France-Soir is truly a Melbourne institution. Established in 1986 by owner Jean-Paul Prunetti, the bistro was an instant success, and in the fickle world of hospitality, that success has endured. On a cool winter day, the restaurant is swarming – even at 4pm.
This is not a venue for the claustrophobic. Tables are packed tightly, and seats are in high demand. Waiters expertly ferry plates from the kitchen behind the swinging doors at the back, manoeuvring among the lively tables. If you arrive early for your reservation, you may be seated at one of the three stools along the bar. You can order a drink while you wait, which is recommended as a way to ease the knowledge that you are definitely in the way. If you’ve been to Paris before, this ambience will not feel unfamiliar: high energy, a little bit brusque, but simultaneously fun and hedonistic.
Unusually, there are no specials today – for which you might be grateful. The menu is composed of France's finest fare, so keeping it edited is welcome. Oysters are shucked fresh to order with a selection from NSW, SA and Tassie. Served on ice, with puckery mignonette dressing, the oysters vary in sweetness, brininess and size, but are parallelled in freshness. Thick slices of French bread automatically appear with the compulsory pat of butter. Unsurprisingly, the bread is excellent. The crumb is almost sticky, with a chewy crust that delivers a harmonious texture. Entrées are rustic and unfussy.
Steak tartare is ubiquitous in the Melbourne dining scene, however, this rendition is one of the best we've encountered. Served pre-mixed, it's gooey and rich. Freshened up with a healthy serving of dijon mustard, the only thing missing was its fried potato counterpart. Fried lamb brains with a caper sauce are salty and melt-in-the-mouth soft. The roast quail in truffle sauce may not be the most sharing-friendly starter, but the sauce is so good you’ll happily trade your bit of bird for the remainder of the liquid gold it's swimming in.
Almost 36 years ago, France-Soir opened as a BYO-only venue. A little known fact: although they now boast one of the most comprehensive wine menus in the city, they are still BYO-friendly at lunch. A home-brought Fiano loosens the purse strings for items of the edible variety, including a 750g rib eye steak with béarnaise sauce. When asked for the sauce on the side, the waiter coyly responds, "only if it is medium rare". The steak arrives closer to rare, but it’s cut thick and with the fat-rendered bone cradling the meat. The meat is flavoursome and juicy, simply seasoned with salt and pepper that lets the rich beef flavour shine. It is recommended that you attack the bone with your hands – this is also encouraged by waitstaff.
The pork cut of the day is a pork chop served with the same prodigious mushroom sauce as our entrée. It's a fatty cut, and with the buttery mushroom sauce, it's a gleefully luxurious bite. Those concerned with cholesterol intake need not apply. A simple butter lettuce salad with vinaigrette, ordered to cut through the fattiness of our mains, was sadly forgotten about by our waiter. However, with his charming manner and dedication to keeping wine glasses full, this was easily forgiven.
The service at France-Soir is almost quintessentially French: at times aloof, but mostly endearing. This venue has not only endured but thrived due to its commitment to curating a fun and self-indulgent experience. The food may not be not the best in the city, but that isn't the point. It has that ineffable panache that makes you feel as though you’re in a romantic Parisian flick. They’ve honestly, and expertly, distilled the French dining experience to its charming essence.