Review: Bouillon Chartier, Paris’ Timeless Belle-Epoque Dining Room

Last Updated on June 29, 2023

Bouillon Chartier restaurant in Paris
Bouillon Chartier Grands Boulevards/Courtesy of same

Bouillon Chartier, like many classic Parisian restaurants, has a long pedigree. Renowned for its affordable and traditional French fare served in Art Deco surroundings, it first opened in 1896 in the bustling Grands Boulevards district. Since then, the “bouillon” has welcomed tourists and locals alike into its striking Belle Époque dining room, and while it has had several owners over the years– and there are now two other branches in the city– by and large its values have remained as they always were. 

{Related: The French “Bouillon” Restaurant: A Short History}

When two brothers, Fréderic and Camille Chartier, established their first restaurant, their intention was to feed the city’s working classes with a low-priced broth (or “bouillon”). These days, though, the enormous dining room – open 365 days a year —  is frequented by all rungs of society, and the menu has expanded to include such offerings as beef Bourguignon, rum baba and even spaghetti Bolognaise. Nevertheless, the original approach (inexpensive, comforting and hearty dishes consumed in an opulent setting) remains the same. 

Similar to other Parisian bouillons, Chartier has drifted in and out of popularity over the decades—but these days bouillon restaurants are experiencing something of a resurrection, with new ones popping up each year in France.

The reasons for this aren’t necessarily clear – perhaps diners are craving comfort food after a handful of anxiety-ridden years? Or are they searching for affordable prices amidst an acute cost-of-living crisis? Whatever the attraction, tables at bouillons such as Chartier are becoming more and more coveted, and I was intrigued to find out why.

Dining at Chartier: The Experience 

The entrance to Bouillon Chartier restaurant in Paris/courtesy of same
Image courtesy of Bouillon Chartier

Given its popularity with tourists, and for fear of appearing too provincial, I was slightly hesitant to ask my Parisian friend to join me for dinner at Chartier. I needn’t have worried: firstly, I’m not fooling anyone and secondly, she responded enthusiastically to my invite, declaring that she “loves” Chartier – which, for an aloof Parisan, is no small thing. 

We  planned to meet at 8pm on Saturday evening (Chartier doesn’t take bookings) and were subsequently confronted by an enormous queue which, owing to strikes at the  time, stood adjacent to a mound of garbage and overspilling bins. 

My friend batted away my suggestion that we should come back another evening, assuring me that queuing was all part of the bouillon experience. Just as I started to grumble about things feeling a bit Disneyland-ish, I clocked that Chartier was selling one-euro vin chaud and sangria in paper cups, all in an attempt to keep us sweet. 

Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

It worked. Suddenly the line becomes a convivial hotspot of people-watching and gossip, and our anticipation grew the closer we got to the entry. We waited for roughly an hour, but I have seen far shorter lines there on a weekday.

The Ambience  

Having previously read about the Belle Epoque-inspired decor that grace typical bouillon restaurants, I was anticipating something rather gaudy. But just as I was wrong in assuming that Parisians don’t frequent bouillons, I was genuinely taken aback by the beauty of the Chartier Grands Boulevards . 

Photo courtesy of Bouillon Chartier Grands Boulevards, Paris
Photo courtesy of Bouillon Chartier

The dining room is vast, with sweeping high ceilings, handsome wood and brass elements, wall carvings, and countless mirrors lining the walls that give the illusion of an even larger space. The noise is quite something (I hear many different accents and languages, but the majority were indeed French) and the energy here is palpable. 

{Related: The Best Traditional Parisian Brasseries}

Waiters in bowties rush about with silver platters, groups delight in embarrassing their friends by singing bon anniversaire (Happy Birthday) at the top of their voices (less fun the third time this happens), glasses are clinked and the air smells of fresh frites – in a good way. It’s wonderfully over-stimulating, and enjoyably camp.

The Food and the Service 

Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

The bouillon business model is intrinsically linked to speedy service, but even so, the turnaround between our being handed the menus and receiving starters was dizzying – surely no longer than five minutes. And as is custom at Chartier, the server scrawled our orders directly on the decidedly unfussy paper tablecloths. If you dread Parisian formality, this place isn’t exactly starchy . 

Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

My friend opted for the avocat sauce crevettes with its unashamedly ’70s vibe (half an avocado, filled with a baby pink prawn sauce) and I ordered the céléri rémoulade. Both were tasty enough: simple, light and carefully prepared (the celeriac finely julienned and well-seasoned with mustard and lemon). This was an ideal way to start a meal. 

Other entrée (starter) options on the menu were similarly traditional and unfussy: leek vinaigrette, snails, egg mayonnaise, Rosette de Lyon sausage and, as one expects of a bouillon, all very reasonably priced. The remoulade was €2.70; the avocado €4.10. The most expensive entree were the 15 snails, which cost exactly 15€.

{Please note that these prices and menu options were accurate at the time of writing, but are likely to change; see the Chartier menu for up-to-date info}.

Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

Part of the pleasure of ordering involved excitedly noting how cheap things were (certainly for a formal sit down meal in Paris), and most of our conversation was spent discussing how much our plates would have set us back in neighboring brasseries. 

As a vegetarian, I have sometimes approached writing about food in France with a degree of apology – the fault lies in me if I have limited choices; French food culture has always been meat-centered etc. But while I respect that culture and recognize that bouillons are synonymous with traditional French fare, I’m finding it increasingly hard to justify poor vegetarian options in the capital.

My friend agrees: although not veggie, she’s one of the many Parisians now trying to eat less meat. And so my heart sank when I saw that the only main dish available for non-meat eaters was the ubiquitous spaghetti aux legumes (spaghetti with vegetables), which feels less like an afterthought, and more like a deliberate provocation.

Pasta itself tends to be a bad idea in France (unless you’re dining at a good Italian eatery), often having been way overcooked. This spaghetti is stodgy, the accompanying veggies are limp, and I was left feeling jealous of everyone else’s food. We’re back in 2007, when it comes to adequate choices for non-meat eaters . 

A pasta dish at Bouillon Chartier in Paris/Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved
Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

While it’s unfair to condemn a restaurant on the basis of one dish alone (and I won’t), nowhere – not even a 127-year-old establishment – is above serving a good selection of well-thought-out vegetarian dishes. If Ducasse can embrace veganism, Chartier can cater better to diners who don’t eat meat, or wish to cut back on it.

{Related: Our Picks for Vegetarian & Vegan-Friendly Restaurants in Paris}

My friend’s poulet rôti-frites (roasted chicken with French fries) is, inevitably, better than my own uninspired main dish. I try a chip and they’re good: hot, fresh, and salty. She tells me the chicken is a tad dry and that she’s had better at the nearby Bouillon République.

We agree that the couple next to us, who are feasting on boeuf bourguignon aux coquillettes (the tiny shell pasta, I’m told, being more traditionally served in France with Beef Bourguignon, rather than potato), are enjoying a meal that looks and smells far more enticing. 

Roast chicken and french fries at Bouillon Chartier/Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved
Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

As we watch the waiters buzz around, barely taking a breath, we ponder whether they’re stretched too thinly. The super-speedy service might all be part of what makes Chartier Chartier, but after we finish our main courses it feels that the theatre might be at the expense of attention to detail. 

Like the starters, the plats (main courses) are extremely cheap. The veggie dish is the cheapest (the best thing about the dish) and the most expensive on the menu is the Pièce du boucher sauce poivre avec frites (beef steak with pepper sauce and fries), at €13.20. We enjoy a functional carafe of Merlot for €4.90 – not far off what you’d pay in a supermarket – and I fleetingly wonder what might be sacrificed to allow the bouillon to sustain these low prices.

Et maintenant, le dessert…

Chocolate profiterole at Bouillon Chartier/Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved
Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

Then the desserts appear, and cheer me up. I remember why I asked this particular friend out for dinner, and why we became friends in the first place. In that very French way of not doing things by halves when it comes to sweets (sugar-free ice-cream, bah non!) she insists on ordering three desserts. I don’t hesitate, and promptly request Riz au Lait, Crème au caramel, and – Chartier’s crown jewel – the chocolate profiterole.

They arrive in seconds which, from a tactical eating point of view, was ideal. I barely had time to register how full I was from the over-cooked pasta before tackling the desserts.

Our game plan was to approach the trio of desserts as we would a cheese selection, starting with the mildest of the three (the Riz au Lait) so as not to sully our palates. It’s not overly sugary or vanilla-y and, though creamy, the rice isn’t over cooked: we return for mouthfuls as a palate cleanser for our other desserts.

The Crème au caramel is much sweeter and a tad overset, but there’s a slight bitterness to the caramel layer on top that cuts through the whole thing quite pleasingly . 

The richest of desserts we save for last – and it’s worth the wait. As a dish, it has the energy of something served at a six-year-old’s birthday party: fraught with sugar and upon finishing it you’ll feel it’s time for a lie-down. Made  of only a handful of quality ingredients – dark chocolate, vanilla ice cream, crispy choux pastry and slithers of almond – the profiterole is pure decadence, done well. 

Photo by Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

We polish off the sweet treats with a digestif of cognac, order the bill, and marvel at the fact that three courses plus wine and an aperitif have set up back just over 20 euros each (€24.15, to be precise).

My Bottom Line  

Dinner at Chartier isn’t a relaxed affair; nor is the food groundbreaking. It’s not the sort of restaurant you go to to linger over a meal – I joke that part of the reason the cognac and other digestifs were priced relatively highly (€4 each) was because we did hang around.  We finished our desserts at 9:30 pm and, given that the restaurant stays open until midnight, they very clearly wanted to squeeze in another two sittings.

But, as with braving the lines, once you accept that this is part of the bouillon experience you tend to embrace the hustle and bustle. And, despite the rushing, all the waiters were charming and attentive – impressive, considering the sheer number of covers they need to serve. For a group gathering, a birthday celebration, or simply to enjoy the fabulous decor, I wouldn’t hesitate to return –I just might order four desserts and skip the pasta. 

Chartier Grands Boulevards: Location & Practical Info

  • Address: 7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris
  • Metro: Grands Boulevards or Bonne Nouvelle
  • Tel.: +33 (0)147708629
  • Visit the official website for current menu options & prices (in English)

 

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