I’d always wanted to live abroad and finally in 2019, I boarded that plane, carrying my life on my back. Incidentally, that flight took me to New Zealand, and through a series of exciting, surprising (and then there was a little pandemic) circumstances, I’m now living in France! In Toulouse in fact. Do you know it?
Toulouse seems to be the most laid-back of the major French cities, one that merrily enjoys its love of meat, particularly duck – duck rillettes, duck pâté, if you’re looking for pork pâté at Christmas, I wish you luck – it uses some odd words now and then – do you know the word chocolatine? Yeah neither did I, it’s a pain au chocolat here – and is otherwise incredibly friendly, without the pretentiousness of some other cities (or one city in particular).
Plus, it has some excellent affordable restaurants. Which is always a plus in my book.
So, if you’re visiting Toulouse and you would like to eat well, have no fear, la ville rose will take charge. France is ahead of the curve when it comes to dining and Toulouse is no exception. It is the country which invented the word ‘restaurant’ after all.
What do I mean by affordable restaurants?
When visiting France, we expect to eat well – it’s an absolute effrontery if we don’t! At one end of the spectrum, there’s the Michelin-starred restaurants where the menus don’t even include prices. Then at the other, you will find plenty of budget or cheap eats, but that is for a different list. Here, we have the middle ground.
These restaurants… they are good. They are stylish and sleek with bare brick walls yet tribute the classic bistro with the checked black and white floor tiles. They treat the customer like a next-door neighbour with a big friendly smile, attention to detail and excellent wine recommendations. Nothing is too much for them. At these restaurants you will nurse your wine glass, and as you take that first bite of your starter, you will close your eyes and then there will be an involuntary moan, I promise. You will forget to leave, lingering over an after-meal espresso, as after all, they’re your neighbours.
For me, a meal at a restaurant is the utmost treat, but especially one that doesn’t make me clutch my head in despair as I look at my bank balance. So, eat well, eat French while visiting Toulouse – here are some of my favourite affordable restaurants in the city:
A family atmosphere: L’Air de Famille
A bistro meets an intimate living room. The classic wooden chairs and tables, the black and white-checked floors, and the vintage posters on the wall are a tribute to the era of French bistros. To the French eye, such style it may seem a little outdated, but to mine, someone who still believes I could be Emily in Paris, it was refined. Gaylord and I were seated at a table for two right next to the sound system – a simple record player in the empty fireplace with a stack of records piled next to it. Our waiter declared himself to be waiter and DJ for the night as he flipped the record over.
L’Air de Famille, although busy, is cosy, intimate and personable. The menu which changes daily was written on a chalk board and placed next to us. We chose salmon tartare, pâté, 7-hour lamb, chocolate fondant and tarte tatin. Each course was simple yet beautifully prepared and cooked, the lamb, shared between us in a pan with roasted vegetables from which we served ourselves, was falling apart with a gentle brush of the fork. The tarte tatin was a miniature circle of pastry presenting a perfect half sphere of apple, soft as butter. And through the beautiful arched window facing the street outside, the January snow gently fell.
- Lunch: €23 – 27 per person
- Dinner: €37 – 40 per person
Awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand
L’Air de Famille website is here
The one with a queue: Le May
Le May is the celebrity of the Toulouse budget restaurant scene. I arrived with my friend Sarah just after it opened at 8pm and we were herded to a table inside. Outside was fully booked. Within 5 minutes, a queue was forming. The queue lasted all night long (yes, thank you Lionel). And I thought the French hated queuing. But, when it comes to good affordable food, they clearly can’t resist.
As is the case for all restaurants, the prices have gone up substantially in the last year alone, so considering that steep increase, customers three years ago were paying with a 10 euro note. Judging by that queue, customers believe the new prices are worth it. Le May strikes me as a jewel. Not just in the terms of a diamond in the rough, but the room practically glows with warm yellow light, its bright napkins ruby red. Tables are squashed in haphazardly, but that’s ok because you eat freshly-caught marinated fish or a filling starter of niçoise salad, followed by a perfectly caramelised crème brulee. Simple, to the point, perfectly made.
- Two courses: €18 per person
- Three courses: €21 per person
Find out more here
The French classics: Le Genty Magre
The night we dined at Le Genty Magre, the restaurant was busy and yet there was a total of two members of staff working – the hostess and the chef. While this meant there were one or two items left off the menu, the professionalism and the incredible standard of food emerging through the kitchen doors was extraordinary.
‘Gourmet tavern’ is the phrase that comes to mind when you see Le Gentry Magre interior as it’s all natural woods and stone, yet they replace rustic with sleek and streamlined. No line is out of place. This perfectionism extends to the food which is as traditionally French as Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité with its tournedos rossini and the ‘true‘ cassoulet (a hot topic in the south of France as the regional cassoulets are sacred).
Gaylord and I shared wine, and he managed to eat at least two courses of foie gras (a speciality here and one he is certainly enjoying) while I made my way through a St Jacques scallop gratinéed with mushrooms and breadcrumbs and slow-cooked pork shoulder, before we shared a Paris Brest drenched in hazelnut sauce.
- Lunch: €26 – 29.50 per person
- Dinner: €55 per person
Le Gentry Magre website, along with a sample menu, is here
Seasonal and local: Campagne
One of the most affordable restaurants I’ve found, Campagne is possibly my favourite place to eat in Toulouse and I’ve developed a full-blown crush on it (it miiight be more than a crush as I’ve already written about it, treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen clearly isn’t my style). Gaylord and I went to celebrate an anniversary and we came away a little bit more in love with the restaurant than each other.
Campagne sports those bare brick walls but there’s also a Motobécane bike hanging up like a painting so it’s yet to cross into cliché territory. As a wine bar with small plates and charcuterie, many would be satisfied with one of their generous meat and cheese boards, but if you’re greedy like me and Gaylord, there is a changing menu of affordable seasonal dishes, the ingredients of which are bought fresh from the market each day.
During the unfathomably warm October, Gaylord and I treated ourselves to a little date there. We sat outside, no need for jackets, and ate charcuterie and cheese with sliced baguette, then rare beef with seared courgette and chimichurri, and softly-cooked egg with mushrooms and hazelnuts.
- Menus: €16 – 18 per person
- Charcuterie boards: €15
Campagne’s website is here
An affordable tasting menu: Une Table à Deux
Une Table à Deux has a few twists and turns up its sleeve. Not only is it hidden away down a discrete side road, it’s the size of my living room and you’d never believe the chefs are able to create such alchemy in such a small space. You can select the set menu of three courses, or there’s a menu of four courses, or there are the tasting menus (menu dégustation) of which there are six or nine courses. Phew. As it was my 30th birthday, we went for the six-course tasting menu – when else can you justify a tasting menu – although I wore this slinky white dress which certainly couldn’t justify holding in my stomach after course three.
So, our meal was in the chef’s hands. We were left in suspense. To start there was beetroot puree, goat’s cheese and bulgur, then salmon with apple, trout eggs and celery cream. Our main course was cod with red cabbage kimchi and mushrooms, combining French seasonal produce – it was January, so options are limited – with flavours of the chefs’ travels to South Korea. Dessert was a mound of coconut, white chocolate and yuzu like a snowy mountain, perched on a shortbread biscuit. I felt very mature, maybe it was my new age, but I think it was mainly because of the incredible tasting menu and each delectable course, and also very full.
- Lunch: €27 – 33 per person
- Dinner: €37 – 70 per person
Awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand
Une Table à Deux website is here
So, there you have it – my favourite affordable restaurants in Toulouse. And the more I eat around the city, the more I will add to this list and other Toulouse travel guides, so stay tuned!