All Aboard Le Train Bleu
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
So you think you’ve experienced exceptional cuisine, magnificent decor, polished service, etc., etc…
What about taking a ride back in time — to the 1900’s when turn-of-the-20th-century optimism and panache was at it’s most opulent, elegant apogée — when Belle Époque and Art Nouveau were lifestyles, not simply arcane architectural terms.
It was then, at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, that such technological innovations as the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris Wheel, talking films, diesel engines and escalators were introduced. The city also unveiled both the Grand and Petit Palais, Pont Alexandre III and the Gare de Lyon — all as resplendent now as they were then. (In a similar vein, the Eiffel Tower opened the Exposition Universelle 1889.)
La Gare de Lyon was designed by Marius Toudoire. A graduate of the L’École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Toudoire also designed Gare Saint-Jean in Bordeaux, Gare de Toulouse-Matabiau, Gare de Cusset and Gare Châtel-Guyon. Suffice it to say, this was a man who found his specialty.
Today, Toudoire is best known for his exquisite Gare de Lyon and, of course, its restaurant, Le Train Bleu. The name is an hommage to one of the most glamorous routes originating at the station, the night train traveling between Paris, Lyon and Mediterranean cities along the Côte d’Azur.
Finding the restaurant is a bit tricky at first. Look for a relatively unassuming set of stairs on a back wall of the station. Make your way through the harried travelers, then be prepared to embark on a grand adventure!
Initially, as you walk into the restaurant, you’ll feel as if you stumbled into Versailles. The gilt decoration, enormous chandeliers, painted ceilings, stucco moldings, mahogany furniture and velvet curtains are beyond jaw-dropping. What’s even more astonishing is the relative quiet and tranquility of Le Train Bleu — a distinct contrast to the noise and activity just outside the door.
An elegantly-clad hostess will guide you to a table. From your luxurious leather banquette, you can begin to study the ceiling and walls decorated with paintings representing the cities and regions of France — 41 paintings in all, by the best artists of the era.
You’ll likely still be in a daze when the waiter appears with the menu. The refined presentation (even by French standards) will again make you feel as if you’ve been transported to another era.
Two Michelin chefs are in charge of the cuisine for your journey: Michel Rostand and Jean-Pierre Hocquet. Their dishes are inspired by the historic “PLM Route” — Lyonnaise Quenelles Pike, Mediterranean seafood and ravioli are just a few of the regular offerings. But the menu changes frequently to include updated versions of iconic French recipes as well.
As you dine, you’ll notice uniformed valets carrying luggage. Not surprisingly, many of the guests are actually traveling. Helpfully, a valet will loudly announce the departure of the various trains. If you speak French you’ll realize that he’s also occasionally quoting Molière, Proust, Maupassant — presumably to add to the historical sense of the place.
Sometime during or after your meal, take a discreet stroll through the other rooms of the restaurant to view the remaining 41 paintings. Then pass by the Big Ben Bar and see a collection of photos commemorating the restaurant before the 2014 refurbishment. And don’t miss the Moroccan room — another journey altogether.
Finally, before departing please make sure that you have all your luggage and personal belongings. It’s been a few years since Hadley Hemingway mislaid Ernest’s suitcase containing several unpublished manuscripts. (Still one of the world’s greatest literary catastrophes!) Heaven forbid you misplace a treasured souvenir.
Then again, time travel is particularly disorienting and Le Train Bleu will most definitely separate you from reality — generally in the best way possible.