We pushed open the door and stepped into another world, the world of a fine old bouchon*, and we knew we were in for a perfect evening. A warm welcome awaited us as we, entranced, winded our way through this magical, bustling restaurant in all of its traditional Lyons' charm. Tables of dark chocolate brown wood polished and gleaming, a bar hugging one wall lined with bottles of all shapes and sizes and colors, diners happy and buoyant, common folk sitting elbow to elbow next to Lyons' upper crust bourgeois carrying on animated conversations, sharing stories, laughs and the pleasure of eating in such a place. Le patron hovers over his clients, teasing, joking, making sure everyone is content and he finds himself over at our table where, instead of handing us menus as we had expected, he pulls up a chair and joins us. He then begins to recite the day's offerings, explaining and commenting on each dish, one by one, pulling gleefully on his own plump cheek as he describes the joues de porc, pig's cheeks, and asking our fellow diners to hold up their plates of food for our scrutiny as he names one or the other, confident that the diner in question will certainly praise the food. I began with a plate of snails, dense yet tender, swimming in a luscious cream sauce kissed by garlic and perched atop tiny home-baked brioche. And I just had to try the quenelle de brochet, a classic bouchon dish and traditional food of this gastronomic city. The quenelle de brochet, pike dumpling, served here in a langoustine cream sauce was as big as my head, light and fluffy like a soufflé though denser and tasting delicately of fish. It was served alongside a rich, creamy potato gratin and perfectly sautéed endives. Copious and gorgeous! My meal ended with a warm crème brûlée -- just perfect. Everything was served without ceremony, simply with the pride of a chef placing only the best before a special guest. Generous food is the hallmark of this generous town.
Yet the evening wasn't quite over. Near the end of the meal an excited buzz started running through the dining room, whispers passing from client to client. Le patron approaches each table, each client and invites us all to a private tour of his "traboule", the secret passages that weave between buildings and courtyards all throughout Lyons allowing residents and visitors to pass from building to building without going out into the street. Le patron, elegant and erudite, passionate about the history of his building and his traboule, leaves us laughing at his bawdy brothel jokes, entranced by the stories of famous people, fascinated by the history of this secret, fabulous spot in Lyons, a history of Ancient Rome, the French Resistance, the city's famous silk workers, presidents and prostitutes, church and politics. An evening truly well spent.
On our stroll back to our hotel, I turned to my French husband and wondered why we don't find this type of restaurant, the rich, luscious food, the "ambiance bon enfant" - informal, easy-going, lively, convivial atmosphere - in our own city of Nantes. He pointed out that while Lyons' traditional cuisine was born to feed the working class, Nantes is very bourgeois, a city where les nantais dine with friends and family in the comfort and elegance of their own homes and that when they do eat out strive for an atmosphere that repeats the comfort and privacy of home. And the food specialties reflect the diner: platters of seafood, fresh fish in delicate butter sauces, asparagus and lamb's lettuce, food simple and light, perfect for an elegant dinner party. As delicious and special as it is, there is nothing hearty about our local cuisine and nothing particularly jovial about the spirit in which it is served.
Unlike the bourgeois sophistication of a Nantes' restaurant or the bustling grandeur of Parisian brasseries meant to serve the masses as they stop in for lunch in between a visit to the wax museum and a stroll through the botanic gardens with children and grandmother, the bouchon Lyonnais was created as a place of repose and restoration for the worker. No waiters rushing around, elbowing their way through the crowd and making sure diners were in and out in record time, no fancy china, candlelight or choosing which fork to use, nothing meant to pamper and charm, just the patron and his wife or daughter making sure that their hard-working clients were filled up and happy! Bouchons were originally wine bars where the local silk workers or passing stagecoach drivers could fill up on a simple, hearty cuisine that was based on fresh local products -- mostly pig in the form of andouillette, fried crackling, tripes, petit salé -- and lots of the local wine among like-minded souls, enjoying their brief moment of freedom amid laughter and loud, boisterous behavior. Today's clients may be a bit more upscale, the bouchons may indeed attract their fair share of tourists, but diners come for the same reason and the bouchons remain just as they always have, a place where one can find freshness, simplicity and generosity both in the food and the welcome.
* In 1997, the Association for the Protection of the Lyonnais Bouchon created a special label, "Authentiques bouchons lyonnais", to identify those eating establishments considered typical, traditional bouchons and where the client can be assured of a typical, traditional meal and experience. This label is posted outside each qualified restaurant and it is worth searching them out! For anyone coming to France for her gastronomic pleasures, to savor of her culinary treats, a side trip to Lyons is definitely in order! As it is written on Lyons' official city website "In the kingdom of good taste, Lyons' cuisine reigns above all others." As the French know, Lyons is most decidedly the gastronomic capital of this most gastronomic country! And a bouchon lyonnais is the place for those who love to eat and drink surrounded by friends in a perfect Old World atmosphere.
Le Musée, 2, rue des Forces 69000 Lyon 2ème 04 78 37 71 54
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.