Joyeux Anniversaire

by Natalia Kyriakides

Smooth Jazz and French Cuisine in Lyon

Really, it’s quite an easily over looked place. A stout, one storey building nestled between tall, elegant French apartments with their wrought iron balconies and sloping, tiled roofs. But once your eyes have settled on it, it becomes impossible not to notice.

Though it appears small, Brasserie Georges is characterized by a larger-than-life, false façade of cream and red, topped with a triangular pediment reminiscent of neoclassical architecture.

Bright lightbulbs illuminate the name of the establishment in an Art Deco font and the colour scheme of cream and red with touches of gold adds to the sense of old glamour. All in all, the first impression is a stand –out one. It almost seems that it would be better suited on the Vegas strip yet the undeniable French-ness saves it from being gaudy and adds an authenticity to it.

If the exterior does nothing to surprise you, stepping inside will. A large, square dining hall stretches before you as you’re greeted by a maitre’d in a full dinner suit and bow-tie.

As you walk down a main aisle between tables and long stretches of plush, red leather couches you notice that the enormous dining area is in fact divided into slightly more manageable portions, separated by the couches themselves but also low, cherry wood walls topped with painted glass dividers. The next thing you notice is the sheer number of people.

At 7.30pm, we’re on time for the first seating yet it’s hard to believe there could possibly be an empty table in the place. As waiters go about their business running food, the air is filled with the comforting scent of French cuisine while the patrons provide a noise (there’s no better word for it) consisting of clanging, chatting, toasting and general enjoyment.

The two synchronised senses combine happily and, paired with the Art Deco backdrop, makes me feel strangely as if I’ve stepped into an upscale version of Fat Sam’s from the film Bugsy Malone. I love it.

We’re seated midway along a long line of starched linen tablecloths and before we’re settled the chandelier lights flicker. We all look up, brows furrowed, asking a silent question. It’s answered by the distinct tune of the Happy Birthday (or Joyeux Anniversaire) song which floods the hall – hundreds of diners begin clapping in congratulation as our table stare at each other, brows now raised in mutual surprise. A server races down an aisle to the chosen table, visible only by the sparkler a top a cake which he has raised high above his head in his haste to get through the tables. Ok – so that was unexpected.

As we order wine and entrees and begin adding our own, distinctly non-French chatter to the cacophony, we notice that the jazz softly bubbling through the noise is actually coming from a four piece band nestled in a corner by the door. Above the heads, I can just about see the top of a cello in the distance, musical fingers working the strings.

But again, the lights dim, the musicians slow to a stop as the song plays over a speaker and another sparkler is seen floating above the crowd as everyone claps without ever stilting their conversations. It must be a busy night, we laugh.

Courses move slowly as is the French way and it’s obvious that those who were lucky enough to get a table this evening are here for the night. By the time our mains appear we’ve had approximately four birthdays and the clapping is distinctly less enthusiastic, while the noise is still managing to climb.

In all honesty, the surroundings are so enjoyable distracting that you’d be forgiven for not paying much attention to the food, though it would be a shame. My choice was a succulent, rare leg of lamb in a thyme sauce served with roasted new potatoes. Like most French cuisine, the food was high quality yet simple and cooked to perfection.

Another two birthdays has been celebrated and we had almost stopped clapping when a giant, sparkler festooned meringue was placed on the table next to us and we all swiftly began discussing which of us would be getting a year older this evening.

Despite the sheer number of tables, people, birthdays and whatever else could have been going on, the servers were attentive and numerous, if slightly haughty in a way only professional French servers have mastered.

At one point, our waiter was ambushed by a small dog that had been hiding under the neighbouring table and had obviously been biding his time before shooting out from underneath the heavy tablecloth to try and nip the waiter’s ankles. His face was a picture though it didn’t stop him from making friends on his next trip back to the kitchens.

Though often surprising for foreigner’s, I’ve slowly gotten used to the fact that dogs are generally accepted in most places here – it’s one of the things I love about Lyon – however it didn’t stop me jumping out of my seat!

By desert, the lights had stopped dimming and the band barely stopped playing for the sparkler processions but I’d certainly decided where to celebrate my next birthday.

After force feeding ourselves pear and raspberry sorbet (it wasn’t that difficult), we prepared to leave. Walking back down the central aisle, I was still noticing things about this unusual eatery.

The traditional bar in the corner opposite the band, aspects of the painted ceiling, the outside terrace visible through the floor-to-ceiling front windows. I wonder if they’ve ever redecorated. Something tells me that they haven’t, and that it was the right decision.

It’s obvious that Brasserie Georges is no hidden-gem. It is an institution, a tradition of Lyon that will be celebrating it’s own birthday of 180 years this month. They’re going to need a lot of sparklers.