When you board the 1 tram line in boisterous Noailles, the train snakes from a dark, underground tunnel onto the picturesque Boulevard Chave in the Le Camas district. Like the country roads of Provence, the wide street is lined with soaring plane trees. Behind them, 19th century buildings – a mix of typically Marseillais trois fenêtres (three window) and decorative Art Nouveau facades – add to the eye-pleasing promenade so beloved by locals.
This scene was similar a century ago. Just a mile as the seagull flies from the Vieux-Port, Le Camas was appealing for its accessibility to the city center by tram. Landowner-turned-developer André Chave founded the neighborhood to accommodate Marseille’s growing middle class. The city honored him by bestowing the central artery with his name – that’s his bust with the smug expression carved in the corner building at the boulevard’s start.
Boulevard Chave has always been the nerve center of Le Camas. Yet, in the past few years, the main drag has become a micro-neighborhood in itself. To the regret of many, real estate agents have dubbed Chave the “place to be” for new arrivals to the city and Marseillais priced out of other trendy neighborhoods. Consequently, young families and bobos (bourgeois-bohèmes – France’s equivalent to hipsters) are scooping up Chave apartments in spades. And, restaurateurs, boulangers and florists (the latest Plan B job) are clamoring to set up shop here.
Thankfully, Chave hasn’t been totally gutted by gentrification. Along the boulevard, old standbys mingle with new storefronts. The 90-year-old Italian épicerie Maison Moutte rubs shoulders with La Frida Loca tattoo shop. Men in dusty workwear gather for post-work beers outside L’Estaminet, while inside Beerocratie, the modern brasserie hums with craft beer hopheads. Customers buy cigarettes and catch a few minutes of the OM match at Bar Tabac du Camas. A few blocks down, Marseille’s beloved soccer team is celebrated on cool graphic posters at Maison Transversale.
Chave’s classics are still chugging along. Like the Dernier Métro, the neighborhood’s de facto community center. “It is the story of the street,” shares a friend, whose grandparents were the owners from 1968 to 1977. Though running a simple bar du quartier and tabac (tobacco shop), his grandmother dressed in heels and his grandfather in a jacket and tie in that era. The current owners are more casual, better suited to the busy pace. At lunch time, locals flock here for sizable steaks, gratin dauphinois (creamy potato gratin) and other affordable, hearty fare. From morning until night, they fill terrasse tables reading the local rag La Provence, drinking pastis and catching up with friends.
Down the street, Amandine’s cotton-candy pink storefront and cursive logo feels plucked from the past. Open since the 1960s, the pâtisserie has earned a following for their exquisite desserts, chocolates and sugary confections. Customers come from across the city – lately for the buttery, caramelized croissant-like kouign annan. Yet, the core clientele is from the neighborhood. During our last visit, the owner of the nearby Italian deli was placing a cake order for a birthday party.
It was food that tipped Chave’s scales towards trendy. In 2015, the boulevard welcomed Georges, an all-day café with a culinary focus the neighborhood lacked. A neighbor confirms it was the “only bistro here.” With its bistronomy menu and sun-soaked sidewalk patio, the cheerful spot seduced nearby residents and lured Marseillais from other parts of the city. “I see the same faces each day,” shares a waitress, confirming that Georges is still first and foremost frequented by regulars. Yet, its popularity spawned other restaurateurs to head to Chave.
Thankfully, Chave hasn’t been totally gutted by gentrification. Along the boulevard, old standbys mingle with new storefronts.
A year later, Parpaing qui Flotte opened. Owners and first-timers Jean-Régis and Farah took the plunge into the restaurant world after noticing an empty space near their atelier – and felt Chave was fertile territory to try something new. Also an all-day café, the colorful, corner spot became known for its craft cocktails and tasty, unfussy plates. In 2017, a neighborhood couple followed suit, launching Cuisine de Gagny. Initially conceived as a caterer, self-taught chef Gagny and his pert partner, Julie, couldn’t resist serving their comfort fare in-house once they nabbed a sidewalk patio permit – gold in temperate Marseille.
The restaurants are rounded out by food purveyors that add to Chave’s village-like ambiance. On Saturday mornings, locals fill their shopping bags with fresh goods from the butchers, fruit stands and wine stores. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, they order wood-fired pizzas from JD’s pizza truck, an iconic Marseille tradition that has held court on the corner of Boulevard Chave and Eugène Pierre for 23 years. They buy artisan loaves from Mains Libres boulangerie, Corsican cheese and charcuterie platters from Petit Jean, and freshly roasted coffee from Brulerie Moka. Iris Mitch, the young owner and torréfacteuse (roaster), chose Chave after getting priced out of her old neighborhood, Vauban. Open since 2019, her coffee shop – one of our favorites in Marseille – has played a big factor in Chave’s friendly vibe.
As Chave continues to buzz, businesses are popping up further down the boulevard, extending the neighborhood to the east. Deep Coffee has a pop-up in an old green wrought-iron newsstand, an urban renewal trend happening across Marseille. This comingling of classic and contemporary is what makes Chave so appealing. Many of the newer places are inspired by artisan methods and a community spirit that has been lost with modernization. Regardless of trends, age is priceless since it can’t be manufactured.
The other day, we were buying brousse-stuffed ravioli at Maison Moutte, an Italian épicerie run by a couple for over half a century. When the owner turned to package the pasta, a regular customer told the owner, “You have flour handprints on your hips!” The septuagenarian explained her husband can’t help but grab her when squeezing behind her in the skinny kitchen. “We still have it after 48 years,” she winked. Just like Chave.
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