Les Nuages in Lyon
It’s 5 a.m. and I’ve been here before.
The Look Bar on the Quai de Saône might be Lyon’s most important drinking hole. It is the nucleus of the city’s gatherings, where you might spot a banker speaking to a fine arts student, with neither feeling the urge to throttle the other.
Lyon is often called “Paris with a hangover,” and the night before was almost certainly spent here, drinking the famous cocktails known only as Les Nuages, or The Clouds. They say you are never really Lyonnais unless you’ve drunk a few of these strange coffee liqueur, vodka, and (possibly) eau de vie concoctions at The Look. They also say that Mr. Herve, behind the bar, has created 40 variations, and only the most trusted clientele (or those so inebriated that they wouldn’t remember what they had in the first place) have tried close to all of them. Serge Gainsbourg was one such lucky patron.
The Look was once described to me as “a bordello designed by Lewis Carroll on acid,” and that’s about as accurate as you could get. An old record deck will play Breakfast in America at least 16 times (on my last count) between midnight at 6 a.m., and the imposing wooden balcony is carved into psychedelic shapes. The Nuage, too, is a wallop to the senses, often unpleasant. Yet it’s impossible not to continue down the rabbit hole for a few more, and then natter with strangers hysterically about the next one. Or how well you know the owner. Or whether you’ve tried the Nuage Rose.
Being a city famous for secret passages, it’s fitting that Lyon’s beloved drinking establishment doesn’t spill its cocktail secrets. Everything here is off-menu. The original version, the Nuage Noir, is great if you love coffee, vodka, and local moonshine mixed together (which can’t be everyone) but I hesitate to order anything else at the bar. Drinking a Nuage means getting a stamp of approval.
Outside, a small debate erupts in the haze of cigarette smoke over the variations of the drink. It’s between a jazz musician wearing bell-shaped trousers and a well-known Grenoblois criminal, but it’s a conversation I’ve seen every time I visit: people from different walks of life happily mixing over a shared appreciation of the cocktail. What is this obsession with the Nuage? After all, it isn’t a good bottle of Macon Villages or a slice of stinky Saint-Marcellin.
As an expat trying to find his place somewhere new, there’s something about The Look and knocking down a few Nuages that helps me feel more at home. It represents Lyon in a sugar-tipped glass: sickly sweet and yet quite sexy. Let’s hope that that doesn’t change.
Photo: Courtesy of Look Bar.