It’s 9pm on a Friday evening in Lyon and the all-female staff of La Bouchon des Filles are busy. Wine is poured, banter is exchanged and each table in turn receives the same starters: generous communal dishes of creamy celeriac rémoulade with walnuts, a mustardy salad of green lentils, and warm saucisse maison studded with pistachio. Barely a single diner says no to wine or dessert, and the dining room — decorated in a rustic style with kitchen antiques — is alive with good-humoured energy.
The pair of women who set up this new-generation bistrot in 2007 had both previously worked in the celebrated Café des Fédérations, one of Lyon’s erstwhile workers’ bistrots, or bouchons. Their joint venture in the Pentes de la Croix-Rousse neighbourhood at once bucks culinary cliches and pays tribute to Lyon’s gastronomic heritage. It’s contemporary, confident and authentic, part of a new Lyon that has absolutely nothing to do with Michelin stars, silk-weavers’ traboules or Gallo-Roman remains.
I wanted to find out what’s happening in France’s second biggest city — especially now Eurostar is running direct trains from St Pancras, meaning it’s easier than ever to spend a weekend checking out the newer cocktail bars, brunch spots, design boutiques and up-and-coming quartiers.
The Pentes de la Croix-Rousse, named for the city slopes rising north of the centre, between the rivers Rhône and Saône, is where Lyon’s current generation of twentysomethings are choosing to live and work. This is the place to browse vintage fashion stores on Rue Romarin and contemporary art galleries on Rue Burdeaux, and spend summer evenings sipping St-Joseph on Place Sathonay. Along with Le Bouchon des Filles, locals favour the well-priced, market-led food at Magali et Martin, Le Potager des Halles and La Table on Place Tabareau, all run by hands-on chef-patrons.
Ironically, you could say Lyon’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of France can be bothersome for weekend visitors: it’s hard to decide where to have lunch when you’re contending with 2,000 restaurants, and secular saints like Paul Bocuse and Colette Sibilia. The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to eat well and spend modestly without thinking too hard or planning way ahead. And it’s almost impossible to drink a poor glass of wine here.
Cocktails & dreams
I start my weekend with an aperitif at La Cave des Voyageurs. It’s a no-frills corner site in St-Paul, on the edge of the touristy, pretty old town, and close to a handful of riverside bars where the hard-working Lyonnais let their hair down at the end of the week. The patron, both gruff and twinkly, makes me welcome at the zinc bar, and pours me some smoky, minerally Côtes Catalanes — his own choice from the selection of bottles open to serve by the glass (which changes every few days). Boards of Iberian ham, crudités, and St-Marcellin or Tomme de Brebis cheese are prepared to order, and I sit in a trance of Francophile pleasure, eyes resting on the picture of French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens pinned to the back of the bar.
It’s a short walk from here to Le Bouchon des Filles, then, after dinner, I’m well placed to check out Lyon’s increasingly respected cocktail scene. My first stop is Americana-themed Soda on Rue Martinière, where I order an Old-Fashioned and a Quite Unusual Sour, made with homemade grenadine, and discover that a rockabilly band and a girl band are booked for later on. My next stop, L’Antiquaire, is more speakeasy in style, more refined — but just as friendly. When I hear about an apparently secret hangout called the Bar du Passage I decide to stay up just a little longer.
This late-night bar, hidden in the busy centre, is a former maison close (brothel) abandoned after World War II and recently restored to a fine approximation of its 1920s glory days, with partied-out, tarnished original mirrors. You’d never know it was there if you weren’t on the look-out. It’s thrilling to walk in on the cinematic, smoky interior, where wine and cocktails are given equal billing, with grands vins from Gevrey-Chambertin, Côte-Rôtie, even Château d’Yquem (sometimes), available by the glass.
By mid-morning Saturday, having already consumed quite a lot of top-class charcuterie, I feel like something a little different. Near the scrappy-looking but superb food market on Quai St-Antoine, I join young families and groups of friends at natty, white-tiled Bistrot de la Passerelle for brunch à l’américaine, which means eggs Benedict, French toast, Bloody Marys and burgers — although I ignore the foie gras version.
Barely a 10-minute walk away on Rue Lanterne, I’m told, there’s another deliberately non-Lyonnais bar/diner called Butcher, where the offering includes Highland beef and 10 different bourbons. For now, I head in the opposite direction, and cross the vast, sandy Place Bellecour to check out the design quarter around Rue Auguste Comte. First, I lose myself in the hundreds of fashion, craft, art and photography books at Librairie Descours: monographs, theory, how-to volumes on lingerie design, eco-fashion and watchmaking, writing on art by Paul Valéry and Erwin Panofsky, Roland Barthes’ Système de la Mode, a whole shelf on Picasso… Less orderly more enticing still is a rare books annexe overlooking a courtyard round the corner.
Among many interior design and furniture boutiques lining the streets here, I pop into 35 Octobre, whose owner has an eye for wood, cardboard, linen, wool and ceramics, and textiles from India and England. She sells bags, scarves and jewellery, as well as furniture from French, Italian and German makers. My appetite for design whetted, I devote the next hour or so to the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs, located in the same part of the Presqu’île, north of the Gare Routière and the redeveloped industrial quarter known as Confluence.
This is a fabulous museum, if chilly and dimly lit — all those delicate fragments of antique ecclesiastical finery and passementerie, Coptic tapestry and Renaissance embroidery require careful preservation. By the time I arrive in the 18th century, the displays have become more about fashion as we know it, going on to offer plenty of background on Lyon’s hugely important silk industry, and sensational Fortuny gowns from the 1920s.
From here, I’m well placed to stroll down to Confluence for an architecture tour, but it’s getting late in the afternoon, so I turn back to Place Bellecour and cross over the river at Pont de la Guillotière. The banks of the Rhône between Gerland and Tête d’Or Park, previously given over to carparks and traffic, were transformed six years ago into a string of parks, playgrounds and pétanque pistes, and this bit is particularly conducive to strolling and wondering if it’s time yet for a glass of Bourgogne Blanc.
This evening, I go traditional for supper, thanks to a reservation at one of Lyon’s famous bouchons, the Café Comptoir Abel, a veritable antique of a restaurant, which serves specialities such as chicken with morels, pike quenelles, and andouillette (rustic sausage) veal kidneys — dishes not many Lyonnais are mad about, apparently. The decor is brown, the floors, panelling and close-together tables all wood, and the walls covered in old adverts — so ancient one of them simply promotes ‘Benedictine’, the 19th-century herbal liqueur.
I’m glad I’ve tried one of these protected, venerated old-timers; I’m learning Lyon’s gastronomic reputation is built upon much more than superstar chefs. Talking to locals, I hear about some good pitstops in the old town, a handful of excellent Japanese restaurants, and even get a few recommendations for top-end dining rooms.
Sunday in Lyon, and the sun is shining. There’s so much of the city still to see: I could walk through the old town and up Fourvière Hill; or take the swift and salubrious Metro to the États-Unis neighbourhood and visit the Musée Urbain Tony Garnier, a monumental open-air museum with amazing murals. Then there’s the Musée d’Art Contemporain, to the north of Confluence and reached via a scenic tram ride along the edge of the Parc de la Tête d’Or.
Instead, I start in the centre at the Place des Terreaux, replete with its Bartholdi and Buren fountains, then pass by the Nouvel Opera House, and head up to Croix-Rousse proper. (En route, Café Mokxa, run by New Zealanders, serves an excellent flat white.) Climbing the broad steps of the Montée de la Grand Côte until we tower over Lyons. I’ve heard hilltop residents are Croix-Roussiens first, Lyonnais second, and that all are proud of the quartier’s industrial/creative heritage. Beyond Place Croix-Rousse and its little market, I walk up and down Rue Belfort, where I settle down for lunch among vintage clocks and fresh flowers at local favourite Le Canut & Les Gones.
Winding my way back down to the centre takes no time — navigating is easy with two rivers and two hills to help me. I’m all set to head home, though I’ve left ourselves an hour or so for essential food shopping at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, conveniently near the train station in Part-Dieu.
You can try to avoid the ‘gastronomic pilgrimage’ approach to visiting Lyon, but it’ll get you sooner or later; I’ve had only a tiny taste of this civilised, hard-working metropolis — and my off-centre itinerary, focusing on one or two areas just outside the touristy thick of it, has saved me from running around too breathlessly. I’m pleased to leave with my own snapshot of a contemporary French city. And some very good charcuterie.
Must-try: Order pike quenelles in one of Lyon’s finest old-school bistrots. Two of the best-loved and best-cheffed are Café Comptoir Abel and Daniel et Denise.
The perfect day
■ 11.30am: Weekend brunch at Bistrot de la Passerelle.
■ 2pm: Browse the design shops around Rue Auguste Comte, with stops for lèche-vitrine (window shopping) at Galerie Fred and Marilyn Antiquités.
■ 4pm: Visit the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs — not just a must for fashion students and screaming aesthetes, but a brilliant sartorial sashay through history.
■ 6pm: Pre-prandial stroll on the banks of the Rhône.
■ 8pm: Drinks at La Cave des Voyageurs in Saint-Paul.
■ 9pm: Dinner at La Bouchon des Filles, near Place Sathonay, with digestifs on the square in summer.
Eurostar is to trial a St Pancras-Lyon Part-Dieu service in May and June. www.eurostar.com
British Airways flies from Heathrow; EasyJet from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Stansted. www.ba.com www.easyjet.com
Average flight time: 1h35m.
The Lyon City Card gives you free public transport plus admission to museums and tours. From €21 (£18).
When to go
May and September are pleasant; much of Lyon closes in August.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.17.
International dial code: 00 33 4.
Le Bouchon des Filles. 20 Rue du Sergent Blandan.
La Cave des Voyageurs. lacavedesvoyageurs.free.fr
Galerie Fred. www.galeriefred.com
Marilyn Antiquités. 55 Rue Auguste Comte.
Bar du Passage. www.le-passage.com
Bistrot de la Passerelle. www.bistrotdelapasserelle.com
Magali et Martin. 11 Rue des Augustins.
Le Potager des Halles. www.lepotagerdeshalles.com
La Table. 8 Place Tabareau.
Librairie Descours. www.librairie-descours.com
35 Octobre. www.35octobre.com
Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs. www.musee-des-tissus.com
Maison des Canuts. www.maisondescanuts.com
Café Comptoir Abel. www.cafecomptoirabel.fr
Daniel et Denise. www.daniel-et-denise.fr
Café Mokxa. www.cafemokxa.com
Le Canut & Les Gones. www.lecanutetlesgones.com
Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. 102 cours Lafayette.
How to do it
Railbookers has two nights’ B&B at the Grand Hotel des Terreaux from £249 per person, including rail travel. www.railbookers.com
Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)