You followed French Girl in Seattle around Lyon a few days ago. We looked at historic streets, buildings and churches, scenic riverbanks, and at least one world-class museum. Let’s be honest: We can’t talk about that magnificent French city without discussing Lyon’s food. Tout un programme. A long story. Lyon is said to be the French (even the world’s!) capital of gastronomy. Move over, Paris!
There are many different ways to savor Lyon’s food. Some visitors visit some of the area’s most renowned addresses, like Paul Bocuse‘s restaurant, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Paul Bocuse, “Monsieur Paul,” was for decades one of the world’s most revered chefs, who was once awarded one of three “Chef of the Century” awards by Gault & Millau. Co-founder of la nouvelle cuisine, businessman, author, the man did it all. He is gone now, (Véro’s note: Paul Bocuse passed away in 2018 after this article was written,) yet his influence can be felt all over the French food scene, and beyond. In Lyon, he is featured on several giant murals, a local tradition.
Many people visit Bocuse‘s restaurants as if going on a pilgrimage, with much anticipation and reverence. They tell the tale when they return, stars shining in their eyes as they recall their culinary adventures while discovering Lyon’s food. There are other big names in the area, like les Trois Gros, the three-starred Michelin restaurant, north of Lyon. In the city, people flock to les Bouchons lyonnais, bistros that serve traditional local food in a modest and friendly environment. Most Bouchons can be found in le Vieux Lyon (the touristy old town,) or la Presqu’Ile, the area located between the Saône and Rhône rivers. There, customers sample specialties such as Cochonaille (charcuterie,) or tender Poulet de Bresse, local chicken raised north-east of Lyon, with the coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, (A.O.C.) label, a guarantee of quality. They can choose, as I did, quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings served in a rich Nantua sauce made of celery, crayfish, carrots and Cognac,) and for dessert, a Cervelle de Canut (brain of the silk-weaver,) fromage blanc flavored with chives, garlic, shallot, parsley and more. Every decent meal in Lyon can be washed down with a pichet (house wine) or bottle of local wines, Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône.
Picking a restaurant in a big city known for its gastronomy, can be daunting. In Lyon, spotting the words “Bouchon lyonnais” on almost every restaurant window in the Old Town is puzzling. Any restaurant can claim to be un bouchon and serve Lyon’s food. In order to separate the boys from the men, the city created a “Bouchon lyonnais” label in 2012. Look for the logo featured at the top of this story to identify restaurants that belong to that respected group. There are about 20 members so far.
I travel alone, and eating in Michelin-starred restaurants is not an appealing option. When looking for a dinner place, I tend to ask around; or I trust my instinct as I explore a neighborhood and spot a menu and cadre (environment) I like. Last month, when I stayed in le Vieux Lyon, I decided to visit a restaurant I’d heard great things about: Aux 24 Colonnes. It was the weekend, and I did not make a reservation. My mistake. When I showed up and flashed my Americanized smile (“Do you have a small table for me, or a seat at the bar, s’il vous plait?“) the manager told me they were booked solid. He took pity on my disappointed face. He motioned me aside; found a piece of paper; and kept his customers waiting while he took the time to write and explain detailed instructions to another reliable address, Notre Maison, in the touristy old town. “Tell them I sent you!” Off I went, clutching the precious note, passing other eateries, crammed with tourists, on the way.
I knew Notre Maison. It is described online as an incontournable, (not-to-be-missed) restaurant in le Vieux Lyon. I had also taken a photo of an unusual sign on the red, unassuming front door the day before. Clearly, if you are going to enjoy Lyon’s food there, you’d better not be rushed.
Alas, I struck out again. The colorful owner spotted me standing at the door; stepped decisively across the packed room; shook his head and commented in a long whisper: “Ma petite dame, it’s going to be difficult to find a table in a decent place at this time of the evening. Visit my friends at Les Fines Gueules. Theirs is an authentic Bouchon. You won’t regret it. Stay away from long menus. Run if they are translated into other languages! Tell les Fines Gueules I sent you.” Off I went, around the corner, to an unassuming restaurant with a small terrace I had passed on my way from the hotel twice. This time, I lucked out. There was one table left in the narrow, cobbled street. Perfect. Not only was I going to savor Lyon’s food; I had also landed a prime location for people-watching. Menu with limited options: Check. Friendly service (traveling alone as a woman comes with perks:) Check! Delicious food (see photos in this post:) Check. It was a tasty but simple dinner, at a reasonable price. I could not have asked for more.
Lyon’s food is incredible, and varied. Restaurants are not the only way to savor it. In Part 2 of this post, I will share with you more good times and deliciousness I enjoyed during my two-day visit. Stay tuned.
For a comprehensive and entertaining overview of Lyon’s food scene, I highly recommend Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, “Lyon,” released in 2014. You can download the episode online for under $2. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Preview is here.
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