Overlooked for decades as French diners sought ever more outlandish haute cuisine, ‘bouillons’ are enjoying a revival. So what is so special about these bustling restaurants that serve simple homely food? We pull up a chair and take a bite.
Bouillons predate the invention of the modern restaurant in the late 18th century – and the archaic venues are on the up again in Paris. Often set up next to butchers’ shops, they were originally stalls that served soup based on a stock made from offcuts and bones. As restaurants diversified throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries – with some serving haute cuisine and others becoming brasseries or bistros – bouillons became popular everyday canteens. These vast, noisy, bustling places served simple, inexpensive food to everyone from Édith Piaf to the workmen digging the Métro. Between 1850 and 1950 there were hundreds in Paris and other French cities. Many were operated as chains – the original fast-food joints – reaping the benefits of economies of scale and speedy service. And today they’re back.
Ten years ago only Chartier, in the 9th arrondissement, remained. As cavernous as a railway station, with nicotine-stained walls, brass luggage racks above the tables and tables cheek by jowl, it was a place where waiters in black waistcoats scribbled orders on paper tablecloths. The food was unremarkable but notable for its adherence to old-fashioned dishes, which included carrotes rapées, frisée salad with lardons, snails, Toulouse sausage with puréed potatoes and roast chicken with chips. It was a breath of fresh air when so many places had succumbed to trends: square plates, balsamic drizzles and burgers. Chartier was a throwback, a visit to a different century, as welcoming to Japanese tourists in search of authentic Paris as it was to students living in the quarter. It was the kind of place where the food didn’t really matter; there were plenty of other things to talk about.
Christophe Joulie and his father, who own more than a dozen restaurants in Paris, bought Chartier in 2007. “Everyone expected us to turn it into a brasserie,” says Joulie. For decades bouillons had been gradually upgraded and restyled from their humble roots into more upscale places. But Joulie and his father upped the ante, sped up the service and managed to get five seatings at a table a day rather than two. “We saved the bouillon,” he says. “The bouillon is part of our patrimony.” Chartier grew in popularity so much that there was a queue outside the door every lunchtime.
Then, in 2017, a rival, Bouillon Pigalle, opened in the city’s red-light district. Bouillon Pigalle respects the tropes – waiters in waistcoats, long banquettes – but the decor is clean and crisp: racing stripe red and white. There are racks overhead but the hip Parisian crowd are more likely to stow motorcycle helmets or tote bags than a valise.
“We wanted to go back to the food of our grandmothers,” says Bouillon Pigalle director Jean-Christophe Le Hô. The menu is nostalgic and homely: bone marrow and toast, tête de veau, navarin of lamb, blanquette de veau. Its chef recently won the prize awarded by the Association de Sauvegarde de L’Oeuf Mayonnaise (really) for the world’s best egg mayonnaise. The plates – modern and red-rimmed – arrive in droves as groups order several starters to share, tapas-style.
Most of the main dishes at Bouillon Pigalle cost less than €10; a typical meal for one, including wine, can be covered by a €20 note. It was an instant hit when it opened and today a queue still stretches past the McDonald’s next door. Le Hô says that the older people who dine here often thank him for bringing back dishes that have otherwise disappeared from restaurant menus. “This was the bourguignon we had when we were kids,” they say. On Wednesday afternoons, when schools finish early, parents bring their children here – and in the evenings, young people celebrate birthdays. “Tables compete with each other to sing loudest,” says Le Hô.
When we visit we’re surrounded by a group, spread over several tables, celebrating a birthday. As the lights dim and the waiters bring out profiteroles with candles in them, strains of “Happy Birthday” fill the room. “Thierry!” shouts one customer as a latecomer arrives, trying to make themselves heard above the din. Thierry then holds out his arms as if to hug everyone there. Café chairs are shuffled, room is made; young women at an adjacent table wave before Thierry bows and takes his seat.
Bouillon Pigalle has the kind of noisy atmosphere that encourages people to talk to their fellow diners; it’s the sort of place where a guest might send over a bottle of wine if someone is noticeably celebrating an anniversary. It’s also egalitarian: the menu is printed in nine languages. Once the restaurant even hosted a wedding reception for 60 people. The party didn’t reserve tables, Le Hô tells us; instead they warned the restaurant in advance before showing up at 18.00, when there would definitely be room. Le Hô tells me that he once saw a man and woman on adjacent tables meet, flirt, leave together and then return to the restaurant as a couple a few days later.
The height of the bouillon movement came in the early 20th century. After the Second World War, the establishments gained a reputation for being a bit down at heel; tastes changed and all but Chartier turned to fancier fare. Now they are being turned back to bouillons again. For decades Julien on the Faubourg St Denis was an embarrassment; the extraordinary soaring art nouveau space was almost devoid of diners. It served plain steaks garnished with a 1970s-style tomato carved into a rose. Now under a new owner, it has been restored to its bouillon beginnings and, once again, it’s doing a roaring trade. British designer John Whelan made his name updating the interiors of classic French brasseries. He says that when they scraped back more than a century of paint, they found the original shade. “It was this incredible bright sea-green,” he says. “This really gave us the faux legitimacy, if you like, to repaint the restaurant that colour.”
Bouillon Julien’s interiors are enchanting: nymphs and goddesses appear to hold up the high ceiling of green stained glass, the floor is covered with daisy-patterned tiles, mirrored walls reflect each other and globe lights glow like miniature moons. So why were these cheap restaurants so opulently decorated? “In 1906, when Julien was opened, entertainment was the theatre and dining,” says Whelan. “That’s why you see these extravagant interiors in theatres, brasseries and bouillons. They were like the Hollywood blockbusters of their day.”
The renewed popularity of the bouillon is growing. Joulie has turned a brasserie in Montparnasse, that was once a bouillon, back to its roots – and the team behind Bouillon Pigalle are planning to open another space in République. There are now also bouillons in Toulouse and Strasbourg, and even a joint venture between a Frenchman and a Czech in Prague called Le Petit Bouillon – a name that belies its size and grandeur.
For Whelan the reasons for the success of Bouillon Julien are obvious. “It’s popular because of the beauty of the place and, of course, because of the price point,” he says. “People come for family occasions because it feels grand and civilised and the young people come because they can afford it. There’s a democratic vibe.”
After decades of restaurants climbing higher and higher into the stratosphere of foamy, fussy haute cuisine, neighbourhood bistros have closed and the resurgence of the bouillon can be read as a down-to-earth reaction. Ask a French restaurateur what makes a good restaurant and they’ll mention the ambience. In the rush to appease trends – fermented and foraged innovation, Asian flavours, clean eating – some have forgotten what the French always knew: the purpose of restaurants is less about the food and more about congregation, congress and company. Cheap and cheerful is the new fine dining.