Forget the exhilaration, forget the sense of freedom, forget the beautiful landscapes and joy of sliding effortlessly through a wonderland of snow and ice, most people in France only ski so they can burn enough calories to justify eating a median-lethal dose of cheese every evening. Even for the painfully British among us, no trip to the French Alps is truly complete without indulging in at least one delicious, gooey Savoyarde fondue.
There is an old rhetorical question around these parts, “who did we love first, the cow or the cheese?” In the summer, when the snow has mostly melted away and the pistes have become huge vertiginous fields full of grazing cows, the people of the Haute-Savoie turn their collective attention to the production of fantastic flavoursome cheeses. You can turn heads in the Tarentaise Valley by simply saying the names of these local fromages aloud: “Beaufort, Raclette, Tomme, Emmenthal, Abondance, Reblochon...” During the cold winter months when luxuriously hearty meals are highly-prized, it is no wonder that that fondue, the supreme incarnation of molten cheese, tops the bill at many restaurants. So grab some friends, and a fork, and join me on a tour of the best places to get your cheese-fix in Les Arcs.
Le Refuge, Bourg St Maurice
This compact but characterful restaurant on Bourg’s quaint, pedestrianised high street is incredibly popular throughout the year and a place I have personally visited more times than I can remember. Serving primarily traditional, Savoyarde dishes, they somehow manage to achieve both quantity and quality of food, whilst keeping prices reasonable. The service is always absurdly hospitable, English and French menus are available and the two lovely waiting staff are capable of being jovial in both languages. There are usually three cheese fondues on offer (and a meat fondue, featuring beef and turkey) which are available for two persons and above, from €15 per person. If you do, somehow, manage to eat all the fondue’s accompaniments (which may, depending on choice, include bread, salad, charcuterie, pickles, etc) they will top them up free-of-charge. With portion sizes already generous, the idea that you would need more can be quite absurd. Just be sure to book a table in advance, because the restaurant’s big reputation but small size mean that “walk-ins” are sometimes disappointed.
Le Solan d’Aniathazze, Peisey-Vallandry
With its outdoor terrace situated right next to the Vanoise Express, the Solan is easier to find from the piste than the main street. However, unlike Le Refuge above, the restaurant has a large number of tables over multiple levels so can quite easily accommodate bigger groups. This is ideal as many of the chalets in Peisey-Vallandry are fully-catered and, with chalet staff typically having the same day off in the week, this causes increased demand on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The dining rooms sport a “modern chalet” decor and are perennially popular, regardless of season, for lunches and evening meals. The fondues here are only available in the evening but are very good indeed. There are two choices: the standard “Savoyarde” at €21pp and the indulgent “Morilles,” which features the famous mushrooms, for €28pp. Charcuterie (a selection of cured meats) is optional, with a sharing platter costing an additional €6. If, for some unknown reason, a member of your party prefers meat to cheese, they also offer “pierrades” whereby you cook your own miscellany of raw meats on the hot stone provided. Despite being a “larger” restaurant, I have always found the service to be friendly and welcoming, with the usual concessions to the English language.
Le Chalet de l’Arcelle, Arc 1600
If you follow the Violettes piste a short distance past the Combettes lift, to the very edge of Arc 1600, you will find something of an anomaly. In a resort otherwise well-known as a paean of large-scale 1960s architecture, there is a genuine chalet-type building standing alone next to the piste. Furthermore, it contains one of the best restaurants in Les Arcs. Although I’ve never personally had their fondue, I am informed by a very reliable expert on cheese-consumption that the unctuous fayre offered here is not just the finest in Arc 1600, but arguably the best in the Haute Savoie region. Unlike many restaurants across the mountain, the menu served at lunch is the same at dinnertime (which, for everyone who has accidentally chosen, ordered and subsequently been refused a dish which was not temporally available, seems like a surprisingly sensible idea), so you can get fondue in the afternoon as well as the evening. This is a genuine opportunity for the brave/foolhardy to double their daily cheese intake. Fortunately, all the fondues here include both charcuterie and salad, so you can vary your dairy-rich diet without trying too hard.
Chez Clarisse, Arc 1800
There is a wide choice of eateries in Arc 1800 and Chez Clarisse is quite easily overlooked despite its central position in Les Villards. If you head away from the pistes on the top level of the Place Villards, past Le Saloon and Bar King Mad, just before you get to the apartment elevators of L’Armoise you will find a small but cosy restaurant built into the main complex. This is another small place with a big reputation for excellent service, exceptionally reasonable prices and even better food/cheese. The decent selection of fondues (which include salad) are very reasonably priced, and you can pimp your sides by adding boiled potatoes and charcuterie for an extra €6pp. One particular speciality is fondue served in a loaf of bread (or “Miche”) which means you can keep eating even after you have reached the bottom of the cheese crucible. Just be sure to book (often at least a day) in advance for dinner, because tables fill up quickly and the restaurant is only open during traditional meal times.
Le 2134, Arc 2000
If you are staying in either Arc 2000 or Arc 1950, a visit to Le 2134 in the upper village’s Aiguille Rouge building is practically a necessity. Named after the restaurant’s altitude, the rooftop terrace gives excellent views of Les Arcs’ highest peak. Considering the location and ambience, meals are very competitively priced and the waiting staff are almost universally lovely. The traditional fondue at Le 2134 is less than €20pp, there is one with morel mushrooms (€29pp), and they even have a speciality “festive fondue with champagne” for €26.50pp.
Make your own
If you are self-catering, you can always choose to Do It Yourself and make fondue in your own apartment. If you have a kitchen in your accommodation, oftentimes there is a fondue kit tucked inside one of the cupboards. Even if there is no equipment to hand, many of the village shops serving local produce will be able to provide you with a set; this is often free of charge if you leave a deposit and buy your relevant provisions (typically cheese and genepi) from them. The Grange Berger stores (Arc 1800 and Arc 1600) and Au Petit Savoyarde in Plan Peisey spring immediately to mind, although some of the more generic mountain supermarkets also provide the same service.