The flavor of LYON

This historic French town welcomes food lovers with open arms -- and gastronomic delights

April 01, 2007|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,Chicago Tribune

LYON, FRANCE // On that famous restaurant byway, rue Merciere, servers were putting chairs on tabletops and sweeping up crumbs.

On that famous restaurant byway, rue Merciere, servers were putting chairs on tabletops and sweeping up crumbs.

I had arrived in this gourmand paradise far too late for dinner.

Feeling hungry and desperate, I headed for a neon sign that proclaimed, "Pizzas Rock." At first glance, the place reminded me of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" diner, albeit with a French twist. A plump man sat sideways at a narrow counter against one wall, nursing an espresso and smoking a cigarette. Two other men, much younger, fiddled with their pizza oven. Overhead lights glared, and a boom box played vintage rock 'n' roll.

I speak some French, but fatigue blocked out huge sections of vocabulary. "Parlez vous Anglais?" "Un peu." With a few added smiles and gestures, that got us started.

I managed to convey my desire for a calzone and a bottle of Cellier des Dauphins Cote du Rhone 2004. While one young man cooked, the other peppered me with questions.

"You are English?"

"No, American."

"Ohhh! California!"

The cook let the oven do its work and joined us. Pointing at his partner, he said, "He wants to go to the United States very bad."

"California," said the counterman. "Where it's warm."

"I'm from Chicago. Where it's cold," I said.

The cook then gestured toward the boom box, perched on a narrow stairway that apparently led to a dining area on the floor above. "Do you know what that is playing?" he asked me.

I shrugged. Back in the '60s and '70s I was into bebop. Still am. The box was pumping out some kind of mordant-hippie refrain.

"It's the Doors!" the cook said. His thumb jerked toward the partner again. "He is Jim Morrison's biggest fan. He is vice president of the Jim Morrison Fan Club."

I asked the vice president of the Jim Morrison Fan Club to open my Cote du Rhone, but he couldn't find a corkscrew. The man with the espresso did have one (I thought, how French is that?). He handed it over, told the kid to keep it. "Ohhh, merci!" Smiles all around.

I walked to Hotel des Artistes and ate dinner in my room.

My first hours in Lyon may have been inauspicious in a gastronomic sense, but they were just as satisfying as a dish of raviolis d'escargots: A hot snack, a decent wine and the honor of meeting a high official of the Jim Morrison Fan Club. Lyon couldn't have said bienvenue and bon appetit any better.

As French cities go, Lyon seems slightly quirky, a bit less formal than, say, Paris or Nice -- except when certain high-end restaurants require it.

And, of course, the bouchons here won't let you go hungry. A bouchon is a casual cafe with menus (or slate boards) heavy on local specialties, literally heavy: fried stomach, pork sausage, veal sausage, sheep trotters, calf brain. ...

A few bouchons operate along rue Merciere, but brasseries and restaurants with a little more tourist appeal predominate. On another evening, I could tell I was in a bouchon -- this one called Les Enfants Terrible -- when I blindly pointed at something on the menu and the server shook her head firmly and said non. "It is made from stomach and blood," she warned. I thanked her and opted for the salade nicoise.

The morning after my arrival, a Thursday, I prepared to explore the town. Unfortunately, my timing was off again. "It is a bank holiday," explained the hotel desk clerk.

A bank holiday in France means that nearly everything closes -- shops, some restaurants, a smattering of attractions and, naturally, the tourism office. So I simply let myself get caught up in the excitement of Lyon on spring break.


At Place Bellecour, a hot-air balloon hovered near the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, while runners competing in some sort of race trotted through an obstacle course and loudspeakers blared Franco-pop hits. A carnival spirit had begun to build. I would have joined the party, but Lyon offers so much to see.

It was a good day to just stroll around and soak up the atmosphere, admire the beaux-arts buildings downtown and lose myself in the little medieval alleyways called traboules in Vieux Lyon. The city blankets all sides of the Rhone and Saone Rivers. Its handsome central district sits on the peninsula formed by the rivers' convergence.

Like most visitors, I found plenty of attractions on the peninsula -- Presque Isle --and in the hilly area west of the Saone, which includes St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Notre Dame Basilica, Roman ruins and the quaint, medieval-Renaissance part of town.

Since World War II, the city has been repaired, restored and rebuilt so that the charm quotient remains high. And yet Lyon doesn't lack for monumental, imposing works of sculpture and masonry. The hillside Notre Dame de Fourviere Basilica, for example, demands attention not only for its regal presence on the banks of the Saone, but for the impossibly intricate embellishments across its facade.

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