This is an unusual restaurant in many ways. It serves just twenty people, has a former head chef of a two Michelin starred restaurant and yet takes no reservations other than in person and does not even have a telephone. The menu is on a blackboard, it has small and uncomfortable stools, does not take credit cards and closes on Saturdays. Dominique Le Stanc certainly went from one end of the dining spectrum to the other when he left the prestigious Negresco in Nice and took over this local place in 1996, located in the old town just off the seafront. La Merenda means "tasty snack" and the menu reflects local dishes. Mr Stanc went to the famed Lenotre catering school and cooked with Alain Chapel, Alain Senderens and with the Haeberlin family at Auberge de l'll in his native Alsace before opening his own restaurant in 1984 and later moved to Negresco before coming here.
If you want to eat here, come early. I wandered along at 11:45 a.m. on a Tuesday and had no trouble getting a table at lunch, but by 12:10 they were full and already turning people away at the door. The dining room has tightly packed tables, the kitchen visible at the far end, a tiny space with just the chef and a kitchen porter working. The short menu has many rustic dishes. No lengthy wine lists here: just a trio of local bottles, priced from €29 to €48. Chateau Les Crostes Core de Provence of a mystery vintage was €29 compared to its retail price of about €15.
It is easy to tell when the lunch service begins because a cannon goes off at noon every day here. This tradition dates back to the 19th century when an English nobleman, Sir Thomas Coventry-More, tired of his wife coming back late from her morning stroll on the promenade des Anglais, had (with the permission of the mayor) a cannon installed on his terrace and fired each day at noon as a reminder to his wife to come back for lunch. This rather bizarre tradition has been continued by the local municipality since 1876, though these days it is a firework rather than a real cannon. It has the convenient side effect now of reminding people to be seated at Le Merenda, as service begins promptly.
I started with Tarte Menton, an onion tart with a little garlic and a few olives that had excellent pastry and nicely caramelised onions: hearty and enjoyable (14/20). Even better was daube of beef with a red wine sauce and a trio of rustic chips. The beef was meltingly tender and full of flavour, the sauce rich and the chips crisp and excellent. On the side I ordered a green salad, whose dressing nicely cut through the richness of the meat (15/20).
For dessert the lemon tart had more excellent pastry and a lovely filling, quivering in texture and on the brink of being liquid, the acidity of the lemon and the sugar in precise balance (easily 15/20). Coffee was a solitary choice of a single espresso and was fine (no lengthy mint tea menu here). Service was fine and the waiter spoke good English as well as French, though he did not linger when taking orders, so may have appeared a little brusque to some diners used to a more leisurely style of service. The bill came to €43 (£37) with mineral water to drink. If you shared a bottle of wine then a typical cost per head would be about €55 (£47). La Merenda may not have crisp linen tablecloths but it does have an excellent chef producing food with real soul.