The Bouchons of Lyon: Home Cooking at its Finest

No matter to what degree people enjoy gourmet dining, most will agree there’s nothing like a home cooked meal. In Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, diners can experience the best of both worlds — in the traditional bouchons. These small restaurants, an integral part of the city’s cultural heritage, serve delectable homemade dishes — such as chicken liver terrine, andouillette (tripe sausage), coq au vin, and pot au feu (pot roast) — reminiscent of the cuisine of les mères lyonnaises (Lyonnaise mothers). They are always accompanied by pot Lyonnais, a heavy-bottomed pitcher of regional wine.

In the 17th century, these signature restaurants, known by their signs that showed a bunch of twisted straw, were inns or taverns (similar to today’s truck stops) visited by the Canuts (silk workers) passing through Lyon. The wife would cook, while the owner manned the wine cellar and played convivial host to his guests. However, bouchons gained popularity during the economic crisis between the world wars, a time when many cooks were laid off from their jobs in wealthy homes. These women of humble origin set up their own small restaurants, providing simple home cooked meals featuring inferior cuts of meat or offal.

The first mère lyonnaise to gain notoriety was Mère Fillioux (born in 1865), who had worked for an insurer before opening her restaurant. Her volaille demi-deuil (truffled hen) made her famous. Mère Brazier, born in 1895 and a protégé of Mère Fillioux, opened two bouchons; the second trained famous master chef Paul Bocuse. In 1933, Mère Brazier became the first woman awarded three Michelin stars for both restaurants at the same time.

The bouchon really has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. The secret of its success really comes down to four things:

  • Setting — tastefully decorated with tables positioned close together, wood furniture, and pots hung from the ceiling to give the feeling of being at home
  • Ambience — a larger-than-life host who mingles with the guests to make them feel like part of the family
  • Wines — the traditional pot Lyonnais, a carafe of Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône
  • Food — a limited menu of popular and quality dishes that are mostly based on leftover cuts of meat and fresh local produce

Today, there are approximately 20 certified bouchons in Lyon, mostly reasonably priced and family run with female chefs. They can be identified by a sticker on the window that shows Gnafron, a marionette who symbolizes Lyonnais dining pleasure, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a napkin with the city’s crest in the other.

In Lyon, there is no place like home — unless it’s a bouchon, serving up regional specialties and excellent local wine for a quintessential taste of Burgundy. Check them out during your Vantage cruise tour, French Waterways: Highlights of Burgundy, Beaujolais & Provence.