highlight a few that we’ve found.

Before we dive in, I must note that I was intending on including a section exclusively on Marche du Lez, but the experience of that place really deserves an entire post. For now, I’ll just say go there for lunch or dinner and try out a bunch of different spots. The vibrant energy of this place is simply unmatched in any other Montpellier experience.

Can’t you just feel the energy of this place?

Le Ban des Gourmands

This restaurant has a special place in our hearts, as it was our preferred local spot near the house we stayed at in 2019. It is located on a quintessential French square, which includes a phenomenal bakery (featured below), a pharmacy which at one time I tested negative so many times for Covid that the pharmacist told me not to come back, a cute vegetable and fruit stand, and more. And it’s truly got a neighborly vibe, as we’ve noticed both the veggie stand owner and pharmacy staff going to lunch or dinners there. Before I wax on further, let’s talk about the food for a second. It is fantastic, and everything on the menu has been consistently good. I especially love the octopus, which is as good in 2024 as it was in 2019. The guy who runs the place doesn’t look like he’s aged in five years, and despite huge gaps he remembers who we are each time we come back. Phenomenal little spot – I urge you to try it out!

The aforementioned octopus and other yummies

Le Jardin des Frangins

Out of all the restaurants on the list, this was our best find of 2024. It is a way out there (near the zoo) so you’re not going to accidentally find this restaurant. But I assure you that it is worth the Uber trip. This was one of those meals that I lost all sense of time and space. Everything was enjoyable, and the desserts were perhaps the best of the entire trip. I’m already looking forward to our next trip to Montpellier so that we can go back to this place.

Tell me this does not come from a high-end restaurant
Pain perdu, how I miss you. Favorite dessert of the trip

La Table des Biar

This one is far outside of Montpellier, but I’m including it as we are living proof that it is Uber-able. This restaurant is part of an exclusive hotel, but it somehow manages to come across as completely unpretentious. The setting is perhaps the best on the entire list; you enter through some bamboo trees and, once seated, truly feel like you are in the countryside surrounded by vineyards and forest. The food and service were fantastic, and experiencing the tastes that were slowly so closely tied to the surrounding terroir added to the experience.

If you make the effort to get this far, please, please, take a 10-minute walk through vineyards to the Chateau de Flagergues and take a tour of the chateau followed by a guided tasting of their exquisite wines. We’ve done this several times now and I can’t recommend this experience enough. 

Yes, this one includes cheese

Boulangeries

This deserves its own category, and while I can’t pretend to have visited even one-fifth of the overall boulangeries in Montpellier, I’ve spent enough time and effort in these breaded buildings of goodness to know a good one when I see them. In addition to the two mentioned below, I should note that if you want to get the best pastes in town, stop by ‘Jeannette’ at the Marche du Lez. Perhaps you can avoid the time and expense of going to Portugal altogether (please note that I have nothing against Portugal).

Boulangerie Pâtisserie “Au four et au pétrin”

This was my boulangerie find of 2024 and, lucky me, it was only an 8-minute walk away from our apartment. Croissants were perfect buttery, flaky, scrumptious bits of goodness, as was everything else we tried. This is literally a hole in the wall and is almost always busy despite the relative difficulty of getting to it. The wonderful lady behind the counter even gave me a few free items. I guess I looked like I needed to put on some weight?

The Bakehouse St. Francis

This is our wonderful boulangerie/patisserie that we found back in 2019 that is briefly mentioned above. After a couple of return visits in 2024 I can report that it is still top-notch. Check this place out after you go to Le Ban des Gourmands.

Great spots for a drink

Montpellier is replete with so, so many amazing watering holes, whether your drink of choice is beer, wine, cocktails, mocktails, or iced tea. I’m not proposing at all that I’m an expert in this scene as we typically have our adventures during the day and take it a bit easier at night. That said, there are a couple of places we discovered on this occasion which are absolutely worth checking out.

L’arbre – Le Bar

As I mentioned above, L’arbre Restaurant isn’t worth your time. The rooftop bar, however, is a completely different story. The views stretch past Montpellier to surrounding regions, including to the Mediterranean and all the villages that dot the coast. When we went there fairly early in the evening it wasn’t too busy, and we didn’t find the drinks to be terribly overpriced given the view. My understanding is that there is live music here some nights as well. As this view and experience is unparalleled in Montpellier, I would recommend checking it out.

Fantastic view…and drinks
The bar is at the top of this very interesting building

L’Elytre

Nestled within the hotel that contains the Jardin des Sens, this bar is a stunning place to grab a pre-dinner drink. Although it’s elegant and within an expensive hotel, the staff made us feel at home and unrushed as we enjoyed the setting. This was a great 2024 find!

Watch out! Those books could fall!

Will Return for Evaluation

Prior to 2024 we visited several restaurants which are on the Michelin guide, but for one reason or another we didn’t make it back in 2024. I’ll blame it on belly space, as I had major abdominal surgery less than a year ago. With that in mind, the list above is quite impressive – don’t you think?

While I hesitate to make any sweeping declarations, part of the reason that I view Montpellier as an ‘up-and-coming’ scene is that none of the experiences at the restaurants listed below matched the experiences we had in 2024 at places like Cena or Reflet d’Obion. I’m hoping that (and even expecting) that as new restaurants continue to pop up and the gastronomical bar continues to be raised, all the premier restaurants will follow suit, if they haven’t already.

Restaurants on the Michelin list that we’ve visited prior but didn’t get to this time are L’Artichaut, Anga, Le Bistro Urbain, Pastis Restaurant, Abacus, Umami, Le Petit Jardin, La Réserve Rimbaud.

I should also point out that there are a few restaurants on the Michelin list that we have yet to try out, including Chez Delagare, Leclère, and La Canourgue. Clearly, there is still quite a lot of research to conduct!

Closing Arguments: Montpellier as a Culinary Hotspot?

Can a city have it all? At one point I assumed that perhaps the only chink in Montpellier’s armor was that it couldn’t possibly rise to the level of other French cities in the culinary arts. What I’m understanding now is that the vibrant, creative feeling one senses in Montpellier has no choice but to channel itself into the food scene. Such an explosion is bound to happen when people feel like they have a balanced life, are full up on Vitamin D, have wonderful and easy transportation options, and access to all the fresh and pesticide-free food they could ever imagine.

This, at least, is our impression of Montpellier, and I can attest that in only a few weeks my body and soul was energized in a way that is only possible in a such a special place. Bravo, Montpellier, for stepping up and becoming a true food destination. And don’t tell Paris, but we’ll take you over her ten out of ten times.

Will you be waiting for me when I return?