Aquitaine, Frenchie, Gaslight, Petit Robert: all perfectly serviceable French restaurants, all located within a mile of one another. Did the South End really need another bistro?
It did. It needed Bar Lyon.
This is clear on a Wednesday night, as I push through the chill-repelling glass doors and then into the main entrance (at last, a restaurant finds a satisfactory way to keep out the winter cold). Outside, the world is all honking cars and head-down pedestrians, everyone grimly trying to get home. Inside, I’m enveloped by the sounds of a busy, well-run restaurant, that hum of conversation punctuated by laughter and the clatter of dishes. It is one of the world’s best soundtracks. Many neighborhood restaurants are sleepy midweek; at Bar Lyon it might as well be Saturday.
This is an oasis of warmth, filled with cozy, butterscotch-leather booths, marble-tiled floors, pale gold walls, vintage chandeliers. An open kitchen at the back faces into the dining room, a reminder of why open kitchens became popular in the first place. The view is deeply satisfying: a line of focused cooks, copper pots hanging overhead, everything orderly and synchronized. People crowd in at the zinc bar, elbow to elbow, sipping pastis and well-made cocktails. A mirror reflects the words that have been painted backward on the opposite surface. “Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup.” Eat well, laugh often, love a lot. If the motto fits . . .
This is a fine place for a quick stop. One night a friend and I slide into two open stools, slather thick toasts with silky chicken liver parfait and inhale steak tartare, drink a glass of wine, and move on happy. Plenty of people are here for “Le Burger,” an over-the-top stack of dry-aged beef with pork belly, cheese, mushrooms, tarragon aioli, and an egg. You can get it with salad, but at that point you might as well have the frites, thin and crisp.
It is better still to linger. The menu is everything you’d expect, with a slight Lyonnaise flavor. This feels right rather than rote. I don’t know how else to explain it except to say this is food with energy, a repertoire cooked out of love for these dishes rather than a sense of duty to serve them.
There’s a cast-iron dish with six divots, cupping tender snails bathed in garlic butter green with herbs. It’s old-school, no frills, exactly what you want from escargots. A copper pot with handles arrives, filled with onion soup heady with sherry, toast topped in melted Gruyere slowly surrendering its crispness to the broth. Is it silly to go out for dinner and order a salad of lettuce with thin-sliced radish, tiny pickled mushrooms, and vinaigrette? Not when the salad is perfectly dressed and seasoned. People often tell me that when they go to a restaurant, they don’t want to order something they can prepare at home themselves. I understand. But there is something to be said for someone else making you that simple thing you truly enjoy. I throw together some version of this salad multiple times a week, because I think it is one of the best things in the world to eat. Still — therefore — I can’t come to Bar Lyon and not order it.
I think the moment I fell in love with this restaurant was when I saw the omelet on the menu. There should be an omelet at a bistro. It is pale blond, runny at the center, offering finesse without braggadocio. A tuft of the salad is served on the side. Add a glass of red wine and supper is complete. My complaint here is that the triple crème cheese inside distracts from the texture of the eggs, and its flavor overwhelms them. This is also nothing that would stop me from getting it again. And again. Bar Lyon is a good place to be a creature of habit.
Who wouldn’t want to eat this crisp-skinned duck confit on repeat? (The accompanying salad of grains, peas, and onions leans too heavily on the onions, and the vinegar. Part of what makes the food at Bar Lyon so good is the bold use of salt and acid, but sometimes it goes too far.) Or the juicy chicken, sharing its skillet with potatoes, carrots, tarragon, and a flavorful pan sauce? Or a well-cooked bavette steak (again, with too much salt)? Who wouldn’t thrill to a plate of white asparagus, that sure sign of spring, served with vinaigrette, lemon aioli, and chopped egg? Although the menu is always classic, it changes often to suit the season.
One constant, and the most overt nod to Lyon, is the quenelle de brochet, a regional specialty. An airy, mild fish dumpling is served with crayfish tails in a pool of lobster veloute. It’s lovely, and very rich, and although you can order a serving of two, a single quenelle is generally enough for the table. You don’t want more than a few bites.
Bar Lyon serves just the right amount of dessert for a place that emphasizes things that are good over things that are fancy: crème caramel, chocolate mousse scattered with cacao nibs and sea salt.
Are there misses here? Certainly. Trout meuniere one night features flavorless fish swimming in not-brown-enough butter, in need of more punched-up lemon flavor and more salty capers. Campanelli with mushrooms and truffle butter is a bland nod to that vegetarian at your table. The generally good service can falter. One chilly night, a friend and I wish aloud there were cassoulet on the menu. It would hit the spot. A few minutes later, a server delivers something to the next table: “Your cassoulet,” he announces. Guess we weren’t told about the specials.
Bar Lyon isn’t perfect. But it is a pretty perfect neighborhood restaurant. The food is so well turned out. The atmosphere is so pleasant, convivial without being too loud to talk. The prices aren’t painful. It looks and feels correct, as if we really could be in France. It’s no surprise that it comes to us from Columbus Hospitality Group (Mistral, Sorellina, Ostra, etc.), behind some of the city’s most consistently well-run restaurants. On more visits than not, I see chef and co-owner Jamie Mammano at the open kitchen, making sure things are right. At this point in his career, he probably doesn’t need to be here. And yet, he needs to be here. Being present can make all the difference.
★ ★ ★
1750 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-904-4020, www.barlyon.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $5.95-$16.95. Entrees $14.95-$26.95. Desserts $7-$9.
Hours Dinner Sun 5-9:30 p.m., Tue-Thu 5:30-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.
Noise level Moderate (73-78 decibels)
What to order Market greens, white asparagus, duck confit, quenelle de brochet, chicken.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary | ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor