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During the heyday of train travel in the late nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, rail stations in major cities were places where wealthy travelers showed off their status and prestige. Le Train Bleu, a restaurant situated in Paris’ Gare de Lyon, is a historic reminder of that bygone era.
With its impossibly high and lavishly decorated ceilings, interconnected dining rooms that never seem to end, large mirrors, picture windows, and troupes of servers humming around in black and white Maitre D‘ uniforms, Le Train Bleu is inarguably one of the most beautiful restaurants in Paris. As long as you’re not a die-hard minimalist, that is.
It opened in 1901, marking the occasion of the World Exposition, and was initially called simply “the station buffet”.
It was designed by renowned architect Marius Toudoire, who was also behind the Gare de Lyon’s facade and clock tower. He was commissioned to create a restaurant that would embody the grandeur of France’s upper-crust rail cars and services.
While it only gained its present name in 1963– in tribute to a prestigious train line called “Paris-Vintimille” that ran along the French Riviera in the 1860s– the restaurant elicits the charm, opulence and cheerful bustle of an old-school rail dining car.
But is it worth all the fuss? I and a friend recently set out to find out during a busy weekday lunchtime service.
A Grandiose Arrival
Arriving at Gare de Lyon, a station that opened the same year as its onsite restaurant, you pass through the main entrance and immediately see an ornate staircase to your left, with the signage for Le Train Bleu clearly visible.
The restaurant occupies a “mezzanine” level overlooking both the main hall of the station and the plaza outside it at street level, with enormous picture windows lining both sides.
We arrived at 1pm on a Thursday, alongside swarms of business travelers and tourists– many of the former coming from Lyon and other destinations served by the station.
Greeted at the reservation desk by several courteous and smartly dressed servers, we were shown to our table- a quiet, round one by the window, with interesting views of both the central dining room and the station hall below.
Before getting to the “business” of lunch, we were of course eager to fully survey the surroundings and all the restaurant’s decorative details, in the main dining room and beyond.
Taking in the Scenery
Everything about this historic dining room screams grandeur, and minimalism is certainly off the menu. Decorative details seemingly cover every available inch of space.
Ceiling and wall frescoes illustrate classical scenes. Gilded carvings, statuary and decorative foliate borders surround them.
The ceilings are fitted with candelabras that border on rococo, and the restaurant stretches for what seems like hundreds of meters in a railway-car style along the mezzanine level. The two large, central dining rooms lead to smaller ones, which in turn bring you to an intimate bar and lounge at the end.
Wall and ceiling paintings show allegorical scenes as well as depictions of well-to-do and famous figures from Belle Epoque France.
The painting above from Albert Maignan shows an open-air theatre in the southern French city of Orange.
It notably depicts famous figures such as legendary Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt, writer Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac) and prominent French businessmen.
Settling In: The First Course
After our surreptitious “tour” of the premises, we settled in for a three-course lunch.
To start the meal, I selected an entrée from the “Winter Signature [dishes]” menu (something akin to seasonal specials). This was an organic soft-boiled egg with roasted langoustine, winter root vegetable fricassée and shellfish sauce.
Although a bit too “fishy” for my tastes (I’m admittedly not a big shellfish fan), the textures in this dish were interesting, and the flavors were rich and complex. Crusty rolls proved an excellent companion, as did a crisp glass of Sancerre white wine.
My friend and dining companion opted for duck and duck foie gras pâté en croûte, accompanied by sweet and sour shallot confit.
Her verdict (after showing surprise at the size of the portion) was that it was a decent pâté, if slightly ponderous. As she pointed out, some might find the thick croûte (crust) and jellied edges a bit *daunting*.
She was unsure whether it was meant to be eaten or not– something that those of us unfamiliar with certain French culinary traditions often come up against. The answer? Yes, you’re meant to eat the crust, which is made of pastry.
Second Course: Lyonnais-Style Quenelles de Brochet (Pike Dumplings) With Rice
The main course for both of us was Lyonnais-style pike quenelles presented in an individual hotpot, and served with “Newburg” sauce and grilled basmati rice.
The dish is one of the restaurant’s signature offerings, in honor of its location within the Gare de Lyon. The old Gallo-Roman city is famous for its pike quenelles, which are freshwater fish-based dumplings made with egg and flour, gently poached and served with a variety of sauces or bisques.
I liked this version, but tend to prefer quenelles with creamier sauces, which I find more successful at complementing the dumplings’ flavors and textures.
The “Newburg” sauce in this version was curiously lacking in creaminess, though a Google search reveals that it’s traditionally one loaded with cream and butter. I also wish I had ordered some sort of vegetable to accompany the dish, although the basmati rice was delicious, with a satisfying nuttiness that reminded me of Iranian-style rice.
Dessert: A Sweet Ending
Dessert arrived after a reasonable pause, allowing us to digest a bit. This was probably my favorite course, and easily the most beautifully presented and delicious: a signature chocolate and coffee dessert from Chef Michel Rostang.
A rich chocolate fondant cake was topped with a crunchy, caramel- chocolate tuile and coffee-infused cream, and place on a plate ladled with creme anglaise.
For me, this was as close to perfection as you can get in a chocolate dessert: a not-too-sugary, warm, molten cake complemented by crunchy and fresh, creamy textures.
The portion was ideal and not too large. My only regret is that I didn’t order coffee to go with it, as it would have complemented this dessert beautifully.
My friend and fellow diner opted for the “cafe gourmand”, a brilliant French concept consisting in several miniature portions of the restaurant’s house desserts accompanied by an espresso.
This one included a rich chocolate custard, baba au rhum topped with cream, and stewed “tatin”-style apples topped with green apple sorbet.
At the end of the meal, the server offered us a couple of delicious, hazelnut-flavored candies similar to Italian gianduja, and finished the meal feeling suitably full.
Other Menu Options & (Unsampled) Dishes
(Note: These details and prices were accurate at the time this article was published, but may change any time.)
Le Train Bleu offers both a la carte options and several fixed-price, seasonal menus that regularly change.
In terms of fixed-price menus, you can go for “Le Train Bleu” menu (serving the whole table) that includes a starter, main course, cheese course, dessert, and wine pairings, currently priced at 110 Euros.
For smaller budgets and/or appetites, the “Paris Lyon Méditerranée Menu” includes a starter, main course and dessert for 65 Euros.
Other menu items available on the day we visited included “cushions” of scallops with sautéed leeks and truffled port wine, Burgundy-style snails with parsley butter and gnocchi “a la parisienne”, sea scallops with macaire potatoes, black seaweed and lovage butter, scottish salmon loin with citrus, “bigarade” sauce and roasted pumpkin, and roasted, locally sourced leg of lamb.
There were a couple of vegetarian options available, but this admittedly isn’t the best Parisian table for non meat-eaters (unless you’re an occasional pescatarian, as I happen to be). I didn’t see any vegan menu items, but you can ask the friendly servers about one.
A children’s menu (25 Euros) is available for kids under 12, and currently includes a half-portion of any dish from the main menu (excluding veal chop and turbot fish), chocolate tart, a dish of ice cream or sorbet, and fruit juice or soda.
The Overall Verdict?
The singular experience of dining at Le Train Bleu is arguably worth the splurge, even though the cuisine is often a bit “safe” and not always particularly inventive.
Come to take in the Paris-circa-1900, gilded glory of the place, and enjoy the bustle and hum of the dining room, an ideal spot for people-watching and overhearing snippets of conversation. But don’t expect groundbreaking or top-of-the-line gastronomy.
If you’d rather skip lunch or dinner, consider having a drink and/or a variety of nibbles in the lavish onsite bar. I snuck a peek on a stroll to the “powder rooms” and it looked comfortable and intriguing in its own right.
And you can always take a quick stroll through the main dining room to take in the entire restaurant and its decorative details– potentially making it unnecessary to eat an entire meal if it’s primarily the setting that interests you.
Location, Contact Details & Reserving a Table
Note: Sadly, the restaurant is currently closed until further notice due to the ongoing public health crisis. Visit the online reservation page at the official website regularly to check whether the restaurant is once again accepting bookings.
The restaurant is located within the Gare de Lyon, accessed by a staircase just to the left when you use the station’s main entrance. Look for the signs on the second floor or “mezzanine” level.
- Address: Place Louis Armand, 75012 (12th arrondissement)
- Metro: Gare de Lyon
- Tel: +33 (0)1 43 43 09 06
- Opening hours: Daily for lunch (11:30 am to 2:45 pm) and dinner (7:00 pm to 10:45 pm). The lounge bar is open daily from 730 am to 10:00 pm.
- Book a table at the official website (reservations are recommended but not required)
- See current menus (including fixed-menu options) at this page
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Editor’s Note/disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the author received complimentary services from the restaurant. While it has not affected the opinions offered in this review, our policy at Paris Unlocked is to disclose complimentary services and potential conflicts of interest.