A Modern Feast in Traditional Lyon
Lyon is known for its traditional bouchon, but a new wave of modern restaurants—notably newcomer Prairial—are changing the dining landscape there.
With more than a thousand restaurants in its grasp, Lyon famously has one of the highest concentrations of eateries in France. The bouchon, with its homely wood-paneled walls, its paraffin candles melting onto the checkered cloth table, has long been the primary dining option. Chalkboard menus abound with sauce-smothered meats, terrines and farmhouse patés from the Monts du Lyonnais, alongside hearty coq au vin recipes passed down from the Meres Lyonnaises, a contingent of women who put Lyon on the food map in the 18th century.
But recently, an increasing number of young chefs are departing from the Lyonnaise culinary cannon, opening their own modern restaurants that are local in their fare and adventurous in their technique. Most recently is Gaetan Gentil’s Prairial Restaurant, which opened in May on the thin slice of land between the Rhône & Saône Rivers.
After leaving Paris’s celebrated L’Agapé Substance, chef Gentil was inspired by this new restaurant wave in Lyon and decided to open on an unassuming street in the 1st Arrondissement. But he’s also quick to note that it was Lyon’s strategic geography, “in arm’s reach of the bounty of Rhone, Valence, Provence, and the Alps,” that he says equally drew him here.
Dining in his intimate, 10-table restaurant is an homage to nature, not sauce. Even the crockery arrives in lucid, organic shapes, gently alluding to seashells and skipping stones, set on placemats that mimic cushy forest moss. Dishes that appear simple on the menu—tomato, grapefruit, marigold—arrive looking like a veritable garden on a plate: slices of a 36-hour roasted heirloom tomato intertwines with grapefruit, topped with edible flowers from Valence, and brioche bread crumbs crushed to mimic dirt.
Rather than simply focus on flavor, Gentil likes to play with color and temperature in surprising ways. He’ll employ warm hues for cold dishes, as with the chilled red gazpacho that arrives with an even colder iceberg of pink melon sorbet drifting through, marked with the startling contrast of a green mint leaf. Tiered textures come through in particular with the desserts: the sweet clover ice cream pulls together three consistencies of chocolate (chewy, crispy, crumbly).
This texture translates to the decor, which features living walls, rough stone pillars, and playful chandeliers that almost look like magnifying glasses, as if to cue your curiosity before the first plate even arrives.