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Footloose in Lyon

Savoring the Great Flavor of France Over Lunch

June 08, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

LYON, France — Locals jokingly call it the Paul Bocuse Special, French National Railroads' super-swift TGV that zips down from Paris in two hours flat, just in time for many passengers to have lunch in one of this town's countless superb restaurants and return to the City of Light well before nightfall.

Lyon's culinary reputation, which many consider more luminous than the capital's, began its astounding ascent 63 years ago in the old Roman town of Vienne 12 miles south of here when the Point family opened La Pyramide restaurant.

Recipes and a demand for perfection raised it to the lofty height of France's premier dining place, leading to Fernand Point's impressive collection of disciples, including Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel and other of France's most revered and creative chefs.

Lyon, where 80% of offices close for lunch, has plenty of jewels in its crown besides food. An admirable location at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers made it attractive to the Romans and capital of their western empire for several centuries.

Emperor Claudius was born here, magnificent Roman theaters date from 15 B.C., the Gallo-Roman Museum is one of the architectural-archeological wonders of Europe and a collection of Renaissance buildings in Old Town is as impressive as any outside Italy.

Here to there: Air France and TWA fly from Los Angeles International Airport to Paris nonstop; American and Pan Am with one; British Airways, Air Canada, Delta and British Caledonian with a change. Use your France Vacances rail pass for the TGV, some popular runs requiring a small supplement. Subways and buses get you around Lyon, taxis moderate.

How long/how much?: We'd give it two-plus days. Lodging prices are reasonable, dining moderate to expensive, depending upon how haut the cuisine in the place you choose.

A few fast facts: France's franc was recently valued at almost seven to the dollar. Summer and fall are best for visits; even southern France can see snow until late spring.

Getting settled in: Grand Hotel des Beaux Arts (73 Rue du Edouard Herriot; $35 to $58 double) has old and new wings, both recently renovated, a handsome marble lobby with etched glass and lots of flowers, breakfast only, but it's a large buffet in delightful room for $4.25.

The Carlton (Place de la Republique, $46 to $56) has the same traditional feel as Beaux Arts, contemporary and period rooms, perfect location on main shopping street and, like the hotel above, light sleepers should ask for a room in the rear. Again, breakfast only.

La Residence (18 Rue Victor Hugo; $28) is near Perrache railway station on a pedestrian street, small but neat rooms, TV, bright graphics and Room 213 has a marble fireplace.

Regional food and drink: Lyon is noted not only for its starry restaurants but also for les bouchons , 20 or so invariably small, simple, bistro-type places where the emphasis is on pork, ham and sausage dishes. Ask six locals why these places are called "corks" and you'll get six different answers. But they're unanimous in telling you with a straight face that Lyon is irrigated by the rivers Rhone, Saone and "Beaujolais."

More seriously, freshness and quality typify local food: Lyon dry sausages and tripe; Ardeche chestnuts; Rhone and Beaujolais wines; carp; and chicken from nearby Bresse, the only bird so honored with an appellation controlee label.

Look for: pike quenelles with sauce Nantua; poularde demi-deuil , pullet in half-mourning with black truffles and cream; marvelous charcuterie; les boutons de culotte , trouser buttons of small, white chevre: Saint Marcellin and cervelle de canut cheeses.

Moderate-cost dining: Cafe Comptoir de Lyon (4 Rue Tupin) has an antique mirrored bar reaching to the ceiling, basic tables, a bouchon serving most of the simple fare they're noted for. Also known as Chez Sylvain, luncheon menus are $9 and $11, cheese, dessert, the works.

Another good bouchon just down the street, Cafe du Jura or Chez Gabriel (25 Rue Tupin) is more of the same, menu loaded with tripe, andouillettes , lentil soups and salads, several Beaujolais, which they chill in bouchons.

Comptoir du Boeuf (16 Rue du Boeuf) is owned by Chef Philippe Chavent, who built the adjoining La Tour Rose into one of the town's finest and most elegant restaurants in the past decade. More than 30 kinds of wine at the Boeuf served by the glass, 650 choices by the bottle, simple bistro food like a gargantuan pot au feu for $8.50, a delicious plate of hot ham with ginger sauce and vegetables for $5.60. Pop in any time for cold dishes, pate, cheese.

Going first-class: Grand Hotel Concorde (11 Rue Grolee; $64 to $90) was built in the mid-19th Century and remains the town's first in traditional style, lofty room ceilings, enormous baths and tiny balconies overlooking the Rhone.

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