The Bouchons of Lyon

By R.W. Apple Jr.

Published on March 11, 2002

Lyon is France's gastronomic capital—a preeminence that almost certainly stems from its privileged geography. Alpine streams to the east supply the city with pike, trout, and crayfish. The Dombes plateau, to the northeast, abounds in game, and the plain of Bresse, beyond that, produces France's finest chickens (which, with their red combs, white plumage, and blue feet, are also its most patriotic). Due north lie the vineyards of Beaujolais, which yield fruity, inexpensive red wines that are best drunk young, while just a few miles farther, the Maconnais region turns out fresh, lively white wines—most notably pouilly-fuisse. The unremarkable village of Charolles, to the northwest, gives its name to the best French beef cattle—the white Charolais, raised in the pastures surrounding the town. Superb cheeses are close at hand, too: fourme d'ambert, cantal, and st-nectaire from the Auvergne, southwest of Lyon; st-marcellin, rumored to have been King Louis XI's favorite, from the Isere to the southeast. The Rhone Valley, south of the city, produces great wines (condrieu, cote rotie, hermitage) and fruit (raspberries, cherries, peaches, pears), and in the days before railroads and superhighways, the Rhone itself provided a convenient route north for good things from Provence and Italy—which may be why macaroni and cheese became a popular dish in Lyon and why so many Lyonnais seem to have black hair and olive skin.

Cooks in and around Lyon learned long ago how to burnish these choice raw materials, and their descendants have obviously not forgotten the skill. At the moment, the Guide Michelin scatters a total of 13 stars around the city and its immediate vicinity, with many more within 50 miles or so. However, good eating in Lyon is by no means necessarily Michelin-starred, a fact vividly illustrated by the city's unique bouchons—the tiny, animated, artless places that keep the basic culinary traditions of Lyon alive.

Bouchons are bistros of a sort, but with even more limited menus. Their decor tends to be modest to the point of austerity. Some have paper tablecloths, and some don't change the cutlery between courses—but the food and ambience of any good bouchon will warm the coldest heart. The majority of these establishments are family-run, and most of the chefs are women—the spiritual descendants of Mere Brazier, Mere Fillioux, Tante Paulette, and other female master chefs who contributed so much to the glory of Lyonnais gastronomy earlier this century. Bouchon prices are always reasonable: Ample menus for $25 or so (including service but not wine) are common.

Unless they get off the autoroute for a Michelin-starred meal, travelers tend to rush past Lyon on their way between Paris and the South of France. This is nothing new. On his famous journey in 1838, Stendhal skipped Lyon entirely—and in 1882, Henry James, en route from Orange to Macon, contented himself with some soup at the train station. "By no means an ideal bouillon," he reported, though he did admit to finding it "much better than any I could have obtained at an English railway-station." If only he'd found a bouchon, James could probably have tasted a quenelle de brochet—a succulent pike dumpling—perhaps with crayfish sauce. He could also have sampled one of Lyon's many memorable tripe dishes, typical in their transformation of unpromising ingredients—especially gras-double a la lyonnaise, in which the linings of ox stomachs are cooked with parsley and onions, and tablier de sapeur, which is gras-double breaded and fried. This latter dish takes its name from the original tabliers de sapeur, the leather aprons (which these edible tabliers are said to resemble in shape) that French firemen once wore. The food served in bouchons is almost always based on humble ingredients. While local temples of gastronomy may feature foie gras, lobster, truffles, morels, and vegetables snatched prematurely from the cradle, bouchons are more apt to make do with cocks' combs, calves' feet, pike, cardoons, lentils, and Swiss chard.

The first bouchons were 19th-century Lyonnais equivalents of our truck stops—taverns where grooms and coachmen paused for a glass and a bite after brushing down their horses. Since _bouchon _means "cork", I had always assumed these places took their name from the many bottles that were uncorked inside. One Lyon Internet site seems to give that derivation an official seal of approval: In earlier times, it notes, most inns insisted that customers eat as well as drink, and the rare establishments willing to serve drinks without food displayed corks outside. At least one present-day bouchon, Au Petit Bouchon (popularly known as Chez Georges), still shows a popping cork on its sign. But something about this explanation always bothered me: To begin with, bouchons are at least as famous for their food as for their drink. And corks don't figure much in bouchon tradition anyway—since the wines that bouchons serve are usually decanted from the cask into corkless, heavy-bottomed bottles (the famous _pots _invariably filled with beaujolais or modest cotes-du-rhone). Upon inquiring further into the matter, I discovered that _bouchon _can also mean the handful of straw used for rubbing down horses and that a more likely explanation is that taverns with facilities for horses hung bundles of straw over their doors as insignia, the way bakeries hung out pretzels.

That Lyon's bouchons have survived in an era that worships the big and the bold is a miracle of sorts—but in fact they have more than survived. Though mostly tucked into side streets and known mainly to their regular customers, they have positively flourished. I wonder if this is not largely because Lyon tends to throw away less of the past than most cities do. It has, to be sure, its modern buildings—perhaps most notably, Jean Nouvel's brilliant, barrel-shaped reconstruction of the city's opera house. But its pre-18th-century arcades, called traboules, and its lack of Parisian hustle and bustle create a pleasantly dated atmosphere. As the writer Bill Bryson observed not long ago, it is "as if the Lyonnais found the 1950's to their liking, and decided to stay there."

Today, most of the best bouchons are clustered near Lyon's City Hall, in the middle of the Presqu'Île, the three-mile-long peninsula, washed on one side by the Rhone and on the other by the Saone, that extends through the middle of the city. One classic here is Cafe des Federations, which the Lyonnais affectionately refer to as Les Fedes. Long, skinny sausages hang like stalactites from the ceiling of the establishment, while Raymond Fulchiron, the droll, dapper boss, and his cheeky waitresses keep up a steady line of chatter with the regulars as they serve prodigal plates of food—things like assorted charcuterie; salads of curly endive, eggs, and chunks of salty bacon (the famous frisee aux lardons); servings of the custardy little chicken liver mousse known as gateau de foies blonds de volaille; and three-inch disks of st-marcellin—a creamy and slightly tangy cow's-milk cheese with a brownish rind that is the quintessential bouchon fromage. Though hardly required, it is considered quite acceptable for each diner to eat an entire st-marcellin at a single sitting—which calls for minimal sacrifice. (Les Fedes is an exception, but at many Lyon bouchons the st-marcellin appears swathed in a white wrapper identifying it as having been ripened by Renee Richard, the best cheesemonger in the city.)

During the G-7 international economic summit in Lyon the summer before last, my wife and I decided that we needed something more nourishing than windy speeches about trade and slipped away for lunch at Chez Hugon, the domain of Arlette and Henri Hugon. A few tables, an old bar, a kitchen the size of a broom closet—that's all the place is. But Arlette, blond and outgoing, will offer you a perfect bavette (a delicious, albeit fibrous, skirt steak) with shallots, an exemplary blanquette de veau (veal stew), a juicy chicken with vinegar—or, in summer, her simply magnificent stuffed tomatoes.

Because the streets were closed off for the conference, we were alone in the restaurant except for a handful of tradesmen. One fixed gutters, I remember—and all took their duty to knife, fork, and wineglass very seriously indeed. Between bites of Arlette's glorious boudin aux pommes—blood sausage with starking apples that become golden and unctuous after having cooked over a low flame for an hour and a half—we laughed constantly. I don't know if it was the jokes or the peppery cotes-du-rhone that Henri kept flowing, or both.

One of my favorite bouchons, on the rue du Garet, is Chez Georges—a jolly, cluttered little place where about twenty-five customers can sit elbow-to-elbow to devour classic Lyonnais cold hors d'oeuvres on the order of museau de boeuf, a salad of pressed calf's muzzle; cold chicken liver salad; or pink, unsmoked cervelas sausages served with lentils dressed with a tart vinaigrette—followed by gratineed tripe or by andouillettes (sausages here made from both tripe and veal intestines), their edges charred by the grill, served with a creamy mustard sauce. In winter, at lunchtime only, a sublime pot-au-feu is sometimes offered—and for dessert, all year round, there is a moist, sweet apple tart, worthy of three stars. Michel Deschamps, the burly proprietor, works the front of the house in a blue apron, spreading joy. (One hot day, guessing that we were American, he thoughtfully brought ice to the table for our water.) "A bouchon," Deschamps says, "needs a soul." The chef is his wife, France—a sinewy, peppy little woman who looks as if she grew up in small-town Ohio. In fact, she comes from Normandy, proving, I suppose, that you don't have to be born with beaujolais in your veins to cook in the Lyonnais style.

La Meuniere, not far from Chez Georges, is a picture-postcard bouchon, with chipped paint, hanging lamps with white glass shades, faded oilcloth on the walls, and—down the center of the room—a long buffet filled with more than a dozen salads. Proprietor Maurice Debrosse, who used to be Paul Bocuse's maitre d'hotel, suggested I try the lentils with a spoonful of cervelle de canut, which literally means "silk weaver's brain"—an herbed cream cheese that was once a favorite dish of the silk weavers who helped make Lyon rich. (The delicacy is called a "brain" either as a commentary on the reputed intelligence of workers in the silk trade or because it was thought to look like brains when squeezed through a pastry bag.) Debrosse was dead right about that, and about every other thing that he recommended—including a beef fricassee with pearl onions, a cheesy potato gratin, a parade of sinful desserts both typically Lyonnais (creme caramel) and less so (a cold souffle, flavored with Chartreuse, more Bocuse than bouchon, and a cherry clafoutis—a specialty of the Limousin region, far to the west), and eventually a brilliant eau-de-vie de poire from the Distillerie de Malleval, in the Ardeche. The sweetness of the place is exemplified by the welcome I saw extended one day to an old woman, obviously not rich, who came in alone, a bit unsteady on her pins, ate like a bird, and drank only a glass or two of wine. The waiters, smiling and solicitous, danced attendance upon her as if she were a duchess or a princess.

Lyon's Michelin-starred chefs, including Paul Bocuse, tend to hang out at a bouchon called Val d'Isere, across the Rhone, right by the back door of the city's bountiful central market. They gather there for coffee every morning, alternately paying court to Bocuse and needling him. Sometimes they eat a machon, the Lyonnais working man's breakfast of pates, terrines, and various cold meats washed down with beaujolais instead of coffee. Val d'Isere also serves a tasty pig's foot, stuffed with ham and parsley, as well as sausage cooked in beaujolais.

For me, though, nothing in this part of Lyon matches À Ma Vigne, a cubbyhole that's lovingly tended by Josephine Giraud and her son Patrick. The place has dim watercolors on the walls and only three tables in its front room. Josephine and her sister Francine cook tripe with the best of them, but almost everyone orders three other dishes in succession: moules maison (mussels cooked in white wine), the best steak and fries in town (the former awash in a beurre noisette the color of hazelnuts, the latter satisfyingly crunchy), and an exquisite lemon tart, its filling made with exactly four ingredients: lemons, sugar, eggs, and butter. The Girauds opened on January 1, 1960, and have changed nothing since. I hope they never do—and since this is Lyon, they probably never will.

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