When eating in French cafes, writer Lena Katz suggests that travelers consider the venue’s plat du jour, or daily specials. // © 2014 Lena Katz
Feature image (above): In Vieux Lyon, or Old Lyon, scenic cafes sit in the shadows of well-preserved structures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance era. // © 2014 Lena Katz
There’s a lot to love about the south of France: the art, the history — even the light is legendary. But on our recent visit, it was the cafe life that lured us to take a seat and linger.
No matter whether you’re in the city of Lyon, the ancient forum of Arles or a medieval-village-turned-tourist-attraction, the easiest and most immersive way to study local culture is by choosing a sun-splashed outdoor table at a charming cafe or bistro.
Order a glass of local wine, have a look at the plat du jour selection on the chalkboard, perhaps nibble a plate of sausage or cheese and enjoy life the way residents have for generations. Here are a few of the places we visited and the cafes we enjoyed.
In former artists’ stomping grounds such as Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year before checking into the St. Paul cloister, many venues use history as a marketing ploy. Case in point: the various “Starry Night” cafes in the Forum Square of Arles. None of them are where Van Gogh drank, brooded or painted. If you want a nice cafe with Impressionist charm, La Mule Blanche is right outside the Van Gogh Museum and is locally recommended.
Craving something with a Michelin star rating? Those venues are rarely the showiest or in the most obvious locations. This simple sidewalk setup down a narrow side street is Le Bistrot a Cote, the casual venue of Michelin-two-starred chef Jean-Luc Rabanel. Many people prefer it to the formal restaurant, L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, located adjacent to the bistro.
This isn’t a cafe, but for wine aficionados, it’s a much more important feature of the quaint Chateauneuf-du-Pape village. Since most of the actual wineries in this legendary region don’t allow people on property even if they intend to buy, the wine shops in the village sell exclusively Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines. Variety and value tend to be better than expected, and you’ll get to taste and discover all sorts of boutique labels that never make it into America.
Old Lyon, the historic quarter of the city, is a prime draw for tour groups — thanks to the wonderfully preserved architecture, which dates back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era. Laws protect residents and business owners from updating the exteriors of historic buildings. This dented the appeal in previous decades, but the neighborhood has recently seen an influx of artsy, trendy youth. The French refer to them as “bourgeois bohemians” or “Les Bo-Bos.”
Between the Bo-Bos and the simply savvy entrepreneurs who know how many tourists want to lunch in Lyon, the culinary capital of France, the quarter is bursting at the seams with enticing cafes, bistros and restaurants.
The quintessential medieval village, Perouges is a wonderful day trip from Lyon — and the cafes are in competition to outdo each other in charm. Auberge du Coq ranks high on everyone’s favorite list, with its rustic yet homey decor and friendly proprietors. It’s on a perfectly picturesque cobblestone street, just a few steps off the town square.