France’s Best Bistros? Bring Your Appetite to Lyon
My perennial daydreams of Paris feature Haussmannian apartment buildings with wrought iron balconies, stolen kisses on Seine bridges, café terraces, spirited discussions with shopkeepers and greenmarket vendors, twilight apéros of cheese, charcuterie, and a fresh red, and, of course, dinners at my favorite bistros. Yet I am increasingly escaping Paris for Lyon for the true bistro experience. In France’s second-largest city and the hometown of “Chef of the Century” Paul Bocuse, the Lyonnais revere the masterful execution of classic dishes at their inexpensive, convivial, well-worn, mom-and-pop bouchons.
Bouchons originated as simple, honest restaurants serving Lyon’s silk workers in the 18th century. Between the two World Wars, talented female cooks left the houses of their employers to bring their classic bourgeois cooking to bouchons and other establishments, earning renown for their excellence as the Mères Lyonnaises. (Monsieur Bocuse trained under Mère Brazier, who herself trained under Mère Fillioux.) Under the Mères, the bouchons flourished, as they continue to do today.
Three characteristics unite bouchons — their resolutely classic, delicious, long-slow, inexpensive cooking; their warm ambiance and historic decor (preserved as proprietors retired and premises changed hands during the past century); and the presence of the owners, which guarantees the quality of the cooking and gives the bouchons their soul.
As befitting their focus on classics, bouchons have menus that substantially overlap. After complementary grattons (pork cracklings), you can expect starters such as oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in a red wine sauce), salade lyonnaise (frisée salad with lardons, croutons, and a poached egg), homemade game, pork, or chicken liver pâtés, and les saladiers lyonnais, a generous assortment of serve-yourself salad bowls with delicacies such as salade de museau de boeuf (thin slices of beef muzzle in a vinaigrette with sliced cornichons), pieds de veau rémoulade (cubed deboned calf’s feet in a mayonnaise with capers and cornichons), and cervelas en salade (a local pork sausage, sliced, in a vinaigrette).
Standard mains feature quenelle de brochet sauce nantua (soufléed pike dumpling in a tomato, crawfish shell, and cream sauce), gâteau de foie de volaille sauce nantua (soufléed chicken livers in sauce nantua), poulet au vinaigre (chicken in a vinegar, tomato, white wine, and cream sauce), poulet à la crème aux morilles (chicken in a white wine and cream sauce with morels), tablier de sapeur sauce gribiche (fried and breaded tripe in a mayonnaise with mixed herbs, vinegar, capers, and sliced cornichons), andouillette (sausage made from a calf’s small intestines, typically in a white wine and mustard sauce), and tête de veau sauce ravigote (calf’s head in a vinaigrette with mixed herbs, capers, and onions).
Two local specialties are omnipresent for the cheese course: cervelle de canut (fromage blanc, a soft, creamy cheese with a yogurt-like consistency, mixed with garlic, olive oil, egg, vinegar, and chives) and saint-marcellin (a creamy, disk-shaped, cows-milk cheese).
Desserts are unimprovable classics like chocolate mousse, crème caramel, tarte à la praline (tart topped with a pink almond cream), baba au rhum (sweet brioche with whipped cream and doused with rum), tarte tatin with crème fraiche, and fruit sorbets irrigated by your own hand from bottles of liqueurs such as marc de bourgogne or chartreuse. A three-course dinner costs a very modest 25–35 Euros (tax and gratuity included).
The Wine List
As with the food, the bouchon wine programs adhere to a proven formula. Lyon has the enviable luxury of bordering the Côtes-du-Rhone wine region to the south and Beaujolais to the north, with Burgundy a short distance beyond. While the bouchon wine lists feature attractive bottles from these regions, it is hard to circumvent the pots lyonnais, slender, heavy bottomed glass carafes measuring exactly 46cl and wearing a rubber band or twine near the mouth, filled with inexpensive but pleasing fresh, sturdy regional wines like Mâcon, Beaujolais, and Côtes-du-Rhone, at a gentle 12–15 Euros. Note that if you must return to work, it is possible to order a fillette, measuring about 22–25 cl.
Amongst the initiated, the bouchon decor inspires boundless, anticipatory joy. Slow your pace as you approach the dark brown wooden facade with large glass windows and a glass door, both hung with white lace curtains promising semi-private pleasures within. Enter and view the deliciously worn vertical wood paneling at the bar behind which are shelves of digestifs waiting patiently for their turn. Hang your coat on the vertical iron coathooks on the horizontal wooden frame, and stow away other personal effects on the brass shelf made of four horizontal bars joined to the wall above a broad, handsome rectangular mirror. Sit at your table with the red-and-white checkered tablecloth covered by white butcher paper on a burgundy bench or cane wood bistro chair, and regard the similarly adorned tables around the room. On the tables yet to be occupied, you observe the line of wine glasses at attention like soldiers and the fine red-and-white checkered cloth napkins folded upright on the plates, and on the tables already occupied, you see the plates and glasses in action and the satisfied faces above them. Take in the inverted copper pots hanging in descending order, the tantalizing hanging cured sausages, the zones separated by low wood paneled dividing walls topped by horizontal metal bars, and the ramshackle decor with old photos of the city and scenes from the country, maps of wine regions, ancient photos of wine harvests, old advertisements of Byrrh and Suze, and photos of proprietors and clientele, past and present. A dish of grattons is offered to welcome you. Would Monsieur like an aperitif? Yes he would indeed Madame, what is the specialty of the house?
Your interactions with the owner of the bouchon (and your eavesdropping on the other customers’ exchanges with the owner) complete the experience. It is simply just more fun with the owner there. Her watchful eye elevates the food, her personality (whether matronly, quirky, or perhaps a little guarded until you earn her trust) infuses the room with character, and her esteem and hands-on management yield long-time staff that become extended family, supporting players in the theatre of the bouchon, which for the next two-to-three hours is the respite from the comedy/drama/tragedy that is your own life. Note that it is strongly in your favor if the owner is also on the more “well-experienced” or more “well-proportioned” side, evidencing her honing of perfection and rejection of fads and fashions. Without pinpointing these physical traits, suffice it to say that in Lyon, bouchons are often family affairs.
The concentration of superlative bouchons within Lyon is truly remarkable. Bouchons are institutions and fine addresses abound. Pressed to select my top favorites, I submit my ballot as follows:
Chez Hugon (12, rue Pizay) is the ultimate mom-and-pop, now mom-and-son. Helmed by the Hugons since 1985, this 29-seat bouchon features a wood-paneled bar to the right, two rows of tables along the left and right sides, and in the back, translucent glass windows to separate a tiny, semi-open kitchen. Madame Arlette Hugon is everywhere, warmly chatting with the guests, tending the bar, and overseeing the dishes prepared carefully and correctly according to recipes that have been transmitted generation-by-generation within her family (with special mention for her grandmother’s gâteau de foie de volaille sauce nantua). You think to yourself that this dinner alone was worth the transatlantic flight and connection, and when the wine and vieille prune wear off the next day you still agree.
I swoon for Madame Laurence Ginet, an owner of La Voûte Chez Léa (11, place Antonin Gourju). She is your hostess, waitress, sommelière, and server; and she radiates a warmth and voluptuousness that foretells the robust pleasures to come. Between visits I dream fervently about the succulent poulet au vinaigre de vin vieux accompanied by a macaroni gratin. It is best in show. The room is also warmly inviting, with its antique wooden tables covered by muted pink cloth tablecloths, wooden benches and bistro chairs, and vertical wood-paneled bar. In short, La Voûte Chez Lea is a pleasure so complete that you begin to contemplate moving in to take your fidelity to the next level.
Chef-owner Brigitte Josserand acquired Café du Jura (25, rue Tupin) with her late husband Henri in 1974; and today she still cooks while her son Benoit and Olivia warmly attend to the clientele in an archetypical bouchon dining room left virtually untouched since 1934. Madame Josserand has very exacting standards, and the temperament of a perfectionist. A hand-written note on a mirror reads “I have cooked for 43 years using fresh and high quality products. Here there is no microwave oven. For clients in a rush, there are the neon signs of fast food.” Her dedication to the craft is exemplified by her outstanding house-made terrine with dried fruits and foie gras that graciously includes two slices to the order (allowing the client to remain relatively calm as the first is devoured), as well as her main courses such as the quenelle de brochet sauce nantua, gâteau de foies de volaille et ses ravioles, and a plat du jour dependent upon Madame Josserand’s daily market basket. By the time I have finished a house-made dessert, followed it with an espresso, settled up at the bar, and thanked Benoit and Olivia, I am invariably already eagerly anticipating my next return visit.
I have a cuisine that reassures people; here there is not a concept, it’s just about tradition.
Le Garet, 7, rue du Garet, was fully booked the first two times I tried to dine there. Now I understand why. According to Emmanuel Ferra, the owner since 2002, “I have a cuisine that reassures people; here there is not a concept, it’s just about tradition.” The room likewise reflects tradition, with decades of mounting bric-a-brac and the table-side plaques honoring the faithful clients. The service, including by Monsieur Ferra, is friendly and familial. The outstanding fricassee de rognons de veau, salsifis au jus (sauteed veal kidneys and salsifies braised in their own sauce) caused my face to express pleasures usually reserved for that of the flesh. When I looked up and saw I was caught by the attractive black-turtlenecked woman across from me, my momentary embarrassment faded as she returned a knowing look of Le Garet complicity.
Chez Hugon (12, rue Pizay, 69001 Lyon, tel. 04 78 28 10 94, bouchonlyonnais.fr, open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner)
La Voûte Chez Léa (11, place Antonin Gourju, 69002 Lyon, tel. 04 78 42 01 33, lavoutechezlea.com, open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, online booking available)
Le Café Du Jura (25, rue Tupin, 69002 Lyon, tel. 04 78 42 20 57, bouchonlejura.fr, open Tuesdays to Saturdays for lunch and dinner, online booking available)
Le Garet (7, rue du Garet, 69001 Lyon, tel. 04 78 28 16 94, open Mondays to Fridays for lunch and dinner)