A taste of Lyon, France
Food? Art? History? It's all here in this slightly quirky city

On that famous restaurant byway, Rue Merciere, servers were putting chairs on tabletops and sweeping up crumbs.

I had arrived in this gourmand paradise far too late for dinner.

Feeling hungry and desperate, I headed for a neon sign that proclaimed, "Pizzas Rock." At first glance, the place reminded me of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" diner, albeit with a French twist. A plump man sat sideways at a narrow counter against one wall, nursing an espresso and smoking a cigarette. Two other men, much younger, fiddled with their pizza oven. Overhead lights glared, and a boom box played vintage rock 'n' roll.

I speak some French, but fatigue blocked out huge sections of vocabulary. "Parlez vous Anglais?" "Un peu." With a few added smiles and gestures, that got us started.

I managed to convey my desire for a calzone and a bottle of Cellier des Dauphins Cote du Rhone 2004. While one young man cooked, the other peppered me with questions.

"You are English?"

"No, American."

"Ohhh! California!"

The cook let the oven do its work and joined us. Pointing at his partner, he said, "He wants to go to the United States very bad."

"California," said the counterman. "Where it's warm."

"I'm from Chicago. Where it's cold," I said.

The cook then gestured toward the boom box, perched on a narrow stairway that apparently led to a dining area on the floor above. "Do you know what that is playing?" he asked me.

I shrugged. Back in the '60s and '70s I was into bebop. Still am. The box was pumping out some kind of mordant-hippie refrain.

"It's the Doors!" the cook said. His thumb jerked toward the partner again. "He is Jim Morrison's biggest fan. He is vice president of the Jim Morrison Fan Club."

I asked the vice president of the Jim Morrison Fan Club to open my Cote du Rhone, but he couldn't find a corkscrew. The man with the espresso did have one (I thought, how French is that?). He handed it over, told the kid to keep it. "Ohhh, merci!" Smiles all around.

I walked to Hotel des Artistes and ate dinner in my room.

My first hours in Lyon may have been inauspicious in a gastronomic sense, but they were just as satisfying as a dish of raviolis d'escargots: a hot snack, a decent wine and the honor of meeting a high official of the Jim Morrison Fan Club. Lyon couldn't have said bienvenue and bon appetit any better.

As French cities go, Lyon seems slightly quirky, a bit less formal than, say, Paris or Nice -- except when certain high-end restaurants require it.