While I was in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, I ate out one night at Le Lion D'Or in the tiny town of Arcins. Not only is the restaurant highly recommended by every guide book about the area, but more importantly, it was recommended to me at nearly every winery I visited both in Medoc and in St. Emilion, all the way over on Bordeaux's "Right Bank." So I figured it was worth a try, if only to catch a glimpse of the notoriously mischievous (some might call him cantankerous) chef, Jean-Paul Barbier.
I was wondering why there are so many Lions D'Or in France--I stayed at a hotel of the same name in Bayeux, for instance--and it was explained to me that the name had nothing to do with golden lions or any other such heraldic device. Rather, Lion D'Or is a mash-up of a medieval French hospitality policy. Basically, when inns and taverns, auberges in French, were first springing up all over the country to cater to newly forming middle classes and religious pilgrims trekking from place to place, the owners had a problem. People were coming for quick, cheap meals, but not staying the night, where the real money was to be made by providing accommodations. So they told their would-be guests, "Ou il y a un lit, on dort": where there is a bed, you sleep. That was their roundabout way of saying, if you want to eat here, you have to sleep here too...sort of like creating a captive audience. Brilliant strategy, because it worked, and the phrase "un lit, on dort" became "un lion d'or." Hence the preponderance of thusly named inns and restaurants today.
This Le Lion D'Or, however, is where the chateau owners, winemakers and townspeople all go for a nice meal out, and you can find some of the most famous names in Bordeaux wines among the many private wine collection cabinets they have set aside, and that line the main dining room. For us mere visitors, the restaurant has a no corkage fee policy if you bring your own bottle of wine...it's just got to be a Medoc.
Don't be put off by some of the fancy pretensions, though. The menu also features prix fixes that start at about 14 euros for dinner for four courses, so it is a real bargain as long as you're willing to eat whatever is on order that day. The B.Y.O. policy also has an interesting socializing effect since you can check out what your neighbors have brought to drink, and then make friends with them by offering to exchange a glass of yours for a glass of theirs. For instance, I brought a nice bottle with me, and ended up tasting two others thanks to the other nearby diners who wanted to try mine.
And if you're lucky, you just might get to watch the chef prepare his special duck dish out in the dining room, where he manually presses the remaining blood out of the duck "leftovers" and uses it to prepare a flash-sauteed sauce over an open flame for the main course. Slightly gruesome. Totally awesome.All in all, a real French dining experience.