Le Train Bleu – back on track

“There is no restaurant more beautiful than that of the Gare de Lyon.”

Louise de Vilmorin (Lettre dans un taxi)

Below its emblematic, 67-metre-high clock tower, the main west building of Paris Gare de Lyon station is home to the dazzling brasserie Le Train Bleu.

Serving customers since 1901, this jewel in French Railways’s (SNCF) crown re-opened its revolving doors in September 2014, following a 21st century make-over.

Designed to please, and function efficiently, the refreshed decor combines Belle Epoque style with a Mediterranean ambiance; the furnishings have been given a more contemporary touch.

Commissioned in 1898 by railway operator PLM (Compagnie des chemins de fer de Paris Lyon Méditerranée), Le Train Bleu opened for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900.

A work of Belle Epoque art, the prized highlights of this new haven were its chandeliers gilded in bronze (and weighing one tonne apiece!), ceilings soaring  majestically 8 to 11 metres over the heads of diners, furniture in solid mahogany, and a painted decor comprising no less than 40 works by 27 French artists.

The space was, and still is divided into a main dining room – the 26-metre long Salle Réjane and 18.5 metre Salle Dorée – plus the cosier Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian alcoves.

Today, Paris Gare de Lyon is the third busiest station in the French capital in terms of traffic (105 million passengers transit here annually). In addition to high-speed TGV trains serving the south-west of France, it is also a hub for regional and suburban trains, buses, and links up with two metro lines


Now owned by SNCF’s station subsidiary Gares & Connexions, the brasserie has been leased to SSP France since 1998, with the latter’s team of 120 preparing and serving up to 600 covers every day.

The address is also a popular breakfast, coffee, sleek snack and drinks haunt for businessmen and women (meetings of both professional and clandestine natures, no doubt!), curious tourists, and those ‘in the know.’

During renegotiations over the lease in 2010, the question of renovation work arose. Indeed the restaurant was suffering from a number of failings that could no longer be ignored, namely: the seating was no longer sufficiently comfortable, the furniture mismatched, the parquet flooring noticeably damaged, the lighting (natural and artificial) was poorly managed, and the once glorious paintings had lost their sheen

It was time to restore and polish up this unique setting, to modernise it (with care) so as to deliver services better adapted to current-day needs and expectations.

No floorboard unturned

 After launching an architecture and design consultation in 2013, SSP France selected five teams to deliver the make-over, with the project management team comprising Agence Duthilleul; Cabinet 2BDM, Christophe Bottineau, head architect for France’s Historic Monuments; AREP design office; Eurogip; and Benoit Ferré as operations architect.

The three-point programme drawn up to restore, harmonise, and update the iconic space quite literally left no floorboard unturned! Indeed the tasks to be performed covered every aspect imaginable:

  • restoration of the original decors: cleaning of paintings, repair and cleaning of the stucco, regilding, and woodwork repainted in its original colours
  • woodwork brought up to standard
  • original parquet floor replaced
  • reorganisation of the dining and lounge rooms, plus creation of a small new salon
  • revision of the natural and artificial lighting: west-facing windows shaded with special filtering blinds, and removal of blinds on the windows overlooking the station interior, main hall
  • comfort-related improvements for winter & summer
  • modernisation of the toilets

“A crazy works project”

Following extensive planning, the ‘hands-on’ renovation work itself took two months to complete.

This undertaking, carried out over the summer of 2014, was qualified as “a crazy works project” by Jean-Marie Duthilleul, who headed the complete restoration project through Agence Duthilleul, working in close collaboration with SSP France and National Heritage (conservation de patrimoine).

Jean-Marie Duthilleul: “The overall aim [of the renovation] was to nudge the original ambiance of Le Train Bleu, i.e. the travel theme, into a new century.”

Le Train Bleu was a child of its time. One of the attractions at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 was the ‘electricity palace’ – a building entirely lit and decorated with electric bulbs. In keeping with this technological progress, on its opening the brasserie featured… electric rather than gas lighting!  And in 2014, this relationship with light continues abright.

Energy efficient LED bulbs have been discreetly introduced to the chandeliers, to create what Mr Duthilleul describes as “cloud of light”, as well as to other fixtures to deliver a better quality of illumination.

Further attention has been paid to manage the natural light pouring into the restaurant and from the west facing windows overlooking the station square. Here the new blinds appear deceptively minimalist. But there is technology behind their working, as Mr Duthilleul explained (and demonstrated to journalists):

“Designed by a firm specialised in designing motorised drapery rods for grand scale operations such as the opera, theatre, and so forth, these high tech blinds are made from a special fabric that reflects the exterior light when down, yet still allows Train Bleu customers a view through to the Pariscape outside.”

Modern shades of… blue

To conjuror up images and/or trigger memories of the Mediterranean skies and sea, the colour scheme of the refreshed dining rooms is blue, resolutely blue, with three shades in all. And the seating – chairs, and benches: single, double, small and large – originally in studded brown moleskin with studs – have been re-distributed to ‘recreate a sense of harmony’ (and, no doubt, capture economy of space too!)

“The flooring and seating were ‘tortured’ with soft drinks, coffee, and the like, to assess their suitability in terms of usage and maintenance,” explains Mr Duthilleul, confirming that that the revamp also took on board the practicalities of running a busy brasserie in 2014.

Beauty and business are clearly the order of today.

“The new logo is inspired by the original brass coverings of the radiators in the restaurant,” says Agence Duthilleul and AREP, “and aims to project the premium positioning of Le Train Bleu.”

Likewise the new tableware seeks to echo this ‘premium’ message: its splendid signature plates, designed-to-measure by the prestigious ceramics brand Villeroy & Boch, are decorated with gold filigree and edging that picks up the blue hues of the restaurant decor; the beautiful logo in the centre makes a statement.

In parallel, more contemporary uniforms for the staff and a new menu design serve to complete the picture.

Close shave!

The Train Bleu is the only SNCF-owned asset classified a French historic monument. This status was achieved in 1972, largely thanks to the determination of film maker René and former SNCF president Louis Armand. Clair.

Had they not insisted, this iconic station buffet would have been subsequently demolished during construction of the city’s underground commuter network (RER).

In line, on track

“Just as the Gare de Lyon is constantly adapting, it’s the turn of this mythic restaurant to be brought in line with current tastes,” commented Rachel Picard, managing director, Gares & Connexions on the occasion of its re-opening [ed. Ms Picard is now managing director, SNCF Voyages]. “Stations today are a destination in their own right. Renovated and enlarged, showcases for enterprising development initiatives, innovative services and shops, they have become test beds for trends in urban consumption.”

A more reasonable, practical version of its original self, while the restyled Train Bleu has lost some of its hedonistic appeal it still remains the jewel in Paris Gare de Lyon’s crown. The beauty continues to shine through…

Cover photo source: Le Train Bleu



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