The long-awaited opening of terraces arrived in France on Wednesday, May 19. Restaurants and bars that are lucky enough to have an outdoor space reopened precisely 203 days after closing for the second lockdown in October. Previously a ghost town, our neighborhood is starting to feel alive again.
In the days leading up to the reopening, we saw terraces come back to life. Owners cleaned off their dusty tables and chairs. An employee with a measuring stick calculated how many tables they could fit outside in their small space. Workers removed signs on doors that said, “closed indefinitely”. A slight stir of excitement was in the air, something that we haven’t felt in a while.
Only outdoor dining is allowed in restaurants until June 9, the next reopening phase in France. Terraces are limited to 50% capacity unless the outdoor space is small, then they can operate at 100% capacity. There’s no definition of “small,” and just like the previous 15 months, the rules don’t make much sense. The government pushed the curfew back two hours from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, allowing us to go out for a quick-by-French-standards dinner. If you can believe it, 9:00 pm is the latest we have legally been allowed outside in France since October.
In typical France fashion, the weather did not cooperate with the reopening of the terraces. The entire day bounced between rain, sun, hail, rain, sun, and back to rain again. We were lucky enough to have a break between rain for a quick walk along the Saone river at lunch. As we passed by restaurant after restaurant, it was clear the weather would not deter the customers.
We made dinner reservations a few weeks in advance at a local Bouchon. A Bouchon is a restaurant that is specific to Lyon, blending culinary and cultural traditions. The menu is small, serving only traditional Lyonnaise food and wine from the region. The meals served have been prepared the same way for generations. A meal at a Bouchon is supposedly like enjoying a home-cooked meal at your grandmother’s house. After all, the “Méres Lyonnaises“, or Lyon Mothers, created Bouchons.
The Lyon Mothers were women employed as cooks for well-to-do families in the early 1900s. They cooked simple family dishes using local produce and meat with little waste. After the first world war and an economic crisis in France, their jobs as cooks were at risk. Many of the Lyon Mothers lost their jobs and started restaurants to share their homemade cooking. These restaurants allowed everyone, not just the well-to-do, to discover simple and delicious meals. You may have heard that Lyon is the gastronomy capital of France, and we have the Lyon Mothers to thank for this.
We chose to eat at Le Vivarais, a restaurant serving up traditional meals since 1917. Our reservation was for 7:00 pm, right when it opened for the evening. The restaurant had eight tables set up outside underneath a series of awnings to protect from the rain. We were the first ones to arrive, which made me a bit skeptical. But I forget that the French are not prompt or timely; the tables were soon full. We watched as couples walked up throughout the evening and asked for a table, only to overhear, “désolé, c’est complet,” or “sorry it’s full” by the waiter.
In general, terraces have been first-come-first-serve. With the initial reopening, it’s no longer possible to walk up and sit down at an available seat. Will COVID shift the terrace culture in France forever? However, if the table is available, it is theirs for the evening. Diners can enjoy the meal with conversation and companionship without the rush of the check.
To celebrate the occasion, we ordered a bottle of local red wine to share. We chose the preset menu that included a starter, a main, and dessert. To start, we both ordered a traditional Lyonnaise salad. On top of the salad is a poached egg and bacon. It’s personally a favorite of mine! For our main course, I enjoyed a duck filet and Jordan, the beef of the day. They were both delicious.
American restaurants receive a bad reputation for their large portion sizes, but have they eaten in France? It’s just as much, if not more, food! I wish I had photos to share, but I was too busy enjoying the meal to take pictures.
I ordered the praline tart or tarte aux pralines, and Jordan enjoyed a chocolate mousse for dessert. These are not like the pralines you may have had in Savannah, Georgia! The pastry is a Lyon specialty using pralines roses or pink pralines. Almonds coated with caramelized and colored sugar create these recognizable and bright pink pralines. The pralines are then crushed and cooked with cream to make the thick filling set in a shortbread base. My first taste was nutty, sweet, and sticky. The spoon stuck to the pastry, and I had to do acrobatics with my utensil to break off each bite. The effort was worth it, and it was a delicious way to top off dinner.
The evening was winding down at this point, and it was close to our 9:00 pm curfew. It had lightly rained during dinner, but the weather was once clear again. With full bellies and happy hearts, we went inside to pay before walking home. We could have taken the metro but needed to walk off some of the food we ate! We passed by countless restaurants still packed with diners — some with full dinner plates and glasses of wine with only ten minutes before curfew. Clearly, the French were prioritizing their dinner over the curfew.
We continued walking home and passed a large square with multiple bars. There were a couple of hundred people enjoying drinks in the packed terraces. As a police car drove around the square, the crowd jeered and cheered. Enjoying terraces with friends and family is engrained in the French culture. The diners were not going to let the police get in the way of their first experience in almost seven months. The car drove away, probably recognizing it would not win. We made it back to our apartment a few minutes after curfew and were hardly the last people home.
The next few days brought better weather to Lyon. Terraces have filled up for lunch and dinner, while reservations are still a necessity. The next reopening phase is June 9, where our curfew will be pushed back again until 11:00 pm, and dining will be allowed indoors. It’s hard to believe that France is finally on track to open to tourists!
For now, we will celebrate better days ahead and will enjoy our 9:00 pm curfew and the terraces in France.