Beautiful weather, five-star hotels, marinas packed with yachts and one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. This combination can only be found in one place: the swanky and seductive seaside city of Cannes, France.
The jewel of the French Riviera, and once a refuge for royalty and the upper crust who followed behind, Cannes has long been associated with glitz and glamor. Today, while the town sees a steady drip of the world’s well-to-do year round, with a major influx during the prime summer months, it’s largely the Cannes Film Festival and its A-list celebrities, models and socialites that keep the town’s luxe pedigree in the global spotlight. Held annually throughout the second half of May (this year from May 16-27), the festival is the buzziest time to pay Cannes a visit. It’s also when you’ll most want someone on the inside to help direct you through the noise and toward the best the city has to offer.
As far as finding the best bars in Cannes, lucky for you, we know a guy: the dapper Emanuele Balestra, bar director at the five-star Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic.
Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic
Located on Boulevard de la Croisette, the main drag along the Mediterranean referred to simply as “the Croisette,” and directly across the street from the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, the hub of all things Cannes Film Festival and home of the famous red-carpeted stairs, Le Majestic is an integral part of the festival. Each year more than 50 of the hotel’s 349 rooms are transformed into temporary office space for entertainment industry dealmakers, and the palm tree-lined pool and private beach club serve as ideal spots to enjoy downtime between screenings and events. For sustenance, or perhaps more importantly during the festival, for hobnobbing, there are also five restaurants and four bars, the latter of which are Emanuele Balestra’s domain.
Emanuele Balestra: King of the Aromatic Cocktail
Originally from Italy, Balestra has tended bar around the world, from Sydney to Chicago and Mauritius to Marrakech. But Cannes, with its climate ideal for nurturing plants and herbs (more on that in a moment), convinced him to put down roots here in 2013. Within Le Majestic, Balestra’s home base is the hotel’s signature drinking establishment, Bar du Fouquet’s, located inside the Cannes outpost of the iconic Paris brasserie of the same name.
Here, with a menu designed by three Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, Balestra makes drinks that can complement the food and stand on their own as an epicurean experience. Approaching his work as a mixologist, botanist and aromachologist, he sources many of his cocktail ingredients from two gardens at the hotel where he cultivates over 70 different herbs and plants including geraniums, Thai basil, sage, fennel, aloe vera, and citrus like Italian bergamot and lemons. He also maintains an apiary on the hotel’s roof, whose bees create honey to sweeten his drinks (he extracts an estimated 154 pounds of honey a year).
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It is with these ingredients that Balestra distills, dehydrates and infuses, and makes tinctures, bitters, jellies, flavored waters, extracts and edible perfumes — going so far as to use technology like an ultrasound machine and a rotary evaporator to break down the molecular structure of ingredients and assemble new flavor profiles. He’s been described as “the king of the aromatic cocktail.” “For him, making a cocktail is a process that starts way ahead, with a long period of preparation that involves separating out elements of taste and flavor,” Groupe Barrière, the brand behind Le Majestic, explains. “Far from the familiar, quickly shaken or quickly stirred, a Balestra cocktail is the product of long, watchful patience.”
Going one step further still on his quest to craft the perfect, multi-sensory libation, Balestra has added custom glassware to his repertoire. Blown in partnership with a local glassblower, Balestra says it’s “designed to capture and enhance the aromas and scents of the drink and its ingredients like never before.” His palpable excitement over every stage and aspect of the drink-making process makes one thing abundantly clear: you won’t find a more passionate barman in Cannes.
Emanuele Balestra’s 5 Favorite Bars in Cannes
That said, when Balestra wants someone else to make him an exquisitely crafted cocktail, or simply pour him an amaro neat, here are the five bars he frequents.
“The stunning Carlton Hotel just reopened in Cannes after three years of renovation work. An intimate bar that transports its guests back to the heyday of actresses like Sophia Loren, Bar°58 (the name a nod to the hotel’s iconic address) is a smaller bar located in the heart of the hotel next to a new and lush garden. It’s certainly the best place to soak up the splendor of the hotel and the music has an upbeat energy that always enhances the convivial atmosphere. And while the decor and glassware beautifully channel the art deco designs of the ‘50s and ‘60s on the French Riviera, the real showstoppers are the breathtaking, handmade chandeliers. The drinks employ classic, Southern French ingredients including local fruits of the region, paired with sophisticated bites, many of which feature local seafood. Frank Gamba, the bar manager, has operated all five of the Carlton bars for the last 15 years, and it’s been a pleasure to welcome him and his team back to the Croisette.”
My order: “Definitely a spritz garnished with the fresh herbs of the day.”
“While the famous Harry’s Bar in Paris feels more connected to New York City, the Harry’s Bar in Cannes, which opened last year, feels more connected to Cuba thanks in part to its location on the port and decor of light colors, shades of blue and natural woods. It’s owned by Franz-Arther MacElhone (the great-grandson of Harry’s Bar originator, Harry MacElhone), who has created one of the most beautiful bars in Cannes with a gorgeous terrace where guests can enjoy the sun and atmosphere of the French Riviera, along with the buzz of the port. They also have live music reminiscent of the bands that traditionally perform in Cuba.
“Harry’s Bar in Paris (which is over 100 years old) is credited with inventing cocktails like the Bloody Mary, the White Lady, the Sidecar and the French 75. So in keeping with tradition, the cocktail list at their location in Cannes offers these and other classic cocktails, all of which are made exquisitely with a Mediterranean touch. The bar also has an incredible collection of old whiskeys, including Macallan single malts from the ‘70s. Light, salty snacks like focaccia and croque monsieurs pair perfectly alongside the cocktails too.”
My order: “Their French 75, made with 44°N Gin, a floral gin made in nearby Grasse that captures flavors from Provence, rather than the classic juniper-led London dry style.”
“L’Experience is known for its extensive selection of natural wines and beers, including sought-after bottles like Loire Valley pinot noir and Chinons. The staff is very knowledgeable about all of the wines on offer, many of which are local and rare since they can’t be transported far (so of course, many people with a passion for wine come here for this reason). Inside, it’s cozy and dimly lit and the decor is casual and comfortable with low, saloon-style seating and pastel shades throughout. Outside, there’s a nice seating area for people watching and enjoying the sun in the daytime. Aside from wine, they also have a great selection of cocktails and spirits to choose from as well as sharing-style charcuterie boards to snack on while you drink.”
My order: “A margarita because it is always perfectly made and I can select a different tequila of my choice from their collection each time.”
“This is a good-times tiki bar with a Caribbean vibe located directly in front of the Palais des Festivals on the Croisette. The decor is full of pink and white pastel colors and the staff — who are always incredibly happy, welcoming and friendly — wear brightly colored tropical shirts. In addition to it being a great place for out-of-town visitors, it’s also a great bartender’s bar for those of us working locally, and I often drink Fernet-Branca or Chartreuse when I visit the team here (the bar manager, who’s nickname is Biff because he looks like the character from Back to the Future, is famous in Cannes). They have a huge selection of rums from Jamaica, which is a big draw for rum enthusiasts and those interested in the spirit, as well as a menu of French/Caribbean fusion fare with great seafood. It’s all set against a backdrop of tropical, Caribbean and bossa nova music, which adds to the overall energy.”
My order: “Aside from sipping on an amaro or Chartreuse, my other drink of choice here is a Mai Tai (on account of the aforementioned rum selection).”
“A beautiful thing about the luxury hotels of Cannes is that there is no competition between us; we all know, respect and help each other. Every hotel has a different approach to drinks but always the same exceptional hospitality and beautiful setting. Hôtel Martinez is no exception and we’re all looking forward to the May 16 opening of Le Sud (a reinvention of their iconic bar, L’Amiral). [Editor’s note: This coincides with the start of the Cannes Film Festival.] Helmed by Bar Manager Olivier Pillon, this beloved space is very historical. The bar is shaped like a horseshoe and features brass nameplates all around the bar top at each seat, each engraved with the names of its most iconic celebrity guests. Coming alive at night, the former space featured a grand piano (a pianist would perform from 5 p.m. onwards) and a soaring ceiling with beautiful acoustics. I expect this style of music will return with the opening of Le Sud.”
My order: “Either the Gin Fizz or Tom Collins because Picasso and Salvador Dalí famously drank them on the Côte d’Azur.”
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