If you visit Lyon, be sure to eat lunch in a Lyonnaise bouchon.
Before visiting the city of Lyon, I had never heard the French word bouchon—except as part of the name of Bouchon Bakery, Thomas Keller’s celebrated French bistro in Napa Valley, California—-but I learned in Lyon, that the word isn’t just a proper name and has several different meanings.
In a French dictionary, “cork” is the most common English translation of the word (although it is also used colloquially to describe a traffic jam). But when you walk through the old cobblestone streets of Lyon, France’s third largest city, another usage of the term bouchon will keep popping up in conversation and on restaurant signage.
Lyon is considered by many to be the gastronomic capital of France. It is here that chef Paul Bocuse began the trend toward nouvelle cuisine, a style of cooking that reverberated with chefs and diners around the world. However, Lyon is also known in the world of gastronomy because it is the only place in France that has a unique type of restaurant: the Lyonnais Bouchon. A bouchon is a small, family-run bistro that serves hearty meals.
The forbearers of these bouchons were the taverns or inns where silk merchants stopped in the 17th and 18th centuries to have a meal, clean their horses, and, perhaps, rest overnight. They derived their name because the term bouchon was used then to describe the twisted straw brushes used to clean the horses.
Each of these restaurants typically served only one main plate, such as roast pork, cheese with herbs, sausages, or duck pate. Now these eateries, which abound throughout the city, have menus that offer many of the same traditional dishes. Compared to nouvelle menus in the same city, these are relatively inexpensive, especially given the large meaty portions.
The Rue des Marronniers (the word for ‘chestnut” trees in French), just off Place Bellecour (the largest square in Lyon), is one of several streets in Lyon lined with bouchons on both sides of the block. We had a wonderful lunch at Chabert & Fils, where we were able to choose a fixed-price lunch from an extensive menu for 19.5 euros per person.
We started the meal off with kir (the traditional aperitif made with creme de cassis and white wine) served with fried pork rind and sausage. For my appetizer, I had tiny raviolis baked in a mild creamy blue cheese sauce that rivaled any pasta dish I had eaten in Italy; my husband had an excellent terrine of duck pate with an orange, roasted hazelnut salad. My main course was veal head and tongue, a delicacy I have loved since childhood, boiled in a casserole with potatoes, carrots and fresh herbs; my husband opted for the pork sausage with pistachio nuts and potatoes. For dessert, we enjoyed the typical fire-engine red praline tart of Lyon (tarte aux pralines).
Not all bouchons, even in Lyon, are authentic. Each year, L’Association de defense des Bouchons Lyonnais certifies those bouchons that meet its standards of authenticity. The restaurants, which number around twenty, proudly display their designation on their windows.
Read RW Apple’s 2002 story, The Bouchons of Lyon, in Saveur.