At home with the true taste of Nice

The city represents all that is swish about the Côte d'Azur. But Paul Newman finds another side to it - typified by a restaurant that's like eating at your favourite aunt's

The swish hotels and restaurants on the Promenade des Anglais are just a few minutes' walk away, but it's a very different world inside the Acchiardo restaurant in the heart of Vieux Nice. The tables and chairs are pressed closely together in neat rows, like a works canteen, and there is no guessing whom you will be sitting next to. The decor, like the food and wine, is simple and unfussy.

The swish hotels and restaurants on the Promenade des Anglais are just a few minutes' walk away, but it's a very different world inside the Acchiardo restaurant in the heart of Vieux Nice. The tables and chairs are pressed closely together in neat rows, like a works canteen, and there is no guessing whom you will be sitting next to. The decor, like the food and wine, is simple and unfussy.

It is well past 10.30pm and the restaurant is alive with conversation and laughter. Joseph Acchiardo, whose grandparents opened the restaurant in 1927 after arriving from Piedmont, just across the border in Italy, is sitting at one of the tables, enjoying a plate of the house ravioli after a long day's work. Born upstairs on the third floor, he has been working in the restaurant for 47 years.

Evelyne, Joseph's wife, is preparing the bills, while their two sons, Jean-François and Raphaël, are waiting on the guests. One lively group of young diners includes their sister, Virginie, who used to work here but now lives along the coast in Cannes. "And that group over there are all local students," Evelyne says, pointing to the first row of tables. "We know all their parents. I can remember them coming here when they were that age."

If a visit to Acchiardo is like having a meal at your favourite aunt and uncle's house, it comes as no surprise to learn that it is one of a select group of restaurants awarded "cuisine nissarde" status by the local tourist authorities. "Nissarde" is the Nice dialect's version of "niçois" (as in "salade niçoise") and in this case refers as much to the ambiance as to the cuisine. "Restaurants need to capture the spirit of Nice as well as its flavour," says Valérie Malbec of the Nice tourist office. "The intimate atmosphere is all part of the experience."

Lyon is the only other French city with a similar classification system. And if Nice cannot match the culinary sophistication of France's gastronomic capital, it makes up for it with the freshness and simplicity of its cuisine, featuring fish in all shapes and sizes, tastebud-tingling aïoli, deep-red tomato sauces and vegetables and fruit bursting with Mediterranean sunshine. The style is a cross between provençal and Italian.

Acchiardo typifies the homely and unpretentious attractions of Vieux Nice, a spider's web of narrow alleys and streets (mostly car-free) nestling beneath the Colline du Château, the hill at the heart of the city. The wide roads that circle the old town give little hint of what lies inside. Indeed, if you followed the seafront, from the Promenade des Anglais and around the castle gardens to the port, it would be all too easy to miss this jewel in the crown of France's fifth largest city. While chic, cool, trendy Nice has all the attractions you would expect from the capital of the Côte d'Azur, none can match the atmospheric allure of the city's historic heart.

Some shops here naturally have their eye on the tourist market, but most appear to cater just as much for local tastes. Many are traditional businesses with a history in keeping with their surroundings. Auer, which has been run by the same family since 1820, sells candied fruit, all made on the premises and tantalisingly displayed in the shop window. Faraut makes its own pasta, including the local beef specialities, ravioli and gnocchi à la daube. The Moulin à Huile d'Olives, run by the Alziari family, sells niçoise olive oil, made from the local cailletier variety, while Fenocchio offers an outlandish selection of ice cream, from lavender and jasmine to the somehow less tempting tomato and basil.

If you want to eat on the move, try socca, a savoury pancake made with chickpea flour, or a salade niçoise sandwich made of pan-bagnat, the local speciality bread soaked in olive oil. At the fish market in the Place St François, you might notice among the sardines and red mullet what appears to be a mound of grey sludge: poutine, which is harvested only along a short stretch of the coast between Nice and Antibes, is a mixture of baby sardines and anchovies and is used in omelettes.

At the end of the road overlooking the flower market is the Cais de Pierrelas, an imposing yellow house. Matisse lived on the third floor and no doubt drew inspiration from the hubbub below and the views over the Baie des Anges. Nice's clear light has attracted many artists down the years and brings out the warmth of the Mediterranean colours - yellow, pink, red and terracotta - which reflect the city's Sardinian heritage (Nice having become a permanent part of France only in 1860, after periods under the control of the dukes of Savoy and the kings of Sicily and Sardinia).

While the city features a great diversity of architectural styles, including classical, Art Deco and belle époque, Vieux Nice's churches and chapels are mostly Baroque. The 17th-century Eglise de Gésu is the oldest Baroque church in the city, while Notre Dame de l'Annonciation is a tiny church packed with works of art. The Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate honours the city's patron saint and overlooks the charming Place Rossetti. The squares are intimate rather than imposing, with only the beautifully proportioned Place du Palais on anything like a grand scale.

As befits a city famous for its art - it has more galleries and museums (19 in total) than any French city outside Paris - Vieux Nice has four municipal galleries as well as art shops in almost every street. The Palais Lascaris has been converted into an art museum, while the Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, housed in an imposing modern building of marble, iron and glass, has a formidable collection of work dating from the 1960s. You need to venture outside Vieux Nice to see most of the city's other art attractions, including the Matisse and Chagall museums, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Musée des Arts Asiatiques and the Musée International d'Art Naïf Anatole Jakovsky. Nice also has 12 theatres and a magnificent classical opera house, rebuilt after a fire in 1881.

So where to stay? Paris is the only French city with more hotels and Nice challenges the capital in terms of variety and style at the upper end of the market. The Hotel Négresco, a historical monument, provides pure luxury; the futuristic Hi Hotel features the ultimate in modern design, while the chic Windsor offers rooms individually decorated in the spirit of locally renowned artists.

More to my taste was the Grimaldi, a friendly and unassuming hotel in a quiet road behind the seafront, with Vieux Nice and the Promenade des Anglais within easy walking distance. Recently renovated and with each room individually decorated, the hotel breathes French style and sophistication.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Paul Newman flew to Nice from Luton with easyJet (08717 500100; www.easyjet.com). Easyjet has five flights a day from Luton to Nice and also flies there from Gatwick from around £55 return, London Stansted, Liverpool, Newcastle from around £50 return, Bristol and (from June) Belfast.

Where to stay

The Grimaldi hotel (00 33 4 93 16 00 24; www.le-grimaldi.com) has 46 rooms costing between €75 (£54) and €175 (£125) a night, depending on the season. Junior suites cost between €165 (£118) and €225 (£160) per night. The Acchiardo restaurant (00 33 4 93 85 51 16) is at 38 rue Droite and is open from Monday to Friday. Booking is advisable.

For further information

Contact Maison de la France on 09068 244123 (60p per minute) and see www.franceguide.com.

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