A Cultural Guide to French London

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Zut alors! Culture Calling takes you round the capital's French quarters

France isn’t just about croissants and berets - it’s a country of freedom, pleasure, and joie de vivre. We can trust the French to show us how to become bons viveurs, and now it’s a way of life we no longer need to cross the Channel for. In a city as cosmopolitan and internationally representative as London, France has a strong presence. So if you’re looking for a touch of ‘je ne sais quoi', or if you’re just missing home, there are a number of places in London guaranteed to bring out the Francophile in you. Santé!

Where to eat

If you’re looking for real Parisian al fresco dining, Le Petit Pois Bistro in Hackney is the place to go. This cosy bistro serves up all the French classics - steak frites, duck confit and the occasional croque monsieur - along with a chocolate mousse that you’ll keep coming back for. If you fancy something a little more rustic, Islington’s La Petite Auberge is the epitome of a traditional French tavern, from its red and white checked tablecloths to its hearty menu. With an extensive wine list, hot, cheesy Soupe a l’Oignon and a separate menu just for crepes, La Petite Auberge is authentic and unassuming.

La Petite Auberge

For lunch, Chez Antoinette in Covent Garden is the perfect spot - if you can get a seat. This tiny little tartinerie (or in English, sandwich shop) is pleasant and warm, does an amazing charcuterie board and, of course, perfect tartines. With its owners hailing from Lyon and aiming to recreate memories of a French childhood, Chez Antoinette is atmospheric, charming and comes with a delicious dessert selection.

For those who think of fromage when they think of France, Androuet can cater to your cheesy needs. A gourmet cheese shop and restaurant nestled in a corner of the bustling Old Spitalfields Market, Androuet is home to some of the best Savoyard cheese fondues and French raclettes in London. Hosted by men and women in Breton stripes, it doesn’t get more French than this.

Where to drink

For Francophile history buffs, The French House in Soho offers a healthy dose of history (General Charles de Gaulle supposedly wrote his post-World War II speech ‘À tous les Français’ here) and Ricard - they sell more of it than anywhere else in Britain. The French House has long been popular with artists and writers - they only serve beer in half pints, as per French tradition - and it’s a fine place to sit and soak up the atmosphere.

The French House © Ed Marshall

If you prefer 1920s Paris to 1950s London, the Brasserie Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the liveliest jazz bars in south London. Named after an artist known for his provocative paintings of decadent Parisian life, this art-deco brasserie lives up to its namesake, looking like a true bohemian Parisian bar. A family run affair, an evening here is guaranteed to be good, with live music every night and a great value wine list.

If you’re looking for a wine bar to entice you into drinking à la française, Le Beaujolais is guaranteed to fit the bill. Tucked away in Soho, this eclectic French-style bar serves exclusively French wine and is one of the easiest places in London to find a real, fresh French baguette. Cosy, dark and low key - time passes very quickly in Le Beaujolais.

What to do

Feeling like you want to seriously involve yourself in French language and culture? Based in South Kensington, the Institut Français is run by the French government with the aim to promote French language and culture throughout the world. Complete with a language centre, French cinema (Ciné Lumière), two French libraries and a café that does a truly French croissant, this is the best place in London to get truly immersed in French society. The Institut also runs numerous festivals, seminars, talks and educational events throughout the year, actively encouraging cross-cultural exchange in an area known for its arts and sciences.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) by Édouard Manet

If style à la Moulin Rouge takes your fancy, Soirée Pompette is an action-packed variety and cabaret night. Live acts, a game of bingo and a coquettish host named Miss Pompette are the main spectacles of the evening. The only catch? You can only speak French from the moment you enter the cabaret hall, but the staff are more than happy to accommodate if all you can manage is ‘Encore du vin, s’il vous plaît’! With entry at £10 and a glass of wine handed to you when you walk in the door, this is a form of French culture that everyone can enjoy.

Finally, The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House contains a collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. From Cézanne to Degas, the collection is dominated by the French artists of the period, and some of the most important pieces of the French-led movement are housed in this beautiful gallery. On a rainy day in London, head inside to see Monet’s landscape of Antibes in southern France - a painting that will have you booking your Eurostar immediately.