A few blocks from Vieux Lyon, with its impressively large district of renaissance architecture in France, Brasserie Georges seems to have changed little since its foundation in 1836 by Georges Hoffer, a Strasbourg brewer. Liza Perrat visits a historic restaurant which has hosted the gliterrati of the literary world for almost two centuries…
I can almost feel the flourishes of France’s greatest literary quill. I sense the laborious, but convivial toil of the grape harvest portrayed in the 1924 frescoes of Francisque Guillermin, decorating the grandiose, 600m2 ceiling.
What about: The ghosts of literary spirits recounting their tales compete with the real spirit of the beer brewed on site, and, alongside these writers, entertainers, politicians and artists have also graced the walnut tables. Their memories are carved in the archives of French history, as their names are engraved in copper plaques on the red moleskin banquettes.
Jean Sarrazin, 19th century Lyonnaise poet called ‘the olive poet’, proclaimed his poems while handing out olives at the Brasserie Georges.
Table 102 is dedicated to Paul Verlaine, also a 19th century French poet. His stylistic innovations gave a new musicality to French poetry and laid the foundations for free verse.
In an old ledger a debt is clearly marked: Alphonse de Lamartine owes the Brasserie Georges restaurant 40 francs. The famous poet, who loved to go to Lyon and dream on the banks of the Rhône river, never paid for the two half casks of beer drunk in 1857.
French author Jules Verne had fifty four novels published during his lifetime. Famous for works such as ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, ‘Journey to The Centre of The Earth’ and ‘Around the World in 80 days’, he also frequented ‘La Georges’ as it is fondly known to the locals.
Mistinguett (1875 – 1956), the ‘Queen of the Paris music hall’ from the silent era, ate at table 30. She was the most popular French entertainer of her time and once, the highest paid female entertainer in the world. ‘A kiss can be a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know,’ proclaimed Mistinguett.
Table 22 is dedicated to French novelist and critic, Emile Zola. His 1877 depiction of alcoholism, ‘L’Assommoir’, made him the best known writer in France. Founder of the naturalist movement in literature, Zola redefined naturalism as ‘nature seen through a temperament’.
The passage of Anatole France is captured at table 119. Writer and critic, he was one of the major figures of French literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921.
The ‘defender and illustrator of French cuisine’, Maurice Edmond Sailland, claimed table 5. Known as ‘Curnonsky’, this writer and journalist was reputed for his size and appetite (1m85, 120kg). In 1927 he was crowned the gastronomic prince by public referendum. Of all the world’s gourmets, none has ever attained the exalted status of Curnonsky and he came to be known as a representative of the more pleasant passions of la belle époque. Once, upon being offered an enormous lifetime income simply for stating that margarine was the equal of butter, he refused indignantly. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘can ever replace butter.’
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Lyonnaise writer and pilot, honoured table 35. Born in Lyon on 29th June, 1900, he joined the French air force in Strasbourg in 1921 as a mechanic. At 26, he became a pilot on the mail service from Toulouse to Dakar. In 1938 he moved to the U.S.A., where he wrote his best-known novel, ‘The Little Prince’ in 1940. According to some sources, it was the third most widely read book in the world during the last century, after the Holy Bible and the Ku’ran. He moved back to France after the beginning of WW11 and joined the army. On 31st July, 1944, his plane was shot down on one of his missions over the Mediterranean Sea. Lyon’s international airport is named Saint Exupéry in his honour.
Ernest Hemingway, Jacques Brel, as well as Madame Chirac and The Heir prince of Japan have also chosen from the menu’s good value selection.
While deciding in which famous seat to park your behind – Edith Piaf, Auguste Rodin, or Edouard Herriot- take a moment to study the menu.
Traditional pork, duck and seafood varieties of sauerkraut are offered, as well as magnificent seafood platters, of which the freshness is undeniable thanks to daily deliveries from Normandy and Brittany. ‘Try the Norwegian omelette,’ I’d been advised. Expecting salmon and eggs, I was agreeably satisfied with the splodge of vanilla ice-cream, Grand Marnier and meringue. The waiter, impeccably dressed and politely efficient, was not impressed at my surprise. At 170,000 meals annually, 40 tonnes of sauerkraut, 46 tonnes of meat and poultry, 19 tonnes of fish and 58,000 litres of beer, he has seen it all. Not to mention two Guinness book records held by Brasserie Georges.
A 1500 tonne sauerkraut served in 1986 to 2000 guests and a 34 metre long, 1368 egg Norwegian omelette in 1996 is recorded along with the forefathers of contemporary French literature.
As I leave this monument of Lyonnaise gastronomy, I glance into the magnificent mural mirror and wonder at what these walls could tell…
LYON CITY INFORMATION: Situated at the crossroads of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, two hours from alpine ski resorts and three hours from the sea, Lyons, capital of the Rhône-Alpes region is the second largest contributor to the French economy. Its exceptional location and numerous advantages guarantee its rank as one of the most important ‘Eurocities’ of the future.
Author Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia. She now lives in France with her French husband whom she met on a bus in Bangkok.