True gastronomes know that Lyon, not Paris, is where it's at when it comes to food in France. The home of famed chef Paul Bocuse, Lyon is surrounded by France's finest raw materials, giving way to exceptional markets and restaurants.
But the real reason Lyon is considered France's food capital is because it has something no other city in the world has. Bouchons.
Bouchon, which means "cork" in English but also refers to the straw silk traders would use to clean down their horses, is a unique Lyonnaise bistro. Like many French gastronomic traditions, what constitutes a bouchon is up for debate, and there is not one, but two, accrediting organisations that have the power to classify a bouchon as genuine. But even if a bouchon doesn't pass the authenticity test, most will still offer a classic Lyonnaise experience.
Here's what to look for: menus are almost always set, and for somewhere between €20-€30 you'll get four generous courses of traditional Lyonnaise cuisine including shared entrees, cheese and dessert. Wine costs extra, and is often limited to Lyon's bordering wine regions (beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone). Butcher's paper over red-and-white check tablecloths and napkins is common (as is the colour red in general). Having a good time is mandatory.
Here are five to try.
Cafe des Federations
Arguably one of the most famous bouchons in Lyon, Cafe des Feds (as it's known to locals) is a must. Start with classics such as caviar de la Croix-Rousse (lentil salad) and sliced tongue or snout, and finish with the bright pink tarte aux pralines for dessert, but pace yourself. This place can get rowdy in the evenings, and you'll need to take full advantage of the wine list if you want to keep up.
Daniel & Denise
With three locations around town, you're never too far from a Daniel & Denise. The chef, whose name is neither Daniel nor Denise but Joseph Viola, is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, having been awarded the craftsman title in 2004. This is more refined than most. Here, you'll find dishes such as pâté en croute and chicken with morels, served with sides of macaroni gratin and fried potatoes. You can order a la carte, although doing so can get expensive. A potentially hefty bill is saved by sensational wine prices – pick something local and you're looking at around €5 (about $A7.50) a carafe.
Le Bouchon des Filles
As its name suggests, this bouchon is run by filles (girls). While many bouchons are run by women, the angle here is that dishes are supposedly on the lighter side. A thick andouillette sausage comes with gently boiled potatoes and a fresh tomato sauce; blood pudding is wrapped alongside tart apples in crispy filo.
While the only sign of red here is the burgundy in your glass, the menu is as authentic as any in town, featuring classic dishes including quenelle de brochet (pike dumpling in a creamy crayfish sauce), hefty salade Lyonnaise (a caesar on steroids) and veal cooked in port and mustard. Cheese might be fromage blanc seasoned with herbs, shallots and vinegar, and for dessert, the creme caramel is hard to pass up.
This lamp-lit bouchon in the heritage-protected Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon) is heavy on the old-world charm. Thick red curtains drape over wide windows, small plates of grattons (porky bits, like soft scratchings) in red ceramic dishes are laid out on red tabletops. Good for an intimate evening, the set menu here will set you back around €28. Keep it simple with rosette de Lyon (cured sausage arranged like a rosette, with pickles) to start – level up with the slow-cooked beef cheek or tripe for main.