A grand survivor of France’s storied Belle Epoque, Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon is a stunning reminder of when train travel was an exquisite sort of luxury. Not one square centimeter of wall or ceiling space is unadorned in this palatial restaurant, one grand staircase flight above the tracks.
Just as M.F.K. Fisher, America’s greatest food writer, argued that the Gare de Lyon was “not a station but a place,” so is Le Train Bleu not just a restaurant. Fisher wrote about that in her book, “As They Were,” recounting her first lunch in the station’s restaurant. Her meal? A simple repast of bread, good butter, Parma ham that tasted like violets and a half-bottle of Champagne. Memories were coined and a silent vow made to return.
Fisher did go back, but this was the late 1960s. Both the train station and the restaurant were distinctly down at the heels. Learning that the building was destined for destruction, Fisher urged friend Janet Flanner, the famed Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, to visit the station. Flanner did; deeply moved, she persuaded Andre Malraux, then France’s very influential minister of culture, to take steps to save and ultimately restore both as symbols of French heritage as worthy of protection as any cathedral or monument.
Whether Le Train Bleu merits a visit today for its food is debatable.
For years there has been talk of lackluster fare or fluctuating quality. Of-the-moment foodies sniff at the very traditional menu and the old-fashioned style of tableside service and rolling carving stations. For the prices Le Train Bleu charges, one can do better, they say.
What saved our night was a comment from the old waiter who appeared to take the tab. When asked how customers had changed over his 18 years there, he slightly shook his head.
“People still come up the staircase with anticipation,” he replied in French. “And it’s our job to fulfill their dreams.”