If you’ve ever imagined yourself sitting in a sprawling French café next to the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and Edith Piaf in a scene torn from the pages of A Moveable Feast, this is your spot. Originally opened in 1836 by Alsatian transplant Georges Holfherr, this grande dame sits alongside Lyon’s old train station Perrache and features exquisite décor from the last two centuries. I found it because it’s a mere five minute stroll from the law faculty of the Catholic University of Lyon, where I teach as a guest professor in an executive course once a year. It’s a gorgeous space with substantial history, not all of which is readily discussed in polite company.
Unfortunately, I’ve only ever visited for one of the expansive lunches that the French are so well known for. The daily menu is exquisite and changes regularly. As to be expected, service is achieved with the crisp efficiency of a thoroughly professional staff who whisk away plates and crumbs, sliding into place the next course with the elegance of a well conducted orchestra. The food – all courses – are tip-top brasserie fare, with less reliance on the typical local delicacies of organ meat and offal that one encounters in the city’s legendary bouchons. That is, typically French, but not specifically Lyonnaise. Regardless, you can’t go wrong by following the chef’s daily suggestions in this bustling open space – perhaps the largest restaurant of its kind in Europe.
Now to the bit of history that Georges doesn’t advertise, with the caveat that this is all still under investigation. I was first told about this by a local who may or may not have been correct in pointing it out. With that disclaimer, one cannot help but notice the flooring tiles featuring one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable symbols: the swastika. As it was related to me, during the World War II the Germans first took the southern portion of Lyon, with the northern portion continuing to fight on for some time before falling. During that time, the German army favored Georges, using it as a beer house and social center. As with some parts of Europe, some evidence of the occupation survived the death of the “Butcher of Lyon.” Hence, what you might notice today if you have the misfortune, as I did, of dropping your salad fork.
Consider this a lovely, reliable spot to haul a group for a delicious and lively meal with an exuberant atmosphere – Lyon’s true specialty.
Another Georges dos Santos selection. Complex, intense nose of roses, vanilla, old wood, and fig. An acidic kick to the front of the palate, with more wood, intense florals, with a hint of cocoa. I find myself reaching for the name of a flavor that just eludes me. Tannins come in with hints of slate and red fruits, in a deep, powerful attack. Just wow.
So here’s a wine I was not going to review. I picked this up on Georges’ recommendation, from Antic Wine. Georges is, in a word, the man. I talk about Georges more in the Antic Wine entry, but much of what you need to know about Georges you can pick up from the way he marked this bottle in the photo. When I first opened this wine, I shouldn’t have. But I came back the next day and found that she is a delicious beauty of blackberry pie, cherry tart, autumn leaves, moss, and dusty dried flowers, with a perfectly balanced tannic closing, to boot. Wow. I haven’t had a French wine do this for me in a while.
I stumbled upon this place a few times, always finding the doors securely locked and the lights out. The French; they hate money. Or at least that’s what I had come to think over the course of a month spent locked out of every service or shop imagineable by the time the class I was teaching at the University let out around 6pm each day.
I finally got lucky one night while meandering around the old town: Georges dos Santos, the owner, happened to be inside, doors open, drinking wine with a friend. Georges was welcoming, engaging, and funny as hell. His pal, the owner of ultra-luxury brand Zilli, was also fun and friendly, poking fun at his own label. Amen. Georges and I had a nice chat, he got a sense of what I was into, and he started pulling wines from his shelves, including the tough-to-get Clos Signadore from Corsica. That bottle came with a nice story of what he had to do to get his hands on a few cases.
I’m sure that with enough time, Georges and I could find plenty to disagree on. Of the things we have discussed, we mostly see eye-to-eye: Washington wine (glad they like it), Empordá (the style keeps on changing), Portuguese table wine (great to explore), Virginia (no thanks). The list goes on. Thus far, Georges has turned me on to six different wines I would not have otherwise encountered. The results, for me, range from “incredible value” to “holy holy!!” The second time I visited Georges he actually remembered me from the prior year. Since I’m not particularly difficult, I’d say he has an eye for his clientele. All told, I highly suggest paying Georges a visit if you find yourself in Lyon.