Living in the Boston suburbs, where the word "restaurant" tends to be equated with pizza-joints or mall eateries that feel like big-box retailers, one of our favorite places for a special-occasion dinner is Le Lyonnais in Acton. For more than forty years, chef/owner Gerard Labrosse has served delectable French country-style meals to grateful local residents and travelers passing through. Le Lyonnais is the real thing! Turning off the main road, one feels like one has arrived at a lovely French inn or B&B in Provence or Lyon or Normandy. Behind the house, a sparkling mill-stream flows past vegetable gardens, and one can almost imagine sheep grazing nearby. Approaching what must be a centuries-old farmhouse, one is greeted by the aroma of garlic and fine spices! Entering through a family porch, even if one arrives without reservation, guests receive a friendly reception and are guided to a comfortable table in one of three different dining areas. The dining rooms are simple and unpretentious, but warm and charming. One dining room has a fireplace, another has lovely views of the stream and gardens outside. M. and Mme, Labrosse have created an atmosphere that is welcoming and seems calmly assured; photographs on the wall of Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, Seiji Ozawa and other friends, promise a dinner that will be delicious and authentic.
And most meals are! After seven or eight visits, my wife and I consider ourselves "regulars," and we are always delighted to return. The menu at Le Lyonnais is remarkably large for such an unpretentious, rural restaurant. It is full of authentically French classics (like escargots, cassoulet, sweetbreads, sole meuniere or amandine, veal bonne maman, duck l'orange, crepes (both savory and sweet), as well as pates and terrines) and it varies with the seasons. There are several prix-fixe dinners of three courses or more, and twenty-five or thirty entrees offered a-la-carte. The size of the menu is a hint that one should order carefully: how could such an unassuming restaurant possibly carry such a huge range of fresh ingredients, one wonders? Dishes that are in season are always fresh and delicious, but -- inevitably -- some of the more exotic fare must have been prepared in advance, frozen and served from the microwave. We have never been disappointed by a "daily special," or by a standard offering like French provincial roast chicken, salmon poached or grilled, beef tournedos with sauce bordelaise, or grilled filet of pork. However, venturing into more exotic territory we've occasionally been served a dish that has obviously been unevenly microwaved and that arrives with several temperatures on the plate. At such moments, waiters have always graciously returned the platter to the kitchen for additional heating. Our advice: order carefully from the large menu and tend toward simple fare rather than fancy!
Servings are large and generously accompanied by well-prepared vegetables or potatoes. The white beans in a recent autumn cassoulet were perfect in texture and flavor. A friend who chose paella at the same occasion was delighted by a large portion of lobster and many tender scallops and mussels embedded in a large fragrant serving rice that was delicately flavored with saffron. Classic French roast chicken is always succulent and fragrant with rosemary or tarragon; a single serving provides a filling meal at the restaurant and often finds its way home in a doggy-bag for a delicious cold lunch the next day. Salads and desserts are equally generous, and a single serving is often ample enough for two.
Le Lyonnais is a busy and hard-working establishment. It serves dinners five evenings a week (closed Sundays and Mondays), and lunch most days as well. Diners should check the schedule in advance and call for reservations. The restaurant is the perfect setting for small weddings or large family gatherings, and its dining rooms are arranged so they can easily be reserved for private parties. Prix-fixe meals and a-la-carte entrees are comfortably priced -- not at all excessive -- with many modest dishes available to diners on tight budgets. The wine list, though not huge, offers ample variety in all categories, with excellent selections by the bottle or the glass at all price levels. Le Lyonnais recently celebrated its 43rd anniversary with certain specialty dishes priced at only 43-cents!
It is always a pleasure to return to Le Lyonnais. At holidays like Christmas the flavorful meals are enhanced by the festive atmosphere of the dining rooms, and in springtime the restaurant and its surroundings are full of flowers. It's a wonderful setting for special occasions, and we hope Le Lyonnais will remain as welcoming and delicious for another forty years!