Café des Fédérations should be on the itinerary of any first-time visitor to Lyon. It may not be the classiest of Lyon eateries, and its surroundings may not be the most salubrious. But, If eating offal with strangers, shoulder to shoulder, in confined spaces for a few hours excites you, then a visit to the most famous Bouchon in Lyon will not disappoint.
Over the past several years, the Café des Fédérations has become more popular than ever, expanding to accommodate an influx of patrons. They now own the restaurant next door and the one across the road. Thankfully, the food is just as good, and the pig is still on the toilet.
On a cold and wet Tuesday in May, our last visit saw us in that famous narrow laneway surrounded by graffiti-covered walls and uncollected rubbish, looking for the most famous Bouchon in Lyon, the Café des Fédérations.
We found it hidden among several other eateries in this unpretentious setting. We had arrived just before Midday. The street was deserted, and although the lights were on in the Café des Fédérations and the tables were set, no sign of life was evident inside. The door had no handle, which prevented us from entering.
Chez Paul, opposite the Café des Fédérations, showed some life when a tourist bus disgorged its cargo of German tourists. We were hungry, but the thought of sharing a meal with a bunch of noisy tourists on long communal tables did not impress us. So we decided to wait and see if life existed across the road.
Eventually, three women entered via a side door located on an even narrower side street. Finally, a hand protruded from the front door and discreetly attached the missing door handle. Apparently, this action was the signal to enter.
Inside was a welcome escape from the rain. With its banquette seating, paper tablecloths, red and white checkered napkins, and the ubiquitous sausages hanging from the ceiling, Café des Fédérations is a most fitting introduction to the traditions of a Bouchon.
The Bouchon tradition came from small inns that silk traders passed through Lyon in the 17th and 18th centuries. History is a little confused about the origins of Bouchon and what constitutes an authentic Bouchon.
Les Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais and Les Bouchon Lyonnais certify those eateries that meet certain standards and comprise among its members some of the best Bouchons. Needless to say, much rivalry, if not animosity, exists between these two accrediting organisations. Of course, membership can change. Certifications can be given, taken back, and passed on to new owners.
Establishments with the certification are expected to provide a typical Bouchon experience. However, that does not imply that places without the certification cannot offer a similar experience. Of the almost three thousand restaurants in Lyon, only about forty can claim to have met the standards of either one of the two accrediting organisations. At best, the accreditation should help you avoid the fakes. Look for the above logos, or check the websites for the accreditation lists.
The logos depict Gnafron, a character from Guignol, Lyon’s answer to Punch and Judy. The Guignol Puppet Show is an institution in Lyon created early in the 1800s by a dentist who distracted his patients with puppets. Gnafron’s rosy cheeks identify him as a lover of Beaujolais, and he is an excellent choice for the mascot of Bouchons.
The key to a Bouchon is the food, atmosphere and setting: home-made family cuisine, traditional Lyonnaise food (aka offal), a warm welcome and a typical Lyon ambience in a historical setting. Pork is the star in most dishes, and the head-to-tail philosophy is well alive in a Bouchon, so you better be up for sampling offal in all shapes, colours, and textures (beef tongue, tripe, sausages, pork cheeks).
The pig pictured in Café des Fédérations’ logo and the mural of a pig sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper signalled what was to come. The menu confirmed our suspicions. Bouchons are not places for vegetarians or cholesterol-challenged hearts. ‘Fill your innards with innards‘ is the Bouchon motto.
The fun of a Bouchon is that you don’t get to choose who will be sitting next to you. We were first in, but two men with limited French soon joined us. Ruth acted as interpreter, and we soon found out these two men came from our hometown of Sydney, Australia. What a coincidence!
Their company enhanced the casual atmosphere of this Bouchon. Café des Fédérations is not for posers, although a group nearby, an American professor and his young female students tried hard to qualify. Conversation and food are both hearty and casual.
Without asking, some entrees were placed on our table, consisting of two types of sliced sausage with gherkins, Caviar de la Croix Rousse, a puy lentil dish in a tart cream dressing and a celeriac salad. Moorish and delicious!
Ricki settled for civet de joue de porc (Pork cheek stew), a simple dish of pork cheeks (served steaming hot in its pot), potatoes and gravy. It did not seem much, but Ricki attests that it was very filling with the meat melting in the mouth. This dish was the highlight of his visit.
I had tablier de sapeur (fried beef stomach with gribiche sauce). A tablier de sapeur is actually a cowhide leather apron used by soldiers to do heavy work. I can attest that it was as tough as leather (I requested a steak knife to cut it. Ricki suggested a hammer and chisel). But, I accepted the challenge graciously and ate it all.
Tarte aux pralines roses (a pink praline tart) was our choice for dessert. This is much different to the dark pralines that we have had in New Orleans. You can see pink praline desserts everywhere in Lyon.
Lyon deserves its title as the gourmet capital of France. The quality of its produce is readily evident in the menu of Cafe des Federations. Not only did we enjoy great food and wine, but it was also inexpensive. With a couple of glasses of wine, our bill came to under €50.00.
Cafe des Federations – Lyon
8-9-10 Rue du Major Martin, 69001 Lyon
04 78 28 26 00
Mon-Sat: Lunch and dinner; Sun: Lunch
Metro: Hôtel de Ville – Louis Pradel
Authentique Bouchon Lyonnais
Les Bouchon Lyonnais