You might be surprised to learn that Paris isn’t the gastronomy capital of France. Lyon is. And, the city’s love for food is on display daily. Here’s how you can enjoy it, too.
Dine at a Bouchon
Bouchons are the most interesting places to eat in Lyon. Here, Lyon’s version of comfort food is served.
Bouchons first opened in the 17th century. Back then, Lyon was an important silk weaving hub. Hungry silk workers filled bouchons, eating rustic dishes made from offal, head cheese, chicken liver, and tripe. These cuts of meat were rejected by the upper class, but were cheap and filling, so Bouchons used them to feed working people.
Today, many bouchons have gone upscale, serving foie gras instead of offal to tourists. And charging astronomical prices in the process. But, several traditional and nouveau bouchons, happily coexist in Lyon.
One of the first things you’ll notice in Lyon is that the restaurants are busy. Even on a, say, Tuesday night, it seems like every place is jammed. People in Lyon love to eat out!
That’s why you should make reservations if there’s a place where you really want to eat. Even for lunch. Because, the first thing you’ll always hear when you walk into a restaurant in Lyon is “Reservation?”
Of course, we didn’t have a reservation when we wandered into The Poêlon d’Or, one of the best bouchons in Lyon. The man behind the bar, he turned out to be one of the owners, was reluctant to seat us. But, I explained that we very much were looking forward to eating there. He agreed but said we had to be done by 9. I checked the clock, it was 7:40. We nodded and quickly sat down before he changed his mind.
Now, an hour and twenty minutes might seem like ample time for a meal. But, you should know that many meals in Lyon are lengthy affairs, lasting hours.
Our meal, Karen has vegetables au gratin and I have mushroom ravioli, is spectacular, even by Lyon’s high standards. We linger over wine and dessert and try to eavesdrop on our neighboring tables but my French isn’t good enough. As I pay the bill I wave to owner and point to the clock; 8:55. He smiles and nods.
Many of the best bouchons are certified by Les Bouchons Lyonnaise. This is a good place to start when looking for a traditional bouchon in Lyon. However, just because a bouchon is not certified by Les Bouchons Lyonnaise, doesn’t mean that the restaurant isn’t good. Some restaurants choose not to be certified. Others tamper too much with traditional dishes (often with extraordinary results) to be considered.
Besides Poêlon d’Or, La Tête De Lard and Le Garet are top choices. And, Bouchon Chez Paul is also excellent. Here, diners will often pass their dishes to other tables to share, making for a lovely communal atmosphere.
Have a meal or two in a bouchon and you’re likely to come away with the impression that the cuisine of Lyon is based solely on beef, pork, animal organs, and the occasional chicken. However, fresh produce is a huge part of the Lyonnaise diet.
It seems each arrondissement (neighborhood or section) of Lyon has its own farmers market.
My favorite is the Marché biologique place Ambroise Courtois in the 8th arrondissement. This market takes place each Wednesday afternoon and the vendors sell only organic produce. Locals shop here and it is not unusual to see children enjoying picking out their favorite veggies with their parents.
The market is in place Ambroise Courtois, right across the street from the fascinating Institut Lumiere, a museum dedicated to brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiére, forefathers of motion pictures. The museum is housed in their family’s extraordinary villa and the exhibits include early movies.
Lyon also has two outstanding food halls. Les Halles de la Martinière and the recently reopened Les Halles de Lyon each have dozens and dozens of vendors under a single roof. They range from produce stands piled with fruits and veggies, to cheese mongers, to butchers, to wine vendors, to chocolatiers, to restaurants and bars of all kinds. You could spend days here and not sample everything these halles have to offer. And, if you want to bring back a souvenir or gift, this is the place to shop.
Les Halles de Lyon is more high-end and more expensive. I prefer Martinière because the offerings are organic. But, you can’t go wrong at either place.
Lyon loves its produce so much, it has its own salad. Of course, it has slabs of pork on top of it and a coddled egg, but there’s greens under there somewhere.
Almost any restaurant in Lyon will have salade Lyonnaise on the menu, but vegetarians and healthy eaters fret not; this isn’t your only option. Tons of salads populate Lyonnaise restaurant menus and if you don’t see anything, just ask, most places are happy to accommodate. We found the salads so fresh and filling, we often just had one by itself for lunch (with a glass of wine, of course). And the best part of having a salad for lunch? There’s room for dessert!
One of the signature desserts of Lyon is the tarte Lyonnaise. A brioche crust is filled with crushed pink pralines, cream, and sugar. You can find this delicious treat in patisseries all over the city. The best might be at Boulangerie Jocteur in Les Halles de Lyon.