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In the 1960s, Mayor Gaston Defferre proposed a plan to give Marseille a beach that was worthy of the Mediterranean port. Despite the city’s 26 miles of coastline, there were very few public beaches at the time. One of them, Prado, was so narrow that waves would flood the coastal road beside it each time the mistral wind blew.

In 1977, the Parc Balnéaire du Prado opened on an artificial embankment, cleverly built with leftover fill from the construction of the Marseille metro. With its gravel beaches and grassy lawns, the sprawling, 64-acre seaside park was an instant hit. Now, the beaches – known as Prado Sud and Prado Nord – are two of the most popular for Marseillais and tourists alike.

With any beach come the notoriously generic beachside snack bars, shucking out mediocre fried fare. At first glance, the turquoise hut belonging to Huttes Marines at Prado Sud appears to be one of these average buvette. There are bright, logo-stamped umbrellas, plastic chairs that are faded by the sun, and posters of ice cream pops to beckon kids on hot days. But folks are lined up for cool drinks and salty snacks and, if you look closer, you’ll spot a sandwich chalkboard that reads “fresh sardines on Fridays.” A couple shares a bottle of rosé while the woman besides them digs into homemade tiramisu. Signs that there’s more than just snack bar fare here.

The tides changed for the “Sea Hut” in 2007, when Florence Beilleud took over. She upgraded the menu with fresh salads, grilled fish, homemade desserts and decent wine. Sure, you can still get a basket of fries, a Magnum ice cream bar and other typical seaside snacks. But, no matter what you eat, the sweeping view of the Calanques and refreshing dip in the Med are free of charge.

Before becoming a restaurant owner, Florence worked in luxe lingerie with her mom. When a friend of her mother’s announced she was selling the place, Florence jumped at the chance, “eager for a new challenge” and to put her love of cooking to the test. “I would have liked to do a more gourmet menu,” explains the petite redhead. But the tiny kitchen made her think otherwise. She did, however, petition the city to expand the dining area to serve more sit-down customers. And when she realized her customers craved simple fare, she decided to focus on fresh, unfussy food that was ideal for the beach. The popular “huttes dog” comes on a buttery brioche bun, is topped with crispy onions, and served with tangy coleslaw. We appreciate the daily salads, with ingredients like burrata, melon, prosciutto and arugula, and there’s always a vegetarian option – a leek and onion quiche was on offer the day we came by.

One of Marseille’s most consumed fish, sardines, are a crowd favorite on Fridays. When we dined, they were served with a couscous salad to counterbalance the briny fish. On the weekends, when lunch is a religion in France, Huttes Marines adds more copious plates. There’s grilled, whole loup (sea bass) sourced from an organic aquaculture farm on the Île de Frioul off Marseille’s harbor; a sizzling entrecôte (steak) alongside a plate of spaghetti; in the winter, Florence will cook up comfort food, like daube, a Provencal beef stew.

While the newly revamped hipster buvette down the beach splashes apéro photos on Instagram, Florence stays discreet. She doesn’t mind if people think Huttes Marines is just a snack bar.

For dessert, choose from a fresh tart from the local boulangerie or a homemade sweet like fruit gazpacho or clafoutis. We also love the fruit givré, a fruit, often a lemon, filled with sorbet made from its own flesh. To drink, Pac à l’eau is a makeshift lemonade that is beloved across the south. Chilled rosé and draft beer are also served in pretty Huttes Marines plastic goblets, which Florence had special-made due to the no-glass-rule at municipal buvettes. Ever persuasive, she was able to convince city hall to let her use real plates, metal silverware and even glass carafes for chilled water – an essential on hot days.

Many of Huttes Marines clients are regulars. Some like to start with a morning coffee, take a dip, then enjoy a leisurely lunch before the afternoon crowds swarm the beach. One customer, Michelle, comes every day in the summer for her dose of bonheur (happiness or good humor). “It feels like our terrace,” shares another couple who dine here weekly. Some regulars even text Florence, asking her to save them a table on a busy Sunday.

“I love the familial atmosphere,” Florence tell us. To preserve it, she relies on word of mouth (it’s how we discovered her) rather than social media or marketing. While the newly revamped hipster buvette down the beach splashes apéro photos on Instagram, Florence stays discreet. She doesn’t mind if people think Huttes Marines is just a snack bar. It’s a ton of work as it is – like explaining the “no shirt, no service” rule to customers despite numerous signs that say so. “It’s not like I can kick them out,” she smiles. “We’re already outside.”

From May to October, Florence has a seasonal staff that helps out. In the winter, sans tourists, she’s solo, a one-woman-show that cooks, takes orders, serves and wipes-down tables. Huttes Marines closes on rainy days, but usually stays open with the mistral thanks to the portable wooden walls she had built to block the wind.

The weather is one of the many elements that makes owning Huttes Marines complicated. As an outdoor eatery on a public beach, Florence must deal with folks trashing the place after hours. Yet, the openness allows for the conviviality she so enjoys. Like Mayor Defferre, she created a place that all Marseillais can enjoy.

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Published on July 30, 2021

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