Lyon has a unique kind of eating place known as a bouchon. They're known for serving inexpensive, traditional cooking in a convivial atmosphere.
Le Tire Bouchon in Vieux Lyon
Photo (c) Donna Dailey
Inexpensive doesn't mean that the food is only average. Some of them serve some of the best food in the city. As well as being traditional, the dishes tend to be very meaty, and pretty heavy. Lyon bouchons do not go in for tiny portions of health-conscious meals. In addition, bouchons are also known for the personality of their owners.
Lyon Bouchons: Where the Name Comes From
No-one is quite sure exactly where the name comes from, as in French bouchon also means a cork and it may derive from that.
Some say that the name bouchon comes from bouchonner, which is to rub down a horse. That may not seem an obvious connection but the bouchons were eating places where travellers used to stop and rest up as they travelled around.
Others say it comes from bousche, which was a bottle-stopper made from straw or leaves and which the Lyon bistros would hang outside their door to indicate their business. In the days before the majority of people could read, businesses used to hang a visual sign or symbol outside the door so that people knew what kind of business it was.
Whatever the roots, in a bouchon you will find local food served at reasonable prices in a casual bistro-like atmosphere. Regional wines will be on the menu, and can be bought in a pichet or pot. The standard measure for these is 46cl, though you can get them in quarter, half and litre sizes too. Many new restaurants in Lyon simply call themselves bouchons when they open, because visitors like to eat in a bouchon, but the older ones have great atmospheres and value-for-money food.
Types of Food in Lyon Bouchons
Lyon is recognised as one of the gourmet capitals of France. The local food tends to be very earthy and meaty, with black pudding, tripe, sausage and charcuterie among the regular items on menus. Another speciality is quenelles, a kind of pike dumpling which comes in various guises. Carp and Cuisses de Grenouilles (frogs' legs) are also common. Other typical bouchon dishes include roast duck and roast pork.
Vegetarians can have a hard time, and even the simple salade Lyonnaise will probably have the chopped pieces of bacon known as lardons in it.
The Real Bouchons of Lyon
You should be aware that just because a place calls itself a bouchon, it doesn't mean it is one. There are many new restaurants that call themselves bouchons because they know people like to eat in them, and that for many people - locals and visitors alike - it is meant to be a sign of quality.
There are only a couple of dozen bouchons which get the annual seal of approval from L'Association de défense des bouchons lyonnais (The Association for the Preservation of Lyonnais Bouchons), so look for their sign (right) if you're hoping to find the best bouchons. It shows the Lyon puppet character Gnafron, who liked his food and drink (and who appears on the cover of our own Lyon guidebook, see below).
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