A peal of high-pitched laughter rises sharply above the din of restaurant chatter from a table of three older French women – likely friends, perhaps sisters – who have just shared a moment of mirth over empty, chocolate-stained dessert plates.
A few tables over, a pair of scholarly looking silver-haired gentlemen in tweed blazers, turtlenecks and shiny Oxford shoes, is tucking into plates of sauerkraut and sausage, perhaps discussing philosophy, perhaps catching up on life over their weekly luncheon date.
It’s a Saturday afternoon inside the recently opened Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse (59 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris; +33 1 45 49 19 00), and the Art Nouveau dining rooms are full of mostly local Parisians who have come for the promise of cheap and cheerful French comfort foods at bargain basement prices.
You could call it another kind of French travel paradox: Against a sumptuous setting of brass rails, carved wood, painted glass ceilings, orb light fixtures and ceramic tiled walls, diners tuck into classic French dishes such as leeks vinaigrette, snails, boeuf bourguignon and calf’s head – retro classics that have become increasingly hard to come by in Paris – for between three to 10 euros apiece (or less than $11).
The bouillon’s origin story
The Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse is the latest “bouillon” to open in Paris in recent years and resurrect a late 19th-, early 20th-century tradition that can be credited with birthing the restaurant itself as we know it today. In 2017, the opening of the Bouillon Pigalle (22 Boulevard de Clichy, 75018 Paris; +33 1 42 59 69 31) shook up the local dining scene while the historic Bouillon Julien (16 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010 Paris; +33 1 47 70 12 06) re-opened last year after being converted from an upper-class brasserie. Recently, the same group that opened the wildly popular Bouillon Pigalle also announced plans to open a sister site at Place de la République next year.
As its name suggests, the bouillon was first invented as a place where working-class locals in Paris could stop and recharge with a restorative meat broth or bouillon.
It’s widely accepted that the first bouillons were created in the mid 19th-century by a Parisian butcher, Pierre-Louis Duval, who repurposed meat scraps into soups and broths and marketed them as “bouillons restaurants.” Here, the word “restaurant” in French is an adjective to mean “restorative.”
Hence, the word, restaurant.
By the beginning of the 20th century, thanks in large part to his entrepreneurial son Alexandre Duval, Paris had about 250 bouillons serving “restorative broths” across the city to working-class citizens with modest income. Dishes were humble but hearty and comforting and, most importantly, cheap as chips.
Eventually, as they became more popular among the city’s moneyed bourgeoisie, the modest bouillon would evolve into more elaborate and less accessible dining establishments like brasseries and bistros and become a relic of the Parisian dining scene.
Fast forward to Paris 2019, a year that tastemakers at the influential French restaurant guide Le Fooding declared the year of “rétrofoodisme,” a cheeky portmanteau on the growing appetite for retro French dishes.
“Until recently, it was impossible to find a good French onion soup or sole meunière,” said Le Fooding founder Alexandre Cammas.
“And whenever something becomes impossible and rare, the more it becomes desirable. Eventually, it’s not surprising that these retro foods would become fashionable again.”
In other words, what’s old has become new again.
Affordable food in a high-brow setting
Pass by a bouillon on any given day, and odds are you’ll find long but fast-moving queues of Paris locals and in-the-know tourists who have come in search of a low-cost meal in a high-brow setting. While Bouillon Pigalle was built from the ground up, Bouillons Chartier Montparnasse and Julien are carefully preserved historic landmarks that transport diners back to the early 20th century with their opulent interiors marked by stained glass ceilings, hand-painted tiles, wood carvings and mirrored walls.
Meanwhile, Parisians who are familiar with the concept of a bouillon know to temper their expectations: With appetizers averaging between three and five euros and main dishes averaging ten, this won’t be a gastronomic repast.
In general, the price of a main dish at a standard French restaurant usually hovers around the 20 to 30 euro mark ($22 to $34).
Plates of veal blanquette (veal stew), roast chicken and fries, calf’s sweetbread and pot-au-feu (boiled beef and vegetable soup) are simple, honest and stripped of all pretense. There are no pretty but often useless garnishes placed with surgical tweezer precision.
In fact, a plate of steak with peppercorn sauce may very well arrive with unapologetic splodges of sauce all over the dish’s rim, while a single, sad lonely pickle may roll back and forth beside a slice of terrine.
Nor are there any ironic, cheffy deconstructions or modernized updates to old-fashioned recipes.
And that’s exactly what appeals to young diner Augustin Boone who has come to dine with two friends.
“There are no surprises,” says the 23-year-old. “I know exactly what to expect on my plate.”
There’s a certain comfort in that kind of meal, his friends agree.
Back to basics
“This is just the sort of meal I would eat at my grandmother’s,” Boone says of his plate of Andouillette sausage and sautéed mushrooms. “It’s a simple but typical family dish.”
They’re also time-consuming dishes that take hours to cook properly at home – time people just don’t have anymore, adds Yann Hulin, director of operations at Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse.
“People are cooking less and less these days, particularly traditional dishes like pot-au-feu which can take hours to cook. Instead of spending five hours in the kitchen, people would rather eat out,” he says.
“At our restaurants, people come looking for a quick and cheap meal that reminds them of Sunday family dinners.”
Another particularity of bouillons, the restaurants? They’re unique to Paris.
Boone’s friend Maxence Lebeau, 22, is visiting from Lyon and said he never knew what a bouillon was before their visit that day.
“I get the impression it’s a Parisian secret,” he said. “A place where you can eat a cheap, simple, working-class meal in such an exceptional setting.”
Both Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse and Bouillon Julien are listed as historic monuments and are among the most stunning examples of Art Nouveau decor in the city. Both historic landmarks had also, until recently, been operating as fancier brasseries before being converted back to their original raison d’être, bouillons.
Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse is the sister site to the mythical Bouillon Chartier in the ninth arrondissement, a Paris institution which has been operating since 1896 and which is also listed as a historic monument.
Bouillon Julien opened in 1906 in the working class neighborhood of Faubourg Saint-Denis. Today, the neighborhood remains a dynamic, lively area where Turkish, Pakistani and Syrian eateries co-exist alongside artisan cheesemongers, butchers, colorful fruit and vegetable stands and Bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) Parisians.
Legendary French singer Edith Piaf was a regular at the bouillon, where she would often dine at table No. 24 with her boxer lover Marcel Cerdan. Bouillon Julien accepts advance reservations but the others are walk-ins.
“People come for the ambiance and the prices. There are lots of other beautiful restaurants in Paris, but with high prices to match,” says Pascal Le Bihan, general manager of Bouillon Julien.
“Here, it’s lively, there’s noise, it’s a bit chaotic, and people are sat elbow to elbow. It’s a real Parisian experience that you can’t find anywhere else in France.”
That’s because tables – and by extension guests – are packed tightly against one another in family-style seating arrangements. A solo diner may be seated alongside a trio of friends; couples beside a family of four. A request between strangers to pass the pot of Dijon mustard may lead to friendly encounters, and the hum of wine-fueled conversation is regularly punctuated by unrestrained, merry laughter.
For Cammas, bouillon restaurants serve as living museums frozen in time; caricatures and clichés of French gastronomy akin to Paris postcards of baguettes, wine and cheese.
“Calf’s head is a French specialty, but how many French people eat that every day?” he points out. “Bouillons are a reduced vision of French cuisine today and what the French actually eat every day.”
That may be so, but the historic decor still has the power to awe local Parisians like Christine Schmitt, 56, and her girlfriends.
“It’s not just tourists, there are also real Parisians who go to bouillons as well,” Schmitt says.
“The setting is beautiful, the prices are not at all typical of Paris, you eat well and it’s fun.”
Vivian Song is a Toronto expat and Paris-based journalist. She can be found on Instagram @vivsongviv.