Lyon stands astride the Rhône and on the cusp of the two halves of France – the industrious north and the indulgent south – and manages to take the best of both. It celebrates ancient and modern, delicacy and boldness, and above all food and drink. Historic, cultured and gracious, Lyon is France's undisputed capital of cuisine. But how valuable a title is that?
French cooking in the grand manner is in a spot of trouble. Fewer people seem to want it nowadays. Such cooking is seen as too formal and too rigid, and even within France the problem has been recognised with the rise of "Le Fooding" movement, which seeks to relax the old rules and allow for innovation while maintaining the highest technical standards.
At the other end of the spectrum, the reduction in French café numbers from an estimated 200,000 to 30,000 over the past 50 years is cited as the reason why it's become quite hard to find the kind of simple, well-cooked plat du jour of which fond memories of drives across France are made. Tax changes mean that travelling business people can no longer claim against their meals out, and French urbanites who would once have never dreamt of having lunch "al desko" are as time-poor as any others. Fast-food outlets have sprung up to cater for them, and the country is now home to some 1,200 branches of McDonald's, including one in the Louvre.
Earlier this year another big blow to the country's culinary self-esteem was delivered. In the leading survey of its kind, the San Pellegrino list of the world's 50 best restaurants did not include a single French restaurant in its top 10. (The number one spot went to the Copenhagen restaurant Noma.) The news prompted soul-searching in the French press, and since then the publication of a book by the American food writer Michael Steinberger – Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine – has spelt out what's gone wrong.
Against this background, France's leading chefs could be forgiven for wanting to give up on their lovingly assembled béarnaise sauces and chuck their aprons in the bin. But in one Lyon restaurant at least a stand is being taken, by a chef who is seeking to honour the heritage of his home town, while updating it to appeal to a modern clientele.
His name is Matthieu Viannay, and at a youthful 44 he is the poster boy for new-generation French cooking. His restaurant, La Mère Brazier, has revived one of Lyon's grandest establishments, dating back to 1921 when it was founded by la mère in question, Eugenie Brazier. Just after the war she gave an apprenticeship to a young man called Paul Bocuse, who would go on to become one of France's great culinary figures and who is Matthieu Viannay's inspiration.
The restaurant stands on rue Royale, in the first arrondisement, at the hub of a city that is a master of disguise. With Roman origins, an imposing cathedral and a fully fledged Métro system, Lyon could be a surrogate French capital, or a Flemish enclave, perhaps, with its long history of weaving, printing and commerce. In Vieux Lyon, covered passageways – traboules – wind from one street to another: they were originally developed to keep silk dry when it was transported from one workshop to another. Along rue de Boeuf and rue St-Jean, doorways lead into often elaborate courtyards.
Amid this district, the tradition of le bouchon Lyonnais – affordable restaurants specialising in top-notch grilled meat and fish – is still strong, and you'd definitely want to visit one of the 20 or so that come under that banner. But for a real sense of the "now" in French cooking, La Mère Brazier is very much the place to go.
La Mère Brazier occupies a handsome 19th-century building on a quiet, sloping street close to the Rhône. When I had lunch there I was granted an audience with Matthieu Viannay at the end of a meal which included his signature dish: la volaille de Bresse en demi-deuil (poached Bresse chicken with black truffles under its skin). Pretty amazing it was too. Absolutely not nouvelle cuisine, which seems finally to be passing out of fashion, but wholesome and reassuring and with fabulous flavours.
The man himself gave off the air of someone who has risen above the various blows that the French restaurant scene has had to withstand.
Personne nous aime – ça ne fait rien ("Nobody likes us, we don't care") might be the best way to put it, though I should stress those are my words, not Matthieu's.
Cooking is part of Lyon, Matthieu told me. "People are very aware of products and true things," Matthieu said. "Compared with Paris, there is nothing superfluous about Lyon cooking. The area is rich in very different and good-quality products. We can get almost everything we need from within a few miles. Cooking from Lyon is very lively, always on the move. We eat better and better all the time. It's the city's tradition, and it's important to preserve local cooking."
I asked Matthieu about the San Pellegrino ranking, and his response was defiant. "The ranking does not reflect anything. It just sets out to be controversial." Of "Le Fooding" he seemed similarly unimpressed. "One might like it, one might not. It's the same with the Michelin guide, for all its savoir-faire. What matters is the client."
Matthieu can't be faulted on that. Clients are flocking to La Mère Brazier, many taking advantage of the €35 set lunch. That's a bargain for a Michelin two-star restaurant, and what they are getting is not just great food but an authenticity that should not go unrecognised. As Matthieu says, "it's fashionable to criticise French cooking", but the truth is there are fantastic things happening.
And after lunch? Cross the Rhône to Les Halles on Rue Lafayette, to see the raw materials for the constant civic feast that are on sale at the city's big, busy market. Or climb Fourvière Hill for magnificent views and some Roman relics. Better still, discover that this is a city that wears a succession of masks. Lyon is the European centre of the trompe l'oeil. As you clamber around the sweeps of stairs that connect the cobbled streets, your eye is constantly being tricked by elaborate murals. Lyon abhors a blank, so bare buildings are decorated with the same mix of artifice and humanity that characterises its cooking.
* Lyon's Saint-Exupéry airport, 26km east of the centre, is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh; by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; and by BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) from Manchester. The new Leslys tramway ( rhonexpress.com, €14 one way) leaves from Terminal 3 and runs in 30 minutes to Part Dieu station in the business district. The heart of the city, 2km further on, is easily accessed from the station by Métro (B line) or trolleybus C; tickets cost €1.60 one-way.
* Eurostar trains from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford connect in Lille or Paris Gare du Nord. The total journey time to Part Dieu station is five to six hours. You can book through Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk).
* La Mère Brazier, 12 rue Royale, Lyon (00 33 4 78 23 17 20).Reuse content