As the pandemic recedes and cross-border travel plans re-materialise, our carbon footprint is in focus again. I’ve always loved train travel, having caught the bug whilst interrailing in my twenties (I extolled its virtues in my Eurostar piece last year so won’t rehearse the arguments here). But it’s worth bearing in mind how easy it is to move around Europe once your Eurostar from London arrives in Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam (Brexshit admin notwithstanding). Paris and Brussels are particularly handy European hubs: from Paris you can head to Turin or Barcelona; from Brussels there will be a new night train to various European countries (the “Nightjet”) as well as easy connections such as Cologne (2 hours) or Bruges (a mere 45 minute onward journey). One day there will be a direct route to Stockholm. After two years of Covid, that all sounds very exciting, if exotic. But we’re forgetting one crucial aspect of any journey. Indeed, as Winnie the Pooh once sagely advised, “it is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”
What about lunch indeed. It’s so important in this fast-paced world to make time for a proper lunch – not just for your health but your soul. Travel is no exception and if you’re on holiday that’s all the more reason for a proper pit stop. Granted, there will be times when you will only be able to grab an emergency sandwich jambon beurre as you catch the 12:47 to Avignon. Dining cars are an option on certain trains but these are dying out and, to be honest, the food on many is nothing to write home about. But if you have a bit more time to spare there are far more civilised places than the usual railway station tourist traps. Here are a few suggestions from Palate’s little black book of go-to ‘waiting rooms.’
When travelling via Paris
Gare de Lyon: for connections to Lyon, Provence, Barcelona, Turin, Milan, Geneva, Zurich…
In Gare de Lyon lunch at Le Train Bleu (pictured above) is simply a must. Just one floor up from the main concourse, its grandiose setting seems a world away from the commotion of the station beneath. Whilst it’s possible to get a direct Eurostar all the way from London to Lyon, Marseille or Avignon, such services are limited. In any case, stopping off for a spot of lunch in Paris en route is far, far more fun. It breaks up the journey, allows you to see a little bit of Paris and restores the soul. What could possibly go wrong? They also have a decent bar.
The express “voyageur” lunch is currently around 49 Euros – the idea being it is served in 45 minutes flat (so, pretty much a Euro a minute). This is usually beef or lamb carved at the table, a ladle of ‘jus de viande’ and gratin dauphinois on the side. No meal in France is complete without a dessert, no matter how much of a rush you’re in. Here it will often be a little riz au lait or perhaps a small yuzu meringue tart. If you have more time, there’s a full à la carte menu and classics such as steak tartare served tableside are always available. The service can be a little comme ci comme ça due to the high turnover of covers. But the whole thing is a wonderful experience and very much part of the holiday when heading elsewhere from Gare de Lyon.
Gare de L’Est: for connections to the Champagne region, Reims, Strasbourg, Munich, Luxembourg…
Assuming you’re coming from London, this is a doddle. “La belle” Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est are five minutes apart (not unlike St Pancras and Euston). If you’re going on to eastern France, Germany or Luxembourg from Gare de l’Est, for heaven’s sake avoid the microwaved quiches at Paul and have a decent sit-down lunch. One option, literally between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, is the aptly-named Café les Deux Gares. This relatively new bistro attached to the hotel of the same name was designed by Luke Edward Hall (expect French Dispatch vibes). Or just walk in the direction of Canal St Martin and have a spot of lunch at Les Enfants Perdus. I’ve been going to this off-the-beaten-track restaurant for years and have never had the same meal twice. If you have time, you can complete the experience with a little constitutional around the picturesque canal afterwards. Just don’t miss your train.
Gare St Lazare: for connections to Caen, Rouen, Le Havre, Cherbourg…
Gare St Lazare is a bit of an anomaly in this round-up as the station isn’t an international hub; this station only has services to Normandy, but if you’re heading to northern France to take in the Bayeux Tapestry, Monet’s gardens, Le Mont St Michel, the D-Day landing site or simply Chateau de Versailles (15 minutes away), a quick meal may also be in scope. If so, the Musée Jacquemart-André is a hidden gem: a museum, bah oui, but it also has a grand café and tea salon. For something swish, head to Hotel Le Bristol (but beware, a side salad here might blow the entire holiday budget).
Gare Montparnasse: for connections to Britanny, Bordeaux, Hendaye and further connections to San Sebastián and Lisbon
For pre-train victuals near Gare Montparnasse there is a veritable selection of venerable restos. The legendary Joséphine Chez Dumonet, complete with its Dijon mustard walls and surly waiters in waistcoats, dates back to 1889 and was possibly the inspiration for Café Rene in ‘Allo ‘Allo (the food is immeasurably better though – expect textbook classics such as boeuf bourguignon, confit de canard, Tournedos Rossini and millefeuille for dessert). Booking is essential.
Keeping with the classic theme, La Coupole is an art deco brasserie once frequented by such great luminaries as Hemingway, Camus and Sartre. There is also the Montparnasse branch of Bouillon Chartier, the cheap and cheerful template for Corbin and King’s Brasserie Zedel, which has two other inflation-defying sites in Paris. Whilst none of these could be described as gastronomic experiences, I’ve always had satisfying meals at them – all the more so when you have the night train to Lisbon to catch.
Life is too short for quick lunches
When travelling via Brussels
After the Eurostar glides into the insalubrious Gare Brussels Midi (aka “Brussel Zuid” in Flemish) you’d be forgiven for wanting to get your connection to Cologne, Amsterdam or Zurich lickety-split. The immediate surroundings in this part of Brussels are, shall we say, a little rough round the edges. But what do you do if you have a couple of hours to spare and your stomach is rumbling?
If you’re lucky enough to have a first class Thalys ticket you can access the first class lounge in Gare Midi but I wouldn’t bother: it’s as soulful as a dentist’s waiting room and their coffee is vile. An alternative is to ensconce yourself in the safety of the Pullman Hotel, which is right next door to the station. Their bar lounge does serviceable, tried-and-tested light meals, and they have free WiFi for those all-important business emails. It has more of a high-end restaurant too but it’s very much a port in a storm.
Venturing outside of the station there are a number of unremarkable cafés and brasseries (such as the SAS Café and La Brasserie de la Gare), though Antartique is a very affordable seafood restaurant and fishmonger 5 minutes away on Avenue de Stalingrad if you’re in that mood (note: no alcohol licence). For something more gastronomic in the same neck of the woods, Michelin-starred Brussels institution Comme Chez Soi is exceptional (they do a slightly cheaper set lunch menu at 75 Euros if you don’t want to splurge).
If you have a bit more time between trains though, Midi station is not actually that far from Brussels’ historic centre. It’s about three stops on the Metro to Bourse (lines 3 or 4) and then just a short walk to the Grande Place. Near here you’ll find the very traditional Fin de Siècle which serves such classic Bruxellois dishes as stoemp saucissess (essentially Belgian bangers and mash, though the mash contains a wider blend of vegetables than just potato). A bit further into the centre in Place Saint-Catherine, there’s La Belle Maraîchère for an authentic Belgian experience. I once walked in here on spec and had a fantastic lunch, vowing to return. Round the corner is Arthur Orlans, a quirky cocktail bar with a pianist. Or if beer’s your cup of tea (what else in Brussels?) then Delirium is a popular choice, if touristy. To escape the tourists, Châtelain is a quiet neighbourhood with countless independent restaurants and coffee shops, including the wonderful Forcado Pastelaria which sells authentic Portuguese custard tarts as well as their own Belgian version made with speculoos.
There is certainly more than meets the eye in Brussels – a slow-burner of a city that takes time to grow on you. With a bit of planning, stopping off here for a couple of hours can be a surprisingly pleasant break in the journey.
Or in reverse, when passing through London
So your Eurostar arrives in St Pancras and you have some time before your connection to the Midlands. Before the pandemic I would’ve recommended The Gilbert Scott in the magnificent St Pancras Hotel without hesitation but sadly Marcus Wareing was unable to renew the lease in 2021. That was a real shame and at the time of writing this it remains as empty and derelict as the rest of the hotel was back in the 90s. But, in the meantime, the revamped Booking Office in the same hotel has come to the rescue – I prefer this new iteration of the Booking Office for its cocktails (ask for Jack or Vito at the bar) but the food isn’t half bad either. Or within St Pancras station itself there is of course the Champagne Bar on the upper concourse – there are worse ways to kill time between trains.
But if you have more time it’s worth walking out of the station. Since King’s Cross was croissantified 10 or so years ago, the transformation from somewhere you would avoid to a destination in its own right has been quite incredible. Up in Coal Drops Yard there is a plethora of dining options, my favourite perhaps being the branches of Barrafina and Dishoom, but these are still very chainy and frustratingly don’t allow reservations. I’d personally avoid the rather cold outpost of Lina Stores (and definitely avoid Richard Caring’s overpriced Granary Square Brasserie).
In King’s Cross it’s all about the small indies. Head to the delightful Casa Tua on Cromer Street in the shade of the Holy Cross church for an emergency carbonara and the strongest Aperol Spritz in town (made without soda water). For authentic Thai cuisine you can’t beat Supawan at the King’s Cross end of Caledonian Road. Or stretch your legs up Judd Street, past the Covid test centre, to Lamb’s Conduit Street (London’s best street) for Noble Rot and Ciao Bella if you have time (and soon a new branch of Honey and Co). A little further still and there is The Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road for incredible fish and chips (something I pine for when I’ve been on the continent) or the most underrated Argentinian steak restaurant in London, The Bull Steak Expert.
Et voilà. Say goodbye to scoffing down sandwiches from Pret and make a pit stop a far more pleasurable part of the trip. Life is too short for quick lunches.
This guide was published in June 2022.
The restaurants featured in this round-up have all been tried and tested by the author as at June 2022. None of them have paid to be featured, nor have they had any editorial control over this article.
Cover photo of Le Train Bleu licensed by Adobe Stock. All other photos by J A Smith.