Last Updated on January 25, 2024
With origins in the 19th century, “bouillon” restaurants are an integral part of French – or more specifically – Parisian, culture. It’s often suggested that they started off as places for working-class people to gather and enjoy a filling meal at an affordable price, but further investigation suggests that French bouillon restaurants have a more complex history.
“Bouillon”, of course, refers to a type of soup or broth — and is fundamental to the story of these cheap n’ cheerful eateries, as I detail in what follows. Though bouillons have faded in and out of popularity over the decades, they’ve largely stood the test of time, and over the last 20 years or so there has been an enormous resurgence of interest in bouillon restaurants in Paris.
For one, more people are looking to rediscover the flavors and traditions of classic French cuisine. And the often beautiful settings and décor at these restaurants don’t exactly detract, either.
Of Bouillons and Broths
No discussion of traditional bouillon restaurants can be attempted without reference to bouillon stock. Highly-flavored and infused with herbs, spices, vegetables and meat, it was – food historian Maryann Tebben informs me – first used in the 1700s as a medicinal remedy for ill patients.
Served in hospitals to patients unable to eat a complete meal, it was the ideal restorative substance: a distilled, warming essence of all the nutritional stuff that had gone into making it.
Tebben charts the fascinating transformation of bouillon broth from being a remedy for the hospitalized sick, to an elite drink commonly consumed among the health-conscious upper echelons of Parisian society. By the mid to late 1700s, broth consumption had become formalised, and institutions exclusively serving it began popping up across Paris.
The first Bouillon Restaurants in Paris
The first bouillon in Paris opened in 1767 on Rue des Poulies, specialising in consommés or ‘restaurants’ (which, interestingly and somewhat confusingly at the time referred to bouillon broth). Opened and named after a man named Boulanger, it closed around 1854 when the street was torn down.
(On an interesting side note, the painting shown above from Thomas Shotter Boys appears to depict the facade of the Restaurant Boulanger on the left-hand side; the streets it depicts no longer exist).
Much in the same way that broth had been served in hospitals for its medicinal values, these broth shops touted the restorative benefits of bouillon broth. This time, however, it wasn’t being served for free to the sickly, but to wealthy Parisians willing to part with their money in the name of health.
Indeed, as Rebecca L. Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant, tells me, early bouillons were designed for those “whose diets [did not] usually include an evening meal” – that is, prestigious Parisians who could “take their consommé without offending their sense of delicacy”.
Boulanger’s restaurant on Rue des Poulies even had engraved on its shopfront the latin motto “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego vos restaurabo”, which translates to “Come to me, those whose stomachs ache, and I will restore you.” And of course, the word “restaurant” etymologically relates to the french verb “restaurer” or “to restore”.
These restaurants weren’t necessarily aiming to serve customers who were hungry, but targeted those who sought to better themselves and their health through food (something that we’re still familiar with today– consider those strange and myriad juice cleanses, expensive slimming powders, and other “clean eating” regimes recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow and others).
Tebben points to another reason why well-to-do Parisians began to furiously crave bouillon broth. Preparing it actually takes a fair amount of skill and technique: ingredients are simmered for hours on end, chopped meticulously, strained, reduced, chilled, and often clarified.
George Orwell may have described bouillon broth as a “vile, sour odour, a mixture of slops and synthetic soup” in Down and Out in Paris and London, but for wealthy Parisians, this broth appealed to that very French belief that laboring over and perfecting a dish was something to be highly regarded.
For the French, who have a seemingly hereditary respect for culinary expertise (particularly the upper and middle classes in 18th century Paris), it makes sense that “proper” bouillon—laboured over for hours and prepared with seasonal vegetables— would impress them.
The 19th Century: Bouillon Restaurants Turn “Populaire”
Bouillon broth didn’t remain forever in the hands (or bowls) of the wealthy, however. Fast-forward to the late 19th century, and to a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval who, concerned with wastage at his boucherie shops, decided to open a shop in Les Halles for the workers at the now-defunct farmer’s market. There, he prepared and served a broth made using meats that he was unable to sell to his bourgeois customers, such as beef neck and knuckle bones.
Over time, he opened several other bouillons across the city, establishing a thriving chain before the concept of chain restaurants had even been conceived.
The evolution of bouillon from being something that was served to the upper classes to a food that was sold at low prices to hungry workers is logical: by the late 19th century, while poverty rates in Paris rose enormously, the city’s middle and upper classes began to buy more meat itself rather than just the broth, as it had become more readily available and cheaper to buy.
A Belle-Epoque Timestamp
In the late 19th century, the Art Nouveau movement spread throughout Europe (Paris playing host to the 1878, 1889 and 1900 World Fairs) and, consequently, restaurant interiors at popular bouillons such as Chartier and Julien (pictured above) were heavily influenced by design touchstones of the Belle Epoque: mahogany tables and chairs, ornate mirrors, stained glass panels, mosaic-tiled floors and elaborate frescos.
Soon, more staple French dishes were added to the menus, such as pot-au-feu, beef bourguignon, and mousse au chocolat. Offering the double allure of ornate interiors and more diverse menu options, bouillons once again began to attract wealthier Parisians, who eventually, at the start of the 20th century, joined the city’s workers in dining there.
The bouillon’s winning formula– expensive-looking interiors with inexpensive but tasty food – worked a treat. By 1900 there were around 250 bouillons in Paris alone, all of which served both hungry blue-collar workers as well as the middle classes. Bouillon restaurants had, in many ways, managed to straddle the complex hierarchy of Parisian society.
Weathering the Vagaries of Food Fashion
These restaurants once again fell from popularity around the time of the First World War – almost, in fact, to the point of extinction. High-end brasseries had become popular, and fast food was beginning to emerge as a cheap alternative to formal sit-down dining.
However, in recent years, bouillon restaurants have made a sweeping comeback. Tebban suggests this has something to do with the pressing cost-of-living crisis: people have far less disposable income than ever before and the bouillon concept – reasonably priced and filling food served in an up-market environment – is appealing to those who want to eat out but don’t want to break the bank.
It’s also worth noting that the fine-dining model has rather fallen from fashion, and is now almost considered unsustainable, as the announced closure of three-Michelin-star Danish restaurant Noma attests.
In a post-pandemic world of anxiety and uncertainty, it’s perhaps unsurprising that diners are tending to opt for more comforting fare, as opposed to foams and twelve-course tasting menus.
Leading the recent resurgence of the bouillon in Paris is the one with the greatest name recognition among tourists, Bouillon Chartier. First opened in 1896 by two brothers, Frédéric and Camille Chartier, it has stood the test of time with its enormous, lavishly decorated Belle-Epoque dining room and simple, inexpensive dishes, such as beef bourguignon, Alsatian sauerkraut, sole meunière or steak-frites; for dessert, favorites include chocolate profiteroles, lemon tart and other classics.
Chartier’s flagship restaurant in the Grands Boulevards district was named a historic monument in 1989. In 2007, the Joulie family took over the restaurant, renovating the dining room and extending the menu to include other, less traditional but equally hearty dishes, like spaghetti Bolognaise and Frankfurter sausages and chips.
Over the past few years, the pair have also opened two additional Chartier restaurants in the capital alongside the original eatery in the Grands Boulevards: one in Montparnasse and one near the Gare de l’Est train station.
The Montparnasse location (59 Boulevard de Montparnasse, 6th arrondissement) brings back to life a Chartier bouillon that had originally operated on the same premises in the early 20th century, first opened in 1903.
Some of the Best Bouillons in Paris: Our Picks
In addition to Chartier (main location at 7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 9th arrondissement), there are several other bouillons worth visiting for lunch or dinner in Paris. They all share the same key features (low-priced, comforting French fare; ornate furnishings and decor with throwback appeal), but are also unique in their own right. Here are a few favorites:
Bouillon Julien — 16 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th arrondissement
Renovated in 2018 by British designer John Whelan, Boullion Julien is arguably the most eye-catching bouillon in the city — filled with intricate ceramic tiles, a stained glass roof, and an enormous mahogany bar. Their take on broth is adventurous: prepared with ginger and lemongrass, it’s lighter and more aromatic than others. Other menu staples include Burgundy escargots with garlic and parsely, half young cockerel with french fries and “diable” sauce, and bhaba au rum for dessert.
Bouillon Pigalle — 22 Boulevard de Clichy, 18th arrondissement
Located in the always-bustling Pigalle district, a stone’s throw away from the Moulin Rouge and the Sacré-Cœur, this bouillon is as lively as its surroundings. It seats 300 people, and though it only opened in 2017, it’s almost always full. Expect lots of chatter and, if you haven’t reserved a table, be prepared to queue.
Bouillon Racine — 3 Rue Racine, 6th arrondissement
Classified as a historical monument, Boullion Racine, opened in 1906 as the Grand Bouillon Camille Chartier, has had a number of different owners over the decades. What hasn’t changed is the restaurant’s commitment to great cookery. The menu shifts according to the seasons, and all the ingredients are sourced from local suppliers.
Petit Bouillon Pharamond — 24 Rue de la Grande Truanderie, 1st arrondissement
Established in 1832, the Petit Bouillon Pharamond was one of the first to open its doors in the French capital, near Les Halles. Renamed Pavillon de la Normandie in 1900, the restaurant attracted celebrities such as Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway to dine within its walls, and initially it specialized in dishes from the Normandy region. Nowadays it offers dishes from all over France — the most popular being the Boeuf Bourguignon served with coquillettes (tiny pasta shells).