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Why you should dine at a Parisian bouillon

BY Paola Westbeek

14th Mar 2023 Food Heroes

Why you should dine at a Parisian bouillon

The bouillons of Paris are authentic and ambient eateries at which to experience French cuisine

If you’re looking for an authentic place to eat in Paris, head on over to one of the city’s iconic bouillons. It’s at these eateries where history, ambience and real French cuisine come together to please more than just the palate. 

"History, ambience and real French cuisine come together to please more than just the palate"

In fact, enjoying a three-course lunch or dinner at a bouillon (wine included) is one of the most affordable ways to eat out in the French capital.

 

Some bouillon history


Pierre-Louis Duval's bouillon served simple, delicious food to market-vendors and the working-class


But what are bouillons anyway? For their humble origins, let’s turn back the clock to the end of the 18th century, when paupers in the city’s slums were gathering at murky eateries desperate for any form of sustenance. No one cared that the menu never changed: huge cauldrons boiled up a gruesome concoction consisting of bones, bad cuts of meat, spoiled milk and grease. Mopped up with some stale bread, it filled the stomach, albeit in a revolting way.

By the mid-19th century, however, the concept was revamped when master butcher Pierre-Louis Duval, who catered to the city’s well-heeled, came up with the clever idea of putting his leftover cuts of (quality) meat to good use by boiling them up with vegetables in a tasty and fortifying bouillon—hence the name of the eateries. 

In 1855 Duval opened his first bouillon—a clean and pleasant establishment not far from the famous Les Halles wholesale fresh food market, referred to by Emile Zola as “the belly of Paris.” Frequented round the clock by market vendors and the working-class, Duval’s bouillon was staffed by amicable yet efficient apron-clad waiters and waitresses. It was such a huge success that the Duval family went on to open 33 more bouillons across the city. 

And with that, the first restaurant chain—you could even say the first brasserie—was born. The concept caught on, and by the turn of the century, Paris counted some 250 bouillons. But as tastes evolved and more elaborate forms of dining were given preference over modest meals, only a handful of bouillons remained. For a while, it seemed they were forgotten in the pages of Paris’ culinary history. 

 

The return of the bouillons

Luckily, in the last decade, bouillons have made a huge comeback, attracting diners with their exquisite Art Nouveau decor, traditional French dishes and modest prices (a three-course meal for two, wine and coffee included, will cost you about 50 euros). Don’t expect fluffed-up haute cuisine here, but rather the emblematic dishes that have come to represent French cooking: classics such as soupe à l’oignon, oeufs mayo, steak-frites, boeuf bourguignon, mousse au chocolat and crème brûlée. 

"Bouillons have made a huge comeback, attracting diners with their exquisite Art Nouveau decor, traditional French dishes and modest prices"

Here are the bouillons you won’t want to miss the next time you visit Paris.

 

Bouillon Chartier


Chariter is a tourist hot-spot, known for its stunning Art Nouveau decor and delicious menu. Photo credit: MOSSOT

Founded in 1896 by Frédéric and Camille Chartier and one of the city’s original bouillons, Chartier now has three locations: the first address on 7 Rue du Faubourg, 59 Boulevard du Montparnasse since 1903, and its most recent location on 5 Rue du 8 mai 1945. 

Though quite touristy and often packed to the gills (as most bouillons tend to be), eating at Chartier amidst its stunning Art Nouveau decor with wooden gilded mirrors, feels like stepping back in time. Waiters still scribble your order and bill on the paper tablecloth, and while the service is swift, you won’t feel rushed at all. 

 

Bouillon Racine


Bouillon Racine is a little pricier than its competitors but has the advantage of allowing you to book a table in advance


Opened by the Chartier family in 1906 and situated on 3 Rue Racine in the 6th arrondissement, Racine is another golden oldie decked out in sumptuous Art Nouveau decor where it appears as though time has stood still. 

In 1962, Racine was bought by the Sorbonne and served its staff until 1993. Three years later, it underwent renovations and reopened again as a bouillon. Though the prices are highest here (starters and desserts start at €8.50 and mains at €16), the added advantage is that you can book a table in advance and won’t have to queue outside. 

 

Bouillon Julien


Bouillon Julien is known for its pristinely-preserved Art Nouveau decor

A favourite hangout of French chanson legend Edith Piaf, Bouillon Julien will blow you away with its stained-glass ceilings and opulent interior, said to be one of the “best-preserved examples of Art Nouveau in Paris.” 

"Bouillon Julien will blow you away with its stained-glass ceilings and opulent interior"

Dating to 1906 and located on 16 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, Julien has kept its prices low: the cheapest main is the curried cauliflower gratin, one of the few vegetarian options on the menu (€8.90). No need to wait for a table here either, as you can reserve in advance.

 

Bouillon Pigalle and République


These are two of the city’s newest bouillons—Pigalle (2017) on 22 Boulevard de Clichy, and its sister restaurant, République (2021) on 39 Boulevard du Temple. 

While they are modern and therefore less impressive in decor, they will still tempt you with their offerings, which include some of the best oeufs mayo in Paris (€2.50) and a brilliant beetroot tartare (for those of us who prefer a meat-free option). Be prepared to wait at least 20 minutes before being led to a table, but the experience will more than make up for this.

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