Other Paris train stations, including Gare de St. Lazare, immortalized by Impressionist painters, were built earlier in the 19th century. They are all huge barn-like structures with ornate cast iron and glass. The Gare d'Orsay was rescued from dilapidation to become the celebrated Musee d'Orsay, but stations like the Gare de Lyon are still serving train travelers.
Taking a train from the Gare de Lyon is an amazing experience - the station is both magnificent and tatty - a soaringly beautiful structure with peeling paint, fake palm trees, pigeons and sparrows begging fast-food crumbs from back-packed travelers. It makes an American wonder what it would have been like had Pennsylvania Station been saved, and in use today.
The Gare de Lyon has a secret treasure, though. If you climb the stairs in the center of the main waiting room, and pass through a revolving door, you'll find yourself in what writer M.F.K. Fisher described as:
"One of the most amazing public dining rooms I have ever seen or even imagined. The ceiling is very high and elaborate. The windows are tall, looking on one side upon a goodly part of Paris, and then to the right into and under the endless stretch of grey glass roof over all the tracks that come to a dead stop down below... Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Near East, all France to the south...."
"The walls, between and above the great lace hung windows, are covered with more than forty murals of every possible scenic delight that the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean trains could offer their travelers at the turn of the century, mostly peopled by plump Edwardian diplomats in top hats, and famous divas and courtesans in filmy garden frocks or even bathing dresses, all frolicking discreetly against breath-taking landscapes."
It was known as the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon, or simply the Station Buffet, until 1963 when it was renamed Le Train Bleu, to memorialize the famous train by that name, which ran from Paris to the Cote d'Azur.
Fisher had known the restaurant during its heyday, in the years between World Wars, when she and her husband Al took the train from the Gare de Lyon to Dijon, where they lived while he earned his doctorate. In her book "The Gastronomical Me," she describes a meal taken there with her father and mother in 1937.
She also knew this room as time took its toll, and in the '60s visited at a time when the restaurant was run-down, tattered, and rumored to be destroyed. In 1972 it was granted status as a historical monument, and restored.
In the book "As They Were," Fisher describes the finish of a solitary meal taken in the restaurant around that time:
"I ate small dark raspberries with the rest of the wine, and leaned back to look at the ceiling crammed with color, in carved gilded curlicues, high above the incredible walls covered with their gaudily leering murals, all gold-scarlet-blue, a gigantic jumble of snowy Alps, fishing boats, trains, women, politicians, vineyards….."Le Train Bleu has a full menu and serves complete dinners, but to tell the truth, the food isn't the reason to come here. The bar, located under the tall clock tower, serves drinks during the afternoon when full service is closed, and that's how we chose to experience it on the afternoon we returned to Paris.
You can sit in the overstuffed leather couches and sip a Kir while you marvel at the decor. It's a true Paris treasure, and one available to everybody - a touch of fin de siecle luxury that can be had for the price of a cocktail.