I read somewhere that Lille has 3,500 restaurants, and that’s before you even think about frites stands, merguez purveyors or gaufre (waffle) stalls. Can you imagine being able to say the same about Manchester or Glasgow?
f course, we're never going to be able to venture into a fraction of these, and it's while exploring the intriguing streets of France's third city I come to a longbrewing realisation; the internet is rubbish for finding restaurants. Despite spending weeks researching, nobody pointed me towards rue des Bouchers, where every other building contains a cracker: innovative little N'Autre Bistrot (nautrebistrot.com); the delightfully woebegone Café de l'Etrier (00 33 3 2057 2088); or Oui Fooding (leoui.fr), with its cutting edge menu and warehouse design. Nor hip rue du Royale. Again, it's lined with exciting looking boîtes, young and loud - boom boom BOOM! - and restaurants offering everything from Japanese to Moroccan, even Cambodian.
Another delicious road is rue de Gand in Vieux Lille, a little touristy at first, but as you head up towards the old town walls, distinctly more real. Chez La Vieille (00 33 3 2836 4006) is a cluttered bistro of unabashedly old-school demeanour: beautiful tiled floor and dusty pictures of ancestors. We order a tasting of pâtés, what arrives is enough to feed an army - vast rustic slabs flavoured with beer, maroilles, the native, fruitily footy cheese, and spéculoos (spiced biscuit). Those last two flavours become something of a refrain throughout our trip. I'm ashamed to say we eat first class chips, too.
I have a suspicion that Barbue d'Anvers (lebarbuedanvers.fr; named, randomly, after a breed of chicken) might be pour les touristes. It's just too cute. A medievallooking building accessed via a stone arch, it's the kind of place, antiques à go-go, that makes us foreigners go all gooey. But its moody main room, shelves lined with the region's beers, is rammed with French and Belgians. The Flemish influence is strong here, and local specialties - rabbit rillettes with Wambrechies gin; carbonnade au pain d'épices; suckling pig caramelised with spéculoos and rhubarb - jostle with the odd anomaly like swordfish tataki. Did those frites come frozen? Tastes like they did. I accidentally have maroilles as a starter and then again, straight up, for pudding, just as nature designed it. I make no apologies.
Relying on conventional means sends us to Michelin's pick, L'Huitrière (huitriere. fr). What a disappointment. The rooms are lovely and the staff a throwback to a more courteous age, but I don't think the cooking cuts the moutarde. Next time, I'll head straight for the tiled wetfish-cumtraiteur at the front. Informal, dazzlingly gorgeous, serving the simplest food.
One thing that unites everyone, off or online, is Meert (meert.fr). Just exquisite, this is the patisserie of fantasies: fabulous Belle Epoque exterior, windows twinkling with gemstone-coloured gourmandises; mirrored wedding cake salon; perfectly preserved, gilded shop selling a sugaraddict's erotic dream of bonbons, marshmallows, fruit jellies, nougats, mendiants and orangettes. Plus of course their famous handmade gaufres, whisper-light waffles filled with secret recipe Madagascan vanilla cream. I want to live here forever when I'm an ancient, my hair matching the fragrant lilac tea.
Lille is a candyshop for those who like to snack on the hoof. Every corner sports a chance to eat something magnificently unhealthy - our favourite is the tarte maroilles (yes, that again) from bakers L'Art du Pain (artdupain.fr), dripping with melted stinky cheese. But you can't visit Lille without having moules frites. Attached to our boutique hotel, the former convent Hermitage Gantois (hotelhermitagegantois.com) is Estaminet Gantois, where the mussels are so sweet and plump and the chips so crisp and salty we have to queue. Worth it, though.
The city moves down several gears on Sunday, so we head out to B Restaurant (ruedesrestos.com/restaurateurs/ brestaurant), as recommended by Le Fooding, the controversial anti-Michelin gastronomy movement. In Attiches, a teeny, rather solidly redbrick hamlet, Grégory Burgeat is dishing up some inspirational cooking. Sure, the décor is the essence of dodgy provincial - black and white with flashes of lipstick red - but our meal is wonderful. The 'Menu Impro' is a litany of extraordinariness: pillowy langoustines languishing under a glass dome swirling with rosemary smoke. The sweetest, freshest mussels from Mont- Saint-Michel. Treacherously addictive homemade sourdough.
While well-upholstered burghers greet friends and admire each other's small dogs - we're the only strangers in the place - it keeps coming: crab salad with smoked caviar served on a column of ice. Silky brandade de morue. Blanquette of snails. Puddings include, bien sûr, délice du spéculoos. There are homemade raspberry jellies; we groan in so much pleasure at these that they give us a handful to take home. And one of the joys of Lille is that, for us lucky southerners, home isn't even that far away.
Marina O'Loughlin, London newspaper Metro's restaurant critic, has remained incognito for 11 years. She regularly travels the UK and abroad in search of culinary adventure.
The article 'Postcard from Lille' was published in partnership with BBC Olive magazine.