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Since late April, the occupant at 947 Penn Ave. in the Cultural District, Downtown, has had a familiar vibe and a different flavor at the same time.
The signage on the street level beside the Courtyard by Marriott hotel says Le Lyonnais instead of Sonoma Grille. Orange-pink hues in the dining room have been replaced by some green ones, and there’s a new large blackboard with a map of France on the wall beside the bar. Yet, the space feels sort of deja vu.
The panoramic mural, which catches your eye when you walk toward the center of the room, depicting rolling fields and rows of vineyards under a sweeping sky, has been retained from the Sonoma days. So have the window boxes and the bistro awning, except that it has a touch of green now. The 150-seat dining room with its high ceiling still feels roomy and airy, and the large bar has been restained.
“Sonoma opened 12 years ago, and it had a good run,” says owner and chef Yves Carreau. “But it was time to do something different as Sonoma was ready for a change.”
Just last year, Sonoma went through a complete renovation. The facade was opened up with a sliding glass wall, and it got a paint and woodwork makeover. But the change needed to happen, Mr. Carreau says, whether it remained Sonoma or was going to become Le Lyonnais. Because the interior lent itself to a Lyon-style bistro, the switch was only natural, he adds.
A French restaurant seemed an obvious choice, and one with the name Lyonnais even more, to Mr. Carreau as he was born and raised in Lyon, France. His family is from the city that’s known for its opera, river cruises, a steel Eiffel Tower lookalike and, of course, the food. He still has a brother there and goes back two to three times a year.
An additional reason for the chef proprietor of the Big Y Group, which owns other Downtown restaurants Seviche, Nola, Poros and Perle, to go French was the “hunger among younger people for Euro-style foods. French cuisine is making a comeback and is really hot in New York and San Francisco,” he says. The James Beard Foundation had predicted French cuisine to be the No. 1 dining trend for this year.
Mr. Carreau also felt Pittsburgh could do with another authentic French restaurant. In his opinion, Paris 66 on the Shadyside/East Liberty border is the only restaurant in town that is “true French.” He doesn’t have much to say about Bruneaux and Cocothe in Sewickley “because I have not been there.” And while he considers The Twisted Frenchman in East Liberty a good restaurant, he says, “it’s not really French — just a take on French.”
At Le Lyonnais, he features comfort French fare and serves foods that he grew up on and recipes that have been in his family for generations. The menu includes amuse-gueules such as chevre flavored with honey and rosemary and wrapped with bacon ($9); tartines such as a slice of baguette topped with garlic and herb boursin, dried tomatoes and grilled shrimp flavored with garlic ($8); and entrees such as moist grilled chicken ($19) in a piquant Dijon mustard and white wine sauce that is served with haricots verts and wild rice pilaf.
Each dish has a pronunciation guide. So if you order a boeuf bourguignon, you are nudged to say boor-gee-nee-ahn for the braised chuck dish with pinot noir demi, lardons, onions and egg pasta, or kin-elle for the quenelle Lyonnaise (white fish dumpling with lobster sauce).
It was not his idea to add the pronunciations, Mr. Carreau says. “A friend of mine suggested it as French words can be intimidating. I was 50-50 on it, a bit ambivalent,” he explains. He plans to remove them in the next menu.
The wine list is long — 60 kinds by the bottle and 40 by the glass — and varied — whites, reds and rose from the different regions of France. California wine prices have gone up in the past 10 years, and the French have learned from that and so their wines have become more reasonable, he says.
Speaking of prices, the menu at Le Lyonnais is far more affordable than Sonoma. A number of dinner entrees are in the $19-$23 range; the most expensive ones are a hangar steak and a rabbit confit, each $27.
“It’s the young people who are patronizing Downtown Pittsburgh now, and so we want to make it more affordable for them,” Mr. Carreau says. “Sonoma was out of their reach. We want Le Lyonnais to be for everybody’s purses.”
Arthi Subramaniam: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.