France is known for many things, but good food probably stands out as one of the top reasons visitors flock here. And good food abounds. It can be found everywhere. Yet one city stands out from among the crowd for its gastronomic greatness: Lyon.
Lyon sits in between the rivers Rhône and Saône, fetching incredible produce from both lush valleys. Easy access to the Alps and Provence have added those culinary traditions to Lyonnais cooking. And most importantly, Lyon has (had) Paul Bocuse.
Paul Bocuse, Chef Paul, is the most important French chef since Escoffier, the inventor of the French master sauces. (Ever had a hollandaise or veloute? Those are Escoffier.) Bocuse, awarded the Chef of the Century title by the Culinary Institute of America, was the biggest source of innovation in French cooking in the second half of the 20th century.
Have you ever been to a restaurant where fish was served in puff pastry that was carved to look like a fish – or had potatoes resembling scales? Chef Paul invented those. Have you heard of the international food competition, the Bocuse d’Or? Named after him. His flagship restaurant in Lyon, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges has had three Michelin stars every year since 1965!
Bocuse and the horde of former apprentices he inspired who have quite literally taken over the French culinary world are the reason Lyon has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in France.
All that is fine and good. So, when you get to Lyon, what and where should you eat? Sadly I am not in a position to afford dinner at L’Auberge (now referred to as Restaurant Paul Bocuse after the chef’s death last year), or to try all of the 19 other starred establishments, but I will give some recommendations for having an amazing experience dining here in Lyon.
Splurge on a Michelin-Starred Meal
If you have the money and can get a reservation, you can honor Chef Paul Bocuse at his namesake. However, for those of us on a tighter budget, Takao Takano – recently earning its second star – offers a weekday lunch set menu for €45, including tax and tip! The food is Japanese-French fusion, simple and elegant, served in 4-5 courses of the chef’s choosing.
This was the second course: herb gnocchi, sardines, asparagus, herbs, and croutons.
Wine will, of course, be extra, but that’s a price point for a meal like this that simply cannot be beaten.
Explore Traditional Lyonnais Cooking
Like many regions of France, Lyon and its surroundings also have unique dishes created here and largely found nowhere else. Vieux Lyon – old Lyon – across the Saône from where you’ll likely be staying, is home to most of these, and walking the cobblestone streets you’ll stumble across a number offering a lunch formule – typically two or three courses – featuring Lyon’s most famous culinary delights.
One dish you’ll want to try is saucisson, French sausage that here in Lyon is served sliced with a red wine sauce. Some restaurants will have saucisson briochée, an upscale corndog with brioche wrapped around the whole sausage.
Lyon’s other famous offering is a quenelle. River pike – not the most luxurious fish – is whipped with egg and poached in an oblong shape, becoming decadent and light. It is served hot in a rich sauce of cream and herbs.
Le Pique Assiette is one of the places in vieux Lyon for traditional favorites.
A traditional Lyonnais lunch in vieux Lyon should run between €20-30, with dinner being a bit more. I tried these delights at Le Pique Assiette and was thoroughly satisfied with the food and with the ambience of the place.
Dessert? Have Something with Pralines
Pink pralines – candied nuts – are unique to Lyon, and you must try them! There are classic praline tarts, praline brioche (my favorite), praline meringues, pralines in a bag, and pretty much every other possible usage. The tarts are ubiquitous, but for the other delicacies, vieux Lyon’s many boulangeries (bakeries) are the places to seek out. A warm praline brioche will run from €2.50-3, and is a perfect snack!
Praline treats (brioche at the bottom) in a store window.
Cocktails are Coming!
France is known for wine, and with good reason. It is incredible here, and even a glass of the house red, white, or rosé (for about €4 most of the time) tends to be nothing less than wonderful. Beer is imported. Cocktails, especially inventive ones mixed and served well, didn’t exist in France until recently, but Lyon has two fabulous cocktail bars about two blocks from each other: Soda Bar and L’Antiquaire.
The zombie at Soda Bar.
I had similar drinks at both: rum, peach, passionfruit, vanilla, and Prosecco. The one at Soda Bar (€12) was perhaps the best drink I’ve ever had! My friend ordered a zombie at each, a very alcoholic drink with flambéed sugar, and preferred the one at L’Antiquaire (€15). Both places are cool, crowded, and worth a visit if you want a break from wine.
Become a Lyonnais Chef
I pride myself on being a pretty solid cook, never needing classes. But each morning I’d walk out of my apartment to see a crowd (literally) of people with huge smiles cooking at Atelier des Chefs, a French cooking school across the street. I popped in one day, and was shocked that classes start at just €17, including eating the food you cook! Well, I was lucky, and the wonderful people at the school allowed me to participate.
I made this! What an incredible experience everyone should have.
We learned to prepare duck breast with a maple glaze served with Lyonnais potatoes, guided by a bilingual chef-instructor. It was an awesome experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone coming to France with a desire to bring out your inner chef.
Lyon is a truly wonderful city, easily my favorite in France, though more on that in a later post. The food scene is one of the reasons for that. (It is up there with Singapore or Tokyo for me.) After a visit here, I am sure you’ll agree with me that Chef Paul’s legacy is in good hands!
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