Despite Lyon’s reputation as a food and wine mecca, it can be easily overlooked as just a stop on the way from Geneva or Paris to southern France. After watching it pass by the window numerous times, we chose a weekend and began planning a trip to explore Lyon’s world-famous sites and cuisine.
Lyon‘s rich and varied history would alone be enough to make it worth a trip, rightfully earning it a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally known as “Lugdunum” (Hill of Light), Lyon was built in 43 BC and soon became the Gaul’s capital, sitting at an important crossroads of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Since then, it’s been known for many trades, including as one of Europe’s foremost publishing centres in the 1400’s, and the silk-weaving capital of Europe in the 1700s. But for the past 80 years or so, Lyon has gained fame as the French and World gastronomic capital, thanks primarily to its location at the heart of some of France’s richest agricultural regions. To the north are the famous Bresse chickens (“the Rolls Royce of chickens”, in the words of Anthony Bourdain), Charolais beef, and frog’s legs from the marshy Dombes. To the south, the famous Saint-Félicien and Saint-Marcellin cheeses are produced by the Dauphiné cheesemakers. To the west, farms in the Monts du Lyonnais provide charcuterie such as the prestigious “rosette” and “jésu de Lyon”. And to top it all off, Lyon lies within an hour’s drive of the world-class Beaujolais, Burgundy, and Côtes du Rhône wine regions.
In the mid-18th century, the women of Lyon, “Les Mères Lyonnaises”, took advantage of these agricultural gifts and started their own restaurants (bouchon), serving simple, hearty meals to everyone from the silk workers to the bourgeois – in the process, creating many of the city’s culinary traditions and earning the city its reputation as the capital of French gastronomy. One of these mères, Mrs. Eugénie Brazier, solidified Lyon’s place in culinary history in 1933 by becoming the first French chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for two restaurants at the same time (you can still eat at one of them – La Mere Brazier). She then trained the renound Paul Bocuse, the father of modern French cuisine, whose flagship restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, holds the world record for longest run of three Michelin stars, which he has had for more than 50 years now.
In addition to its food, history, and architecture, Lyon’s accessibility via a two-hour direct train connection from Geneva and Paris gained it recognition as the “Best European weekend destination” by the World Travel Awards in 2016. Taking advantage of its proximity to Geneva, we chose a Friday in November and hopped on the train after work, arriving at Lyon’s Part Dieu train station in time for dinner. A 30 minute walk led us to Hotel Clelestin, a basic but clean boutique hotel in a pedestrian friendly shopping area near the heart of the city. We dropped our bags and headed out for a quick walk before dinner, crossing one of the many bridges into the Old Town, where the city’s trademark Basilique de Fourvière glowed grandly above the city streets. After passing through a series of winding cobbled allies, we ducked into the dark wooden interior of the speakeasy-esque L’alquiler for an aperitif. Behind the bar, a crew of serious mixologists dressed in vests and ties poured stiff hand-crafted cocktails to an appreciative clientelle squeezed around the few small tables tucked into the back room.
Though tempting to continue drinking Sazaracs and mocktails into the evening, we were eager for an authentic Lyonaisse dining experience at Café de la Federation, Lyon’s most famous Bouchon, serving hearty, no-frills Lyonaisse cuisine in a relaxed setting. There was already a small crowd mingling outside when we arrived, but the door was shut and there was no handle to open it. At 7:30pm sharp, the staff placed the handle back on and a steady stream of dedicated patrons, along with a few excited tourists slowly trickled in, filling every available space in the cozy dining room.
We were seated at a tiny table covered in a red and white checkered cloth, wedged in the aisle between the cash register and the regular booths. Amused, we ordered some wine to sip while adjusting to the chaos. The wine came in a 46cl “pot”, a tradition dating back to Lyon’s silk weaving hayday, when the canuts, or “silk weavers”, were paid 50 cl of wine by their bosses each week. However, the bosses soon realized that if they reduced the capacity of the pot from 50 cl to 46 cl, then for every liter of wine they could fill two pots and have one glass left over for themselves.
Soon, without having seen a menu or having any idea of what was to come, we were brought a small bowl containing an egg poached in a red wine sauce with pancetta. When we’d finished, we traded the small bowls for a large family style bowl of salad covered in croutons, meltingly delicious lardons, egg, and a mustard dressing, accompanied by a second large bowl of lentils in a mustard sauce. Only after polishing this off were we provided a menu, allowing us to choose our main dishes and desserts. We opted for two Lyonaisse classics, the “quenelle au sauce nature” and chicken in vinegar. We cleaned our plates, then did a double take when they were replaced with an even larger plate piled high with a sampling of the region’s cheeses. We did our best to try them all, but guiltily sent most of them back as dessert was served: a chocolate lava cake and ice cream with black currant compote. Pleased with our clearer understanding of Lyon’s foodie reputation, we followed the lethargic procession of happy customers out into the night, ready for a deep food-induced sleep.
We emerged from the hotel late on Saturday morning in search of a good bakery, but after an hour spent wandering the streets in a cold, grey drizzle, we realized that unlike Paris and most French villages, breakfast and pastries are not a priority for the Lyonnaise, opting instead for hearty fare at lunch. We eventually found some delicious brioche at Antoinette’s Bakery, which we chased with an excellent coffee and chai tea at Boite de Café. From there, we wound through a maze of cobbled streets and artists’ boutiques in the La Croix Rousse neighborhood, before climbing an endless ladder of steps for a view out over the city.
On the way down we ducked into Unico ice cream, a recent venture launched by two graduates of the Paul Bocuse Culinary Institute, focusing on fresh ingredients and unique flavors, such as black sesame, pepper infusion, and butternut squash ice cream bars dipped in dark chocolate. Nearing our hotel, we again passed through the old town, the streets now buzzing with tourists popping in and out of the many knickknack shops and newer, pricey restaurants advertising bouchon-like experiences. We spent a while searching for the network of secret passageways left behind by the silk weavers, ducking in and out of the discreet doors connecting one street to another, then headed back to the hotel for a quick nap before another big dinner out.
Paul Bocuse’s temple to Lyonaisse tradition, the three-starred Auberge du Pont de Collonges, was booked through the weekend, so instead we reserved a table at the Auberge de l’ille Barbe, a converted monastery on an island in the middle of the Soane, about 5 km from the city center. Our Uber drove us through the dark empty side streets of Lyon, eventually turning onto a bridge crossing over to the tiny island, then headed down a winding one-lane road bordered by ancient stone walls. We pulled up to a gated stone building and were ushered into a small dining room by two uniformed staff. To our surprise, a waiter then escorted us to a large private table set on a platform overlooking the rest of the dining room, where exposed wooden beams and an all-white decor created an intimate yet formal atmosphere. We settled in for the evening with a glass of champagne and round of complimentary amuse bouche, including fried basil puffs over sweet potato and beet root, crackers with sea salt, and seafood soufflés in their own thimble sized ramekins, accompanied by two pats of proprietary butter and a steaming loaf of dense grain bread.
While taking in the menu, head chef and owner Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex came over to say hello and walk us through each of the day’s specialities, quickly convincing us to splurge for an extra course of layered scallop and truffles. Before our first course, another amuse bouche of savory “lollipops” was served, with a creamy polenta croquette, blood sausage, and butternut squash cube skewered atop a long stick. The chef came over to scold me for eating them out of order, as he has put great thought behind every dish. Even seemingly simple dishes require great preparation. For example, for the carrots, found in northern France, the chef describes: “They must be washed, peeled, then steamed for an entire afternoon. They are cut, then they are marinated in a mixture of garlic honey and vanilla. In the end, they are ready to eat the next day. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of little hands. I am one of the last to work this way. A kind of dinosaur.”
Courses such as cabbage rolled with lobster in a lobster broth, frog legs and risotto with mushrooms and hazelnuts, steamed fish in a cream sauce, baby pig, a delicate mushroom soup created for the royal family, and scallop layered with truffles, kept coming for what felt like (and actually was) hours. Once the savory courses were finished, the first round of dessert was brought – a plate artfully arranged with various petite fours – followed by a plum soufflé with earl grey ice cream, then a fake birthday cake to commemorate the occasion, and lastly a pear poached in black currant sauce with black current ice cream. At midnight, five hours after we arrived, a taxi picked us up and returned us to our hotel.
Our stomachs prohibited so much as the thought of food until lunch the next day, when we had reservations at Le Kitchen Café. Billed as one of the top spots in town for casual breakfasts and gourmet lunches, we entered the tiny unassuming coffee shop and were seated at one of five bare tables filling the room. While we probably would have been equaly happy with just a coffee and vanilla brioche or a kanelbulle, the short lunch menu boasted a creative blend of Polish and French influences, and for two courses and dessert, was a steal at 31 euros. Though nothing like the affair of the previous night, the food was delicious and the service excellent – for a casual and relatively quick meal (by French standards), it was definitely worth a stop.
Our stomachs at capacity for the weekend, we slowly ambled through the famous stalls of Les Halles de Paul Bocuse to the station to catch a late afternoon train back to Geneva, using the couple hour ride home to dream about which restaurants to try next time, as it won’t be long until we’re back for more.