A 16th-century tower stands at the southern edge of the Plage des Catalans, the closest beach to Marseille’s city center. The Tour Paul was one of the city’s lazarets, quarantine stations for sick sailors to prevent disease from entering the city. In ruins after centuries of erosion, the Infirmerie Vielle (“Old Infirmary”) is now being rehabilitated thanks to a successful historical preservation campaign. One hundred yards away, a modern infirmary has had a different fate. It’s been transformed into a homey restaurant.
At Maison M&R, healing comes in the form of comfort food, homemade pastries, and a familial welcome. The café’s community vibe is fitting for the village-like Catalans quarter. They are open non-stop, so residents can swing by for a beverage, a bite and friendly banter. “We see the same faces. It’s a true neighborhood,” smiles Hervé Rugi. The owner is ever thankful for his surroundings. For it’s where the dream of him and his wife, Anais Mauro, set sail.
Living in an apartment building down the street, the couple saw the infirmary was vacant and realized it had potential for their very own restaurant. Anais has been cooking since age 16, graduating from Marseille’s Bonnevine culinary school into gastronomic tables like the Michelin Star l’Epuisette. Yet, she craved her own place that was more laid-back.
Hervé’s restaurant experience has always been linked to the sea. After helping his poissonier brother, Fabien, open Boîte à Sardines (our favorite fish and seafood spot), he sold fish to fellow restaurateurs. When his parents launched another restaurant (Boîte à Panisses) post-retirement, Hervé cooked at nights to supplement his income. The Rugi family never intended to be in the restaurant biz, “but we all ended up here,” laughs Hervé. Perhaps the family tradition will continue, as we watch his three-month-old son play with a stuffed octopus in his cradle atop the counter besides him.
The couple worked for six months to transform the medical space into a cozy restaurant – the only sign of the previous tenant is an x-ray light box besides the bathroom. They painted the walls nautical blue, with a graffiti artist designing an octopus whose tentacles wiggle across the dining room. True to the nuanced nature of the French language, Maison M&R has more than one meaning. Maison (home) celebrates how everything is made in house. “M” and “R” represent their last names as well as the sea, for M&R in French is pronounced “mer.”
The Mediterranean is a huge inspiration for the couple. Anais worked at many seaside tables and Hervé grew up beside the sea in Le Rove, just outside of Marseille. You can hear his seafaring passion when he reads the chalkboard menu aloud to customers with gusto. “The shrimp have never seen a freezer,” he boasts. When a diner asks what mange-tout (tiny smelt) are, he kisses his fingers like a chef, gushing “they are delicious. You just pop them in your mouth whole.”
As the dining room mural hints, octopus is a huge draw here. “I cook it sous vide for 12 hours at 145°F,” explains Anais. Hence, why it is lusciously tender and beautifully pink. We love it in her salade de poulpe, tossed with lettuce, julienned vegetables, pickled onions and lemongrass. It also comes as an appetizer battered in panko crumbs or as a burger. Topped on a homemade bun, with guacamole, melted cheese and caramelized onions and fresh-cut fries on the side, we understand why it’s a house specialty. A Limousin beef patty has also made its way on the menu. Sourced from a high-quality butcher, more meat tops Anais’ Asian-inspired dishes, like Thai beef salad or Pad Thai-style noodles.
At Maison M&R, healing comes in the form of comfort food, homemade pastries and a familial welcome.
The fantastic fish and chips are done Marseille style. Depending on what Hervé sources at the local Saumaty fish market that morning, you can order whole sardines and rouget (red mullet) or battered fillets of loup (sea bass) and daurade (sea bream.) Instead of fries, they are accompanied by panisses. Anais makes the iconic Marseille chickpea fritters into sticks, not disks, for a unique touch – and to show that they are made in house, not sliced from the pre-made tubes sold throughout town.
Be sure to follow the lead of the man at the table besides us, who tells Hervé, “I want to order everything on the menu, but I need to save room for dessert.” The baked goods are actually what got us hooked on Maison M&R. While on a weekend stroll, we passed by the front window. Temptingly laden with cookies, mini-cakes and tarts worthy of a magazine spread, the display stopped us in our tracks. While Anais’s recipes stem from her gastronomic pedigree, her grandmother is her true inspiration. “I still remember the tarte tatin [apple pie] we made together when I was ten,” she smiles. That familial warmth is infused in each baked good.
Though the selection rotates daily, the popular financier pistache, a buttery, moist pistachio cake, is often on the menu. For a toasty treat, the banana, chocolate, Speculoos moelleux has an oozy chocolate center. Not just for dessert, many customers pair their morning café with a sweet. Or sweets, like the woman besides us who ordered a chocolate chip cookie…followed 15 minutes later by a buttery brioche pain perdu (French toast) drizzled with salted caramel.
When Maison M&R opened in October 2019, Hervé and Anais intended to focus on takeout and catering. Customers were given trays to easily transport their food to the beach or their homes. But “people wanted to linger and enjoy the ambiance,” Hervé realized, so they pivoted to a traditional café. They still offer takeout, with a deli counter conveniently stocked with prepackaged daily dishes – like carrot chickpea soup or octopus daube (red wine stew) with black Camargue rice. If you arrive after the kitchen closes at 3pm, you’re welcome to eat your to-go dish on the patio – a late lunch option that is rare in Marseille.
The umbrella-lined patio has been a welcome addition since June. Set up in two parking spaces as part of France’s post-pandemic initiative to increase outdoor dining, it has become a third place for locals. A trio of women gather for a coffee after their morning stroll and a pair of men enjoy a beer in the afternoon. The terrasse has also increased Maison M&R’s visibility for its bamboo walls can be spotted from the beach.
The Plage des Catalans has been the city’s most popular swimming spot since going public in 2003. However, Marseillais rarely venture down the small side streets into the Catalans quarter itself. Maison M&R is bound to lure them in.
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