In Lyon, Battle of the Bouchons

By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2001

If there are two things the French are good at, it's cooking and quarreling. In Lyon, the ancient city that was once the Roman capital of Gaul, both have been raised to an art form. Especially since the ongoing quarrel is about food.

I knew nothing of this when our party of four stepped into Le Stepharo, an unassuming restaurant in Old Lyon. We were barely through the door when the pixiesh co-owner, Sylvie Chanavat, bellowed, "Allo, Docteur!" with an absurdly exaggerated wave. I thought she was talking to someone behind us. But she addressed nearly everyone in the room as "Doc" or "Professor." On a good evening, I was told, some might advance to "General" or "Magistrate."

A greeting from the owner is one of the hallmarks of the bouchon, a form of restaurant peculiar to Lyon. Historically, bouchons are loud and lively, and their meat-and-cream-sauce-laden cuisine is the local comfort food. It's also one of the few fine, authentic French meals you can buy for less than $20 a head, including appetizer, main course, salad, dessert or cheese platter, and wine.

Chanavat flew about the room with sizzling dishes of gratin Dauphinois (potatoes au gratin), quenelles au brochet (fluffy pike dumplings in a cream and cheese sauce) and melt-in-your-mouth fraise de veau (pork intestines in a red wine and mustard sauce). There were cold sausages called saucissons, sweet St. Marcellin cheese on nut bread, and a local red wine that seemed unremarkable by itself, but with the food . . . ! As Bon Papa, my French girlfriend's 91-year-old grandfather, likes to say, "It goes down like Jesus in velvet underpants."

From the marble-topped tables to the personal service by Chanavat and her husband, Robert, Le Stepharo appears to be the epitome of the authentique bouchon.

Not so fast, says Louis Chabanel, a longtime bouchon devotee and owner of one, Le Pasteur. Perhaps 200 Lyon restaurants call themselves bouchons, he says, including pizza parlors, ethnic restaurants and chain restaurants. It's enough to make his distinguished gray hair stand on end. Chabanel enlisted the help of fellow bouchonier Pierre Grison to lobby the mayor of Lyon to establish an accreditation board, the Association des Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais, which determines if a restaurant is the real thing. "The tradition is getting lost," Chabanel frets.

Le Stepharo is not a member; Robert Chanavat bridles at the idea that someone else will dictate what is authentic. Chabanel hints darkly that Le Stepharo is not as authentic as it appears to the American eye.

There are, in fact, only about 20 members in Chabanel's group, though he plans to add three this year. He concedes that some will drop out. As the debate continued, I found myself becoming drawn in.

What makes a proper bouchon? At $20 a pop, I could afford to investigate.

I met Chabanel one morning at the Halles de Lyon, a marketplace with dozens of food stands, many offering the finest products Lyon has to offer. Many bouchon owners start their day here, searching for fresh and seasonal ingredients that will determine the day's menu. Fresh food is a central tenet of bouchon cooking, Chabanel said. One of the bylaws of his group is that no one may have a freezer.

As we walked through the aisles, he demonstrated how to pick a fish -- look for red gills and shiny surface, make sure the fish is slightly stiff, and never judge by smell. He pointed out his favorite brand of chicken, which still had its head and tail feathers. At his preferred meat stand, he asked for tripe, unfurled it, lovingly appraised it, cut off a piece and ate it raw.

A lot of bouchon food is made of what might be called inferior cuts. It goes back to the turn-of-the-century tradition of the bouchon, when it was the workingman's place to eat. Food was cheap and plentiful, but to keep costs down, dishes were often made from stomachs, brains, giblets and such (all the more reason to perfect the sauces). Men stopped on the way to their jobs, perhaps in the renowned silk factories of prewar Lyon, for the machon, a breakfast of dried sausage and wine. They returned to eat and drink after work.

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