Bouchon Chats: Interview with César Ponsonnet of le Merciere

Bouchon Chats: Interview with César Ponsonnet of le Merciere

Mar 17, 2023Sadie Williams

Digging into the Lyonaisse Bouchon and one of Lyon’s Best Wine Lists

Lyon is one of the greatest culinary cities in the world, and the culinary capital of France, surrounded by the exceptional winemaking regions of the Rhone Valley and Beaujolais. At the heart of this vibrant historic city is the bouchon: Lyon’s equivalent of a Parisian Bistro, offering traditional Lyonnaise dishes like coq au vin, paté, local charcuterie, and wine from neighboring regions, particularly from Beaujolais and the Southern Rhône. 

So many of the foods that we automatically think of as “wine foods” come from Lyon. Coq au vin, terrine, charcuterie, the list goes on. These unfussy dishes epitomize the bouchon, with its red-checked table clothes, worn-in wood furniture, cozy air, and enigmatic proprietors. These places shun modernity and hew strictly to tradition, elevating relatively simple foods to iconic statuses by pairing them with local wines. By sticking to the concept that “what grows together goes together,” and focusing on creating warm, genuine experiences for their customers, bouchons have centered Lyon as a wine and culinary powerhouse.

We (digitally) sat down with César Ponsonnet of Le Merciere, an iconic Lyonaisse bouchon, to learn more about bouchon culture, his great wine list, and his thoughts on hospitality.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It was conducted by Sadie Williams (Copywriter) and Nicole Bull (Creative Manager) of Dedalus and César Ponsonnet of le Merciere.

Sadie: Good morning. Well afternoon, I guess. Thank you so much for meeting us!

César: My pleasure. Of course.

Nicole: César, I actually had the chance to eat at your bouchon. We were there for my husband's birthday…

César: Great. Wonderful. Was it a long time ago?

Nicole: September of 2021. So, a year and a half ago. One of our co-workers, Brittany, has developed a relationship with Michelle Chappelle Smith through Dedalus — we carry their wine. We went to the Jura for our honeymoon, and we were going to Lyon for a couple of days after, so we visited Domaine Chapelle on our way down and we met Marie. 

César: My wife! She's right here actually.

Marie: Hello. Hi, nice to see you. I was like, I know this gorgeous face! So nice to see you!

César: And so I looked at your website. So you are a wine bar, the wine store, and a great blog, I mean, like…the interview with Mathieu Lapierre!

Sadie: Thank you! We're a wine business with retail locations in Vermont in Colorado, we have a wine bar in Vermont, but I think Dedalus is a kind of unique business in its focus on education and experiences around wine.

César: One quick…sorry… [he is handed a phone from off-screen and begins speaking in French.] …one bottle per person! Sorry. My waiter just called me to say. "Oh, I have a client who wants to buy the Château Rayas," from Emmanuel Reynaud, “to take away and they want to buy all the bottles we have.” I said “No, no no. That's not how it works. We're going to lose our allocation for sure if we do that.” Anyway. That's why I had to take this.

Sadie: Totally understand, we don't want you to lose the allocation. So also what we do at Dedalus is talk about the stories of wine through the stories of winemakers and of places great wine comes from.

Nicole: So we wanted to talk about this idea of wine and food cultures centered around Lyon because we wanted to talk about the Rhône, but we also want to talk about Beaujolais and the food that is coming out of Lyon. And I think is so quintessentially the types of food that we serve in our wine bar in Vermont, and in some of our other prepared food options at all our locations. So, we were just excited to get the lowdown on what a bouchon really is.

César: Do you remember what you had for dinner at Le Mercierre?

Nicole: So, I was looking at our pictures because as I said, it was our last night in France before we flew back, but we had the salmon rillettes, and a few other dishes. And I think when we first sat down, we were given a little thing of three dishes.

César: That's something that we give to everybody when they sit down. It's an amuse-bouche. The mentality behind that is, in too many places, you’ve just finished work, you come to the restaurant at 7:00, you’re super thirsty and hungry and you order a glass of wine or bottle and you start drinking…and you have nothing in front of you. The waiter is going to take your order, but then it’s going to take time to come. Maybe you have some bread but nothing else. In some fine-dining restaurants, you will eventually get an amuse-bouche. Or in some places, you will have little saucisson, or in an Italian restaurant, you have olive oil and balsamic vinegar and stuff, and us, we do this amuse-bouche. It's the same every time. It's potatoes with ham that are mixed with a bit of mustard, we have lentils with vinegar and shallots, and we have a terrine de campagne. And so when people arrive and they can have the pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine, they can pick on something and wait for the appetizer to come and it also gives the kitchen time to prepare the first course. So it's very pleasant.

Sadie: It's a nice welcome.

César: Yes, especially since we have quite a nice wine list, and we want people to enjoy a lot of wines as well. So it's always good to have something to eat. Otherwise, you get drunk too fast.

Nicole: Yes, we definitely did drink wine. We had a bottle from Chanterêves. 

César: Ah Nice. I'm very, very happy to have their wines.

Nicole: We did an interview with Tomoko Bott, a couple of months ago. 

César: They are fantastic. 

Sadie: Yeah, she's so interesting. She was very fun to interview. So how would you describe a bouchon to someone like me, who has never been to Lyon or a bouchon?

César: So the definition of a bouchon is quite blurry. Like the meaning of the word bouchon is a cork, and the very ancient legend behind it, or one of them, is that people were coming with the bottle and the winemakers were coming with the foudre or the barrels and they would fill up with wine and cork it. And the second one is in the old days people were coming by horse and parking their horses in front of the restaurant, and while they were having lunch or dinner someone will bouchon the horses. They were going to refresh the horse.

Sadie: So we have two different meanings for similar words,

César: But aside from the meaning of the name, the bouchon is somewhere you have tight space with tight tables, where you going to end up being friends with the table on the right and on your left. And the waiters are very friendly. They will be cracking jokes at the table and obviously, you will have to have a certain type of dishes and wines. So you will have to have Beaujolais for sure, Rhône, and Burgundy, and then extra on top of that is better. But for sure these three regions. You will have to have the pot, which is like a carafe. And it's 46 centiliters. So it's more than a half bottle and less than a bottle. Lyonnaise people come and say, yeah. Give me just a pot. A pot Côte, like a pot Côte de Rhône, or a pot Beaujolais, or pot de Mâcon, white.

Sadie: And so, you have all these really great wines. You have Chanterêves, I mean you're not decanting Chanterêves into the carafe.

César: No. So basically it's people who come for lunch and you don't want to drink a whole bottle and they don't want to spend that much money on the bottle. So it's usually the lowest price and we refill them with kegs. It's great because the cost is perfect for us compared to selling a bottle, you make less on the bottles than on a pot. But I don't have the pleasure of obviously opening the bottle and giving the story behind the winemaker and everything. So it's for two types of people and two different types of dinner and lunch. Some people will come for lunch on a business lunch and they want to go fast and they just want to two glasses each which for 46 centiliters will be like the perfect amount, they’ll get a salad, and it’s 16 euros. Which is really affordable.

Sadie: I had read somewhere that having a very charismatic owner is a part of having a bouchon. Is that a requirement?

César: For sure. I mean, I will say it's a big point in any restaurant. If you want it to work out, it will be with an owner who is charismatic or a charismatic chef. But obviously, yes, the bouchon is usually somewhere where the waiters, the owner — you will come and they will recognize you. I worked for seven years at le Bernardin in New York and I know for a fact that people come for the cuisine, obviously, but also, they come for the people.

We form relationships with the clients and that's what I developed these three past years thanks to Covid as well. We closed up, and we were doing takeaway, and I had this concept of takeaway that I wanted food to be cooked at the minute. I don't want clients to pick up something that was cooked for a long time, so they were coming and the concept was that you come, you have a glass of wine at the counter. You can sit, I give you a little amuse-bouche as well, but like a slice of saucisson or something to pick at, and you have a chat, and people were like “Oh my God, fabulous.” Because we were all spread out in everybody's homes and cut from any real relationships. So at first people were coming grabbing and going, and at the end, they were sitting at the counter trying to drink more and talk to everybody. And sometimes you had 20 people at the counter outside smoking and drinking and it was like, on the edge. Sometimes I was like, you need to go now. But we created great relationships with that, and then people came back and said, “Back in the days when Covid happened, it was great.”

Sadie: Not many people can say that.

César: It's true. But it’s because they understand. They say “At your place everything is homemade. We are always welcome. You have a great wine list, you have a menu and you have so many specials every day that change and we are never disappointed so why we will go somewhere else?” And so I started to develop that and to try to communicate with Lyon and young people saying, “Don't think bouchon Lyonaisse is only for tourists, come back!” And we are packed! We are packed now.

Sadie: Have you cultivated a younger audience?

César: So we have a wide range of people. It's great to have very young people who come and they have a Ticket Restaurant (voucher) like from their company and they just have a meal and we have older people who come as well because they know it's traditional.

Nicole: When I was there, it was so busy and we had a reservation, but it was also a Sunday evening. And so many places are closed on Sundays that there were so many people trying to get in and they couldn't because it was so full.

César: That's a philosophy from my stepfather that I will always follow. We are open seven days a week because we know that in people's minds, they are like “Oh, it’s Sunday, where are we going to eat? Oh, I know, le Merciere is open.” And “Oh, a Monday lunch, where are we going? le Merciere,” or “Okay, it's late. It's 10:00 we know that le Merciere serves late as well.” After Covid, restaurants started to close in the middle of the week, or they open they close they open they close. So people started to call them, and they would say "No, we are closed today," "On Google, it says you're open." "Yeah, but tonight we are closed." You have to have a strict schedule and consistency for people.

Sadie: To create faith. 

Nicole: When you were talking about the pot, it was just making me think about this idea of accessibility and a bouchon being a place that is welcoming for the whole community but for everyone at every price point. Would you say that that is typical of bouchon across the board?

César: 100%. During December, we have a week called La Fête Des Lumières. All the buildings are lit up and it's beautiful. And we receive around 2 or 3 million people coming to Lyon to visit the city during this week. So we are packed and we usually do from noon to midnight continued service, no reservations, we keep rolling, rolling, rolling, and this year I said to my stepfather, “You know, it's too complicated. It's really intense to keep the menu a la carte, the specials and everything, it's super complicated for the kitchen, for us in the front.” And so I said “We should make a menu that’s 28 euros for everyone. You want to come, it's twenty-eight euros because I don't want someone who comes stuck at a table and orders only onion soup for 12 euros.” And he said "No, it will never happen. Not under my ownership, because I want people to be able to eat with their money. I don't want to force them to spend 28 euros if they don't have it.” 

I lost this battle obviously, but I saw so much pleasure in people that week that it was like, okay, I understand now because I have worked the week. It was intense, crazy intense, obviously, because you turn tables like [crazy], we do about five to six hundred covers a day, but at the end, you see that people say "Oh my God it was so great. Thank you." And "Yeah, we come just for you,” so it was great. You also have some people as well saying "Oh my god, the industry is so bad, you come in and are super fast and super rushed," so you cannot please everyone. But I have the answer for them as well. I tell them the week is like this. And if you want to have a more relaxing time, you should avoid this week of the year and stay at home and come in a more quiet time period of the year.

And at the bouchon, you’re usually going to get something else at the end of your meal. I will pour you a digestive or a glass of wine randomly because you said you liked a red or a Beaujolais or something. And I have a Beaujolais open and give you a pour, or an extra dessert and stuff. And what really taught me about generosity, was when I was in New York and I was in the industry and I was going to many other places. I would say I worked at le Bernardin and they would say okay, you have all these free courses, extra courses, coming. I saw that and I was like, wow, that's super generous. 

And so when I came back to Lyon, I said to my waiters, “You know, guys, if someone disliked a dish, just take it off the table, offer them something else.” Or if they come back two days in a row — because It happens a lot, tourists that come and say okay can we reserve for tomorrow?” And so the next day I put a note to give them a free dish or something to make sure that they will remember us.

Sadie: So did you grow up in the bouchon, did you grow up working there?

César: My stepfather married my mother when I was around 15. It was just around this time when you can start a summer job and stuff. I started working as a runner and he had other restaurants, and he had a big restaurant where you can organize parties close to the river and spend the night outside drinking and listening to music. So I was organizing parties for kids my age when I was 18. So the 18, 20-year-olds, and we were doing around like 800 people. So that's how I got hooked up with the hospitality industry. 

And then I was always helping, lending a hand at the bouchon. And I liked it, it's a restaurant that had the same concept for 40 years. Even when the trend became vegan, quinoa and healthy food, little portions, small tasting menus. We obviously suffered from that. At that time it was kind of like, okay, we’ll just work with tourists and stuff. But people were looking for healthy food and didn't think that we could be healthy food because it's homemade food. And obviously, you cannot eat this every day. But if you eat once then you have a healthy balance of life…you can really have lunch here, have a salad, and then have a meat, and you do sports on the side, it will balance well. But if you eat only sushi and stuff, it's not healthy as well. But people couldn't think of that because it was so trendy. It was on the top. 

And then I think, Covid helped us as well, because it's a feeling of after a war. People needed to relax. They just needed to disconnect and have comfort food. “I need something that hugs me.” And when you have a big piece of meat, the fillet with the morels sauce and the gratin dauphinoise, that just a big hug, you know, it's warm, you have the sauce with the bread, have a little cheese after, and you have a bottle of wine and you just…you get what you want. When you order, what you order you will get.

Nicole: Are there any other dishes that you think are quintessential to le Mercierre or just the bouchon experience in general?

César: If you have the pike quenelle, it's a very, very typical Lyonnaise dish. Because a long time ago there was an overpopulation of pikes in the rivers. So the fishermen were fishing, fishing, fishing fishing pikes and they wanted to sell the pikes to chefs, but chefs are like, no, no, I don't want this fish because they are hard to cook because the flesh of the fish is very mushy. So one chef tried a recipe. So he mixed the flesh, the meat of the pike with a paté a choux, like the puff pastry, and it blew up like this in the oven and they cooked it with a crawfish sauce.And, and that was it. I don't know if you've ever seen Pike quenelle. It's like a souffle kind of, and it's just really fantastic. 

Sadie: I'm getting very hungry.

César: Do you cook guys? 

Sadie: Yes, quite a bit. I wouldn't say I'm a good cook, but I am a functional cook. Do you think that your wine list is unique for the bouchon in Lyon? Do you think that other bouchons have similar wine lists to you, and kind of what are some of the bottles you get the most excited about or producers you get the most excited about?

César: There are some restaurants, other bouchon, that have started to have a good wine list, I will say. But it was taken for granted for too long, the wine lists were kind of industrial. But now it’s better. And it's getting better and better because wine got crazy interesting, and people want to know what they are drinking. What is inside the wine and how it was made? So that's good. I'm really happy about it. 

Our wine list has always been very focused on producers because my stepfather comes from Villié-Morgon, in Beaujolais, and his best friend was Marcel Lapierre, so Marcel and he were really tight friends, and the third one was Alain Chapelle, and Alain Chapelle is the father of David Chapelle, who was one of the best chefs in the world, from back in the days. 

So they were the three guys that were like really avant-gardist and wanted to have good wine at the table, affordable, and well made. But we always are looking for new names and we are always looking and trying and tasting and going to new wine regions. We have all the grand cru and the cru Beaujolais. And we try to not have only the big names and we will discover new names. 

One of my new picks, I will say, is Chanteréves in Burgundy. I have their Aloxe Corton, and it's 130 bucks which is not that much for the U.S., but it's quite expensive for a bouchon, they will maybe expect an oaky wine, or more traditional Burgundy style, from Aloxe Corton, So, I always make sure to know who my client is because if they want something richer, I will say, maybe take a Nuit Saint George from Meo Camuzet, that would be more traditional, which is great, as well. It’s just two different worlds. 

Or I love René Bouvier, I think René Bouvier in Marsannay for the price and the quality it's just fantastic. I love Ghislaine Barthod, in Chambolle Musigny, and again what I like about these great winemakers, is you take their Bourgogne Villages and it's already exceptional, and you can price it at around 50 bucks on a wine list, and people will spend it and say, wow, that was great for 50 bucks. And I tell them, whenever you have the money and you want to upgrade take her Chambolle, which is like three times the price and you will see the difference, her Villages is already great but the grand cru Chambolle she makes is crazy. 

Catherine and Pierre Breton, I love them in the Loire Valley, but I also like other regions. I like Jura, I'm completely crazy about Jura but it's quite hard to make people drink that because they will say “No, don't give me this oxidative wine.” I'm like, “No, it's not oxidative, we're not talking about Vin Jaune,” But Marnes Blanche in Jura, I love Tissot, we got the chance to get a bit of Ganevat allocation as well. But we also have a good page on Bordeaux, we have Château Bourgneuff, which is very, very good. We have their other cuvée the Saisons, with is much younger, it's a fantastic wine for the price. And we have our friend Cyril Alonso, you should look up this guy because with his wife, he has a conservatory of more than 130 year-old Gamay and he makes natural wines that used to be very funky. I think he found the path of being natural but having strength and not being funky and less flawed.

Sadie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I really, I really appreciate it.

César: No, thank you. It's always a pleasure to have a bit of connection abroad. I was very happy when Michelle [Smith Chapelle] told me you wanted to do the interview, especially to promote a bit of what we do to you guys in the U.S.A. because when people come, they come to Paris, they don't necessarily come to Lyon.

Sadie: We’ll make the case for it. Thank you so much. 

César: My pleasure.

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