A waiter serves a client in a typical local restaurant known as "Bouchon Lyonnais", on June 2, 2020 in Lyon, as bars, cafes and restaurants in green areas of France are authorized to reopen with strict health rules, after weeks of forced closure due to the measures adopted to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the novel coronavirus. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

For gastronomes worldwide, Lyon has long held pride of place in France’s hierarchy of fine dining, but even as the city’s beloved “bouchon” restaurants emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, many fear they might not survive the changes demanded in the coronavirus era.

The tiny, cramped dining rooms known for jovial, rib-sticking feasts fuelled by standout local wines make a mockery of social distancing — a tradition that customers do not appear eager to uphold.

“We have six reservations for lunch. What worries me is that they could all be tables for one,” said Arlette Hugon, sweating behind a red, white and blue face mask in the cramped kitchen of her namesake restaurant.

She was stirring a rich crawfish sauce for pike dumplings while keeping an eye on a simmering vinegar sauce on Tuesday, as France allowed its restaurants to open their doors for the first time in ten weeks.

Hugon and her son, Eric, would have preferred to wait until September, but with the state no longer paying the salaries of out-of-work employees, staying shut was no longer an option.

So they removed two-thirds of their seats to respect the safety distances now required of restaurants, including the communal table in the middle where single diners were warmly induced to make new acquaintances, and set up four tables on the sidewalk outside.

“We have room to dance here now!” says Marie, a friend who stops by before lunch to wish them luck.

At exactly ten minutes to noon the first customer, Pierre-Arnaud Dervieux, a longtime regular, marches in.

“This is a big day, I’ve been waiting more than two months. I’m a big fan of Lyon specialities and they weren’t easy to find during the lockdown, and they’re not easy to make at home,” he said.

Enjoying a carafe of Beaujolais, he beamed as Arlette brought out his hearty plate of stewed calf’s head — “Pearl onions, I’ve missed these so much!”

A few streets away on the narrow strip of Lyon’s historic centre between the Rhone and Saone rivers, Francois had staked out a table outside the Bouchon Turpin since mid-morning to wait for his meal.

“Eating in France, it’s fundamental after all!” he said.

But the generous plates of cream-heavy dishes, a mainstay of cosy winter evenings spent inside a boisterous bouchon, appeared to have little appeal on a bright sunny day, as the sprawling terraces of modern restaurants filled up nearby.

Usually during the seasonal dropoff in warm months, the bouchons have relied on Americans, Chinese and other tourists who make the trek so southeast France, home of the nouvelle cuisine pioneer Paul Bocuse — who learned his craft at the Mere Brazier, one of the most famous bouchons of all.

There are around 30 bouchons in the city and about as many theories about the name.

Bouchon in French means cork but the popular theory is that it comes from an Old French word, ‘bousche’, a round bunch of pine branches that the patrons would hang from their doors. Others say it refers to the palm branches laid against the door to show it was open.

With overseas travel still at a standstill, today’s owners have been trying to make do, with some installing plexiglass barriers between tables to allay contagion fears.

At the Cafe des Federations, the menu has been stripped down, with fewer starters and no after-dinner cheese platter so that diners no longer spend too much time at the table.

Muriel Ferrari, of the Cafe des Artisans, worries that even these measures might not be enough for her restaurant, which lies off the beaten track behind the Part-Dieu railway station.

Her bouchon has no outdoor seating, and she has had to take out every other table in a restaurant that measures just 40 square metres (430 square feet).

Just eight clients showed up for lunch on Tuesday, all ardent fans of her chicken liver pie and other classics, which she cooks and serves herself.

Usually she can rely on a steady stream of Japanese clients, ever since the imperious 65-year-old was featured on a Japanese television show.

So she has launched a petition asking Lyon’s mayor to allow “a little bit of flexibility” in the new hygiene rules, saying the city’s gastronomical heritage is at risk.

Mapo Pecette, who owns a nearby clothing store, said she came for lunch “because we’re all determined to support each other.”

But she politely declined a plate of Ferrari’s signature praline tarte, saying she had no room for dessert.

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