Lyon on a plate
Go beyond the bouchons of Lyon and you’ll find far more foodie delights in France’s gastronomic capital, says Lynne McBride
Go beyond the bouchons of Lyon and you'll find far more foodie delights in France's gastronomic capital, says Lynn McBride. The bouchons of Lyon are so well known that you may be forgiven for thinking they are the only culinary show in town. Small, charming, and unique to Lyon, these havens of nostalgic cooking are a foodie's delight, if you're into organic meats, traditional French cooking from bygone days, and heavy, satisfying, wintry fare. However, look beyond the bouchons and you'll discover many other dining pleasures in France's premier food-obsessed city. It's easy to plan a sightseeing trip around the great restaurants and brasseries, from traditional to tr�s cool, that sit on every corner of this welcoming waterfront town. Of course the luscious wines of the Rh�ne Valley and the bright table wines of the Beaujolais make it an even more attractive proposition. Visualise a basket of fresh apricots, summer peaches and golden pears and you've got the colour palette of the stately buildings lining the banks of the Sa�ne and the Rh�ne on Lyon's Presqu'�le, or peninsula. Add to that the blue of the water and the lush green of the trees that line the riverbanks, and you'll realise what a treasure Lyon can be, colourful and walkable. The heart of town and the shopping district is on the Presqu'�le, and just over the bridges of the Sa�ne to the west is Vieux Lyon, the old quarter popular with tourists visiting the city which has a population of 500,000 (France's second or third largest, it's an on-going debate with Marseille). The east side of the Presqu'�le over the Rh�ne is home to residential neighbourhoods and lovely parks that are not to be missed, from the extensive Parc de la T�te d'Or to the newly fashioned quays on the Rh�ne, lined with casual brasseries installed on barges. All are easily reached by the cleverly named V�lo'v, a citywide bike rental system that was the model for the popular V�lib' in Paris, or by the squeaky-clean m�tro system. If you arrive by train at the Perrache station at the south end of the wide pedestrian boulevard that runs the length of the peninsula, you'll be perfectly positioned for your first meal at the legendary Brasserie Georges. This is the one Lyon establishment that you just don't want to skip. Founded in 1836, it's one of the largest brasseries in Europe and it serves up a menu of fun. Big, brash and beautiful, the lively atmosphere captures Lyon's spirit. It's full of bustling waiters in black suits and aprons rushing to deliver huge platters of seafood and local specialities. If the gorgeous art deco architecture doesn't distract you, then the people-watching will. The menu is simple, extensive and excellent, the beer has been homebrewed since day one, and the bar is opulent if you've got the time to linger. You'll probably be eager to cross one of Lyon's arching bridges over to Vieux Lyon, which offers a wealth of culinary, sightseeing and boutique shopping choices. If you're on a budget, or even if you're not, the best value restaurant around is Les Adrets. Casual and cosy, it offers a limited menu each day but don't worry, whatever they're serving is bound to be extraordinary. When I was there joue de boeuf (beef cheeks), of which I'm not particularly fond, was the plat du jour. It was so fabulous, the sauce so delicious, that in the end I begged the waiter for the recipe. This is simple, regional fare done really well and it's a favourite with the locals, so don't forget to call ahead. While you're wandering the streets of the old town, marvel at the Primatiale Saint-Jean, a 12th-century cathedral with its fanciful astronomic clock that performs only at noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. Then take the short funicular up to the remarkable Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvi�re for a tour and for panoramic views that will leave you hungry for more of the city. A winding, shady stroll down the hill through magical gardens leads you back to the centre of Vieux Lyon. The well-known address for fine dining in this neighbourhood is La Tour Rose which is near the exclusive Cour des Loges. A more affordable option is the Coll�ge H�tel, decorated in its entirety like a French coll�ge, or secondary school. Rooms are simple and very clean (with lockers!), the staff are helpful, and there is a pleasant breakfast terrace on an upper floor. The Presqu'�le is the lively city centre and shopper's dream. In addition to admiring the architecture on Lyon's imposing squares, visit the Mus�e Historique des Tissus, featuring the history of the textile industry from ancient times. It showcases Lyon's famous silk industry, and the exhibits of international textiles and costume arts through the ages are a delight. Chic hot spots Don't wait until you're hungry to pick your table for lunch; two of Lyon's chic hot spots are in this area, and you'd best call ahead. The tiny, intimate Magali & Martin is my new favourite. As I started my meal with a farm-fresh brie with black truffle and lamb's lettuce, I knew that I was in good hands. I was certain when I ended the meal with a white chocolate tiramisu with poached asian pear and rosemary. It's best to call weeks in advance to get in at the oddly named L'Ourson Qui Boit (the drinking bear), a restaurant which features a fusion of Japanese and French cooking. You're too late to experience the fabulously expensive gastronomic restaurant L�on de Lyon, which has been around for more than 100 years, as Chef Jean-Paul Lacombe retired a few years ago. But here's the good news: it's now a more moderately priced, �ber-chic brasserie with the same name and in the same beautiful building. Last time I was there, Monsieur Lacombe himself was making the roundsof the tables and shaking hands; the waiter said he was finding it hard to retire. It's always open, the menu changes daily, and a side benefit is that it's a bit like watching a Lyon fashion show, as the cream of Lyon dines there. A reasonably priced downtown hotel is the H�tel Saint-Antoine, a Best Western in the heart of the shopping district. Budget travellers will find the nearby H�tel des C�lestins to be a great location for the money. Head east of the Rh�ne and check out one of Lyon's great pleasures, the enormous Park de la T�te d'Or. You'll find rose gardens, a large lake, a zoo and botanical gardens. I love to see the park by bike and cycling tunes up the appetite for lunch at one of the lakefront bistros in the park. My favourite brasserie in Lyon is on this side of the Rh�ne. Paul Bocuse, one of the most famous chefs in France, has his signature three-star restaurant on the edge of town, but he also has elegant brasseries that cover the four points of the compass here: Le Nord, Le Sud, L'Est and L'Ouest. They're all good (though L'Ouest is aimed at the business crowd), but L'Est, which is located in the wonderful old train station called Gare des Brotteaux, is a regular destination for me. It's a chic, big-city spot with a welcoming atmosphere, and it's good value for the excellent food. I like to start with the salad of artichoke hearts and haricots verts, then go on to the sea bass roasted with fennel and olive oil. To explore the cutting edge of Lyon, head over to the newly developed business district called Le Quartier de la Confluence, proudly showing off its sassy avant-garde architecture on the banks of the Sa�ne. Here Nicolas Le Bec, best known for his eponymous gastronomic two-star restaurant on the Presqu'�le, has opened a sort of self-contained culinary world of his own called Rue Le Bec. The dining area is a vast sunlit room with an open kitchen, turning out casual, au courant cuisine. A heart-shaped waffle topped with homemade ice cream and dark chocolate sauce sealed the deal for me. There's a boulangerie here too, and a gourmet take-out kiosk for those on the go. A small stream runs the length of the restaurant and there's also a rather extraordinary wine bar overlooking it all, on the mezzanine. Did I mention the rabbits? They have the run of the place – prepare to be surprised here. "Without butter, without eggs, there is no reason to come to France." Only a Lyonnais could get away with this quote, attributed to the famous chef Paul Bocuse. And so when winter comes, I'll head back to a bouchon or two for some serious stews. And I'll be visiting more historic sites in Lyon, but always plotting my trip around the latest restaurant destinations in France's gastronomic capital.