Perched at Marseille’s northern border along the Mediterranean, the port of L’Estaque once teemed with fishermen. Starting in the 17th century, local pêcheurs would catch sardines, tuna, mackerel and poissons de roches (the rockfish that are essential to the city’s iconic bouillabaisse.) In the 1960s, these independent fishermen were swallowed up by the increase in industrial fishing, which led to a decline in the fish population – particularly sardines.
Though pleasure boats now outnumber the port’s barquettes (traditional wooden fishing boats), L’Estaque’s fishing heritage hasn’t totally dried up. In 1976, Marseille’s wholesale fish market moved from the Vieux-Port to the Port du Saumaty, just south of the village. And, since 1997, L’Estaque is home to one of the city’s best fresh fish restaurants on the sea: Hippocampe.
Just north of L’Estaque’s main drag, Hippocampe is hidden from the busy street. A set of stairs leads you to this pieds dans l’eau, the French expression for waterfront dining that translates to “feet in the water.” A seaside table at Hippocampe feels like you’re floating in the tiny Lou Saran port – a man seated next to us spent more time marveling at the fish swimming below than interacting with his dining companion.
Often, seaside eateries are synonymous with mediocre food and hefty price tags, as if the epic view will render your taste buds – and wallet – irrelevant. This is thankfully not the case at Hippocampe, where you can devour delicious fish, incredible pizzas and homemade desserts for a remarkably reasonable price.
Our favorite fish dish is the plancha de la mer, a heaping platter of mussels, scallops, langoustines, calamari and a whole fish of the day. The copious plate can feed two –generous portions are the norm in this familial spot. Other popular seafaring offerings include moules frites, salmon tartare and gambas flambéed in pastis.
Many opt for the whole fish – presented on a silver tray before being cooked and then deftly carved tableside by the chatty waiters. Depending on the day, you can choose between a wide Saint-Pierre, loup (European sea bass), the rose-colored pageot, or dorade, the star of many Marseille menus. Their freshness is guaranteed since they come straight from the source.
Roger Purroy, a marayeur (fish merchant) at the Port du Saumaty, owns Hippocampe with his wife, Andrée. Known as Dédé, the no-nonsense, sexagenarian fille du quartier has cooked in neighborhood kitchens since she was 15 years old. The hardworking couple opened their seaside table to carry the family torch – Dédé’s parents owned the nearby La Reserve restaurant (pictured in black and white on Hippocampe’s menu).
The freshness of their fish is guaranteed since they come straight from the source.
Given Roger and Dédé’s culinary and piscine prowess, it’s no surprise that Hippocampe is known for their bouillabaisse. Dédé uses a traditional recipe that her mom adopted from her grandmother (it’s a closely guarded secret). With its laborious preparation, you need to order in advance. Ghislain, a cook-turned-manager, also explains how bouillabaisse is “better in the winter” since their hefty serving of fish (four to five pounds plus shellfish!) makes the stew even more filling.
He also touts the pizzas, for which they are “famous across the city.” The seasoned pizzaiolo churns out perfectly charred pies in the wood-fired oven. Favorites include the anchovy, basil and mozzarella, or the Corsican-influenced classic of figatelli sausage and brousse cheese. It is a Marseille tradition to serve pizza and fish under the same roof, with locals ordering a pizza as a shareable appetizer.
Try to save room for the fantastic desserts, which, like the warm bread rolls at every table, are homemade. The tarte citron has a tangy, lemon curd filling topped with a cloud-like meringue and a caramel sauce. Though stuffed, we still licked our plate clean.
Shaded in summer and open in winter, the outdoor patio is flanked by a concrete railing carved with the restaurant’s mascot – hippocampe is seahorse in French. Inside, the white-washed ceiling and nautical blue trim evoke the interior of the old boats that bob beside it. From some tables, you can spot the Bonne Mère in the distance, a reminder that though far from the city center, you’re still in Marseille.
In spite of its intimate feel, Hippocampe can seat around 100 diners. Reservations are essential, though, since the tables are always filled with a convivial mix of regulars, people who work in the neighborhood, groups on celebratory outings, and diners who drive in from as far as Nice. We like to take the ferry from the Vieux-Port for a sea-to-table lunch.
Roger and Dédé don’t have a website and they never advertise – word of mouth keeps them plenty busy. For when you run a good fish restaurant on the water, you don’t need to buy more bait.
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Published on July 16, 2020