Sat. Mar 25th, 2023

“Keep on going straight down until you can’t go on anymore. You’ll reach a very small village; it’s like it’s the last village before you reach the end of the world. The land just stops. And then it’s just sea,” says Pierre, the taxi driver who picked me up from Marseille train station. As we zip along the craggy coastline south of France’s second largest city, he tells me a little bit about Les Goudes, where I am headed, which is a district of Marseille tucked in the Calanques National Park, a huge rocky stretch scattered with coves that extends 200 square miles along the sea.

We stop before Les Goudes village in front of a small glass door with pastel pink lettering indicating I’d reached Tuba Club, the restaurant with rooms that’s become a go-to for well-healed travelers since it opened in summer 2020. The small clapboard building is combed with a corrugated roof like icing on a cake, and reminds me of beach huts. Inside, and down the stairs, I run into Greg Gassa, the owner, and his team who are straightening up the restaurant just before the lunchtime rush.

As I shake his hand, the midday sunlight pulls into the room, streaming through the rectangular windows that run the entire length of the restaurant and look out onto the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. Fishing boats bob up and down on the water before they return to one of the tiny ports tucked in one of the calanques coves.

Sometimes, they stop at the end of the rocky outcrop in front of the restaurant to sell their catch to this season’s new resident chefs, Sylvain Roucayrol, the headman at Caché and Amagat restaurants in Paris, and Paul-Henri Bayart, who traded the stock market in for an apron and a kitchen knife, trained as a chef and landed at Caché, where he met Sylvain. Now the two are putting Tuba Club on the culinary map thanks to their menu of well-sourced local fish and vegetables. “The type of cooking we do is mainly focused on fresh fish, so when Greg suggested we come and do a season at Tuba, right on the sea, with all the wonderful produce around, it totally made sense,” says Sylvain in a subtle, soft Perpignan accent, sipping on sparkling water before getting set up in the kitchen.

Outside on the terrace overlooking the sea, staff wearing dazzling white Tuba-stamped t-shirts shake lay yellow cabana stripe sun mattresses which have become Tuba Club’s trademark, out on the rocks already hot from the midday sun, and line tables up along the water tethered by smart cream fringes parasols.

It might be Tuba’s third summer, but it’s their first real season. “When we first opened, we had to close almost right away due to Covid,” says Greg, shaking his head, leaning on a wall, his eyes darting to the sea through dark-rimmed round glasses. “Then last summer, we couldn’t really operate as we wanted to due to restrictions, so this season, is technically our first proper one, and we can’t wait!”

Greg darts in and out of the restaurant, his longish floppy brown hair flying behind him, a tall lanky figure dressed in denim, he is instantly recognisable, and knows how to make people feel at ease. “I’ve traveled all over and used to work in the fashion industry,” he says. “But I wanted to come back to Marseille, where my parents are from and where I spent part of my childhood.”

An old diving school where divers would hang up their flippers for the night before heading out to sea in the morning, the building was left empty for years before Greg came upon it. With the help of Marseillais designer Marion Mailaender, one to watch right now, he turned the building into five rooms that have a cabin feel with quirky details inspired by Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier’s modernist beach huts in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, that strike somewhere between genius and brilliance. The result is a restaurant with rooms that feels like it’s always been there, just as it is.

“We actually first came out here to visit the condo above the diving club,” explains Greg motioning the building with wires poking out the front as workers put the finishing touches to what will be Tuba’s sunset terrace and three huge suites with big views of nothing but sea and sky, slated to open in the fall. “But it was too expensive. The owner of the condo who told us about the old diving club here being up for sale. We bought it right away. And a year later, he sold us his apartment.”

Outside on the rocks, resident and non-resident guests settle on mattresses, ice cubes clink in cold glasses of rosé, and aromas of grilled fish waft through the air tinged with the scent of sun cream, luring me to take my seat at a table at the water’s edge.

The chefs serve huge platters of raw vegetables plucked from gardens nearby and plate up fish in so many wonderful ways that I lose count. But the one that sticks in my mind is the raw tender sea bass sashimi rolled back in its skin like fish scales, which is also Sylvain’s signature at Caché back at his Paris headquarters. Make sure to also order the grilled fish and the Provencal calamari or just fried with smoky harissa, a nod to Marseille’s mixed heritage. Don’t miss the chefs’ churros with local biscuits and homemade light-as-gelato ice cream with vanilla, lavender and lemon toppings, to finish.

Snooze lunch off stretched out on a yellow mattress by the water in between dips in the brisk swirling waters you can throw yourself in from the rocks or glide into from what must be the most photogenic ladder that ever was, which hooked to the rocks, curves down into the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Stay on for apéro hour and settle at a table up on the rooftop terrace for cocktails and picky bits of warm local fougasse bread with a trio of tangy sauces and local olives in time for sunset.

After sundown, drinks and dinner can be had in the restaurant, or in Les Goudes village, which boasts a handful of great options. As there is no music at Tuba, the spot is quiet, chatter paced by the rise and fall of the waves below. At night, there’s a splash of stars above, to be contemplated through windows that look out onto the rocks and sea from the comfort of bouncy beds in one of Tuba’s five rooms.

Designer Marion Mailaender’s magic operates throughout. Wood panels remind of sea-worn boat hulls and cabins straight out of 1988 movie The Big Blue. Vintage postcards of Les Goudes, books about diving, shells and playful ceramic lighting fixtures found at flea markets bring warmth and character to spaces that feel personal but not cluttered. Old masks and tubas hang from blue metal “Pipe” hooks by artist Elvire Bonduelle and thick twisted boat rope lines the walls in guise of plinths. Choose room three for space and a little spot of your own on the terrace or room four for quiet away from the restaurant hubbub.

The next day, I wake with the sun pushing towards the horizon through a sky of washed-out electric pinks before it turns to its usual bright cobalt blue. Early morning or evening are the best times for exploring the surroundings, generally scorching by midday. I wanted to see taxi driver Pierre’s take on the “end of the world” so I lace up and head outside. The road forks and a car zips past with girls hands out of rolled-down windows bellowing the words to the Whitney Houston classic I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me). It’s like stepping into the frame of an eighties movie here, which feels both comforting and refreshing. And surrounded by the elements, there’s a feeling that everything is possible here, especially living at your own pace.

I follow the car into Les Goudes village, which curves around a small port before snaking around a huge mountain jutting out of the sea, its rock face blackened and weathered by the wind making it look like it’s melting in the sun. Accessible only by boat on its own island, birds circle its steepled tops before resting in the crumbling church and graveyard built on one side. Walking trails crisscross the surrounding rocks, up to peaks from which to admire the nearby islands scattered in the sea.

I pick my way along a narrow path carved into a prong of rock that leads to the Cap Croisette adjacent to a tiny sheltered bay with a restaurant called the Baie des Singes, that comes alive in season and is known for throwing raucous parties in its heyday. When I visit, the restaurant has yet to open for the season, and the tiny cluster of irregular beach houses surrounding it looks uninhabited save for a few garments the same color of the land drying on a clothes line, giving the area an alluring deserted atmosphere accentuated by lashes of wind and swirling grey cloud. A handful of locals are out walking their dogs or set up with a beer on the rocks waiting for sunset. As I pass them, they greet me with a nod and a smile, one that says they know they’re onto a good thing here in this quiet corner of Marseille.

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