Some of Marseille’s most majestic buildings surround the Estrangin métro stop: the American consulate, the ornately sculpted Caisse d’Epargne bank, and the Napoleon-style Préfecture. Between them sits an equally iconic institution, Café de la Banque. Yet while its high-profile neighbors deal in banking and bureaucracy, this spot serves something more essential: a dependable place for delicious food and drink.
Named for the surrounding banks, this non-stop café is a neighborhood fixture that hums all day. Regulars fill the old-timey interior and one of Marseille’s best patios for a morning café, the perpetually packed lunch service, and post-work beverages. In a city whose Mediterranean identity often sets it apart from the rest of France, Café de la Banque serves up a comforting slice of classic French café culture.
Opened in 1884, when the street was filled with promenading pedestrians instead of city buses, the café has changed ownership throughout the decades. For the past 18 years, it has been in the hard-working hands of the Lafargue family. Arnaud, the patriarch, lends his seasoned savoir-faire while his wife, Diane, his nephew Thomas, and his son, Benjamin, run the day-to-day operations.
After owning a restaurant for 20 years, Arnaud searched for a place at which he wouldn’t have to work late. Café de la Banque already had its pluses. The south-facing terrasse is bathed in sun nine months out of the year. The location in a high-trafficked area ensures a steady stream of customers.
“When I bought this place I knew it would never be mine,” admits Arnaud. “The brasserie will continue when I’m gone.”
To revive the café’s old-school ambiance, the family installed mirrors and glass Art Deco sconces, and replaced the previous British-themed bar with a handsome zinc and wood comptoir (countertop). Vintage seltzer bottles and posters that line the walls are a lesson in heritage French brands: the former Marseille brewery Biére Phènix, Berger pastis, and St. Raphaël and Byrrh quinquina aperitifs. “All we had to do was give the interior a new lease on life,” Arnaud explains.
Like the décor, the menu is full of revered classics. In the morning, choose from the typical breakfast breads or a 15-euro petit dejeuner of eggs, salad and fresh-squeezed juice for a more savory start. At lunch, Café de la Banque’s bread and butter, you’ll find all the midday food groups – steak frites, big salads, and pastas plus a rotating tartare de poisson (fish tartare) and a €12.20 plat du jour. Each ample dish uses fresh ingredients – the frites, made from freshly cut and fried potatoes, are some of Marseille’s best.
While the food is consistently tasty, it is the service that helps attract a clientele of mostly loyal regulars. Every café comes with a glass of water and a Spéculoos cookie while afternoon drinks are paired with popcorn, olives and nuts – little touches that make you feel welcome. The staff greets customers by name in a service style that is “very close but not overly familiar,” says Arnaud. Crisply clad in white shirts and black embroidered aprons, the waitstaff serves, clears tables and places placemats – the brisk choreography of a well-run restaurant.
You can tell that each member of the Lafargue family mirrors Arnaud’s “passion for the métier [job].” This respect and pleasure for their work keeps the clientele coming back for more. This is why Café de la Banque has never had to advertise – their full tables are all the press they need.
In Marseille’s increasingly trending restaurant scene, this well-oiled machine puts the customer first. “When I bought this place I knew it would never be mine,” admits Arnaud. “The brasserie will continue when I’m gone.” It isn’t about the Lafargues – it is the experience that counts. Reading La Provence with a coffee, taking a pause from work with roast chicken in mushroom sauce, or whiling away the afternoon watching the world stroll by. And knowing you can savor these moments every day – except Sunday.
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Published on February 21, 2020