Paris Then & Now: The Bouillons of Paris

There are many cool restaurants in Paris with seasonal menus, understated decor and hushed dining rooms.

A bouillon is not that kind of place.

Instead, a bouillon is an eatery that harkens back to another era of Parisian dining—when the menu never changed, the service was snappy and the dining room was big, loud and convivial; a time before open kitchens, when the diners, not the chefs, were the stars of the show.

Step into any one of the numerous bouillons in Paris and you'll be transported back in time. Here's what you need to know about these classic eateries.

Photo credit: Michel wal, Text Overlay: Devour Paris Food Tours

Getting to know a classic

I first went to a bouillon on a whim, back in my université days. One of my classmates, Thea, and I were wandering around the 9th arrondissement when we suddenly realized we were very hungry. And because I’m opportunistically hypoglycemic, that hunger quickly turned to hanger.

Thea had heard from a friend that an old-school place called Bouillon Chartier was a must-try. “Big, traditional plates and great prices,” was how she described it to me. It was nearing the end of typical lunch service time, so we didn’t have time to dawdle. I was sold.

When we arrived to Bouillon Chartier to find a line creeping out of the door, I cursed myself for agreeing to such a popular establishment.

“It should go fast,” Thea assured me.

And it did. Within 20 minutes we were seated, and I excitedly scanned the long menu, with a huge variety of dishes and unheard-of prices. I didn’t think it was possible to find appetizers for two euros or less in Paris—but here they were, and a generous selection of them.

We ordered a handful of dishes and a carafe of the house red wine. For dessert, we split a spongy, brioche-like cake soaked in rum and piled high with fresh whipped cream—baba au rhum.

By the time I asked for l’addition and the waiter scribbled our bill on the paper table cloth, I was slightly buzzed and completely charmed. It was a restaurant unlike any other I had tried. And, as I later learned, little has changed since the opening of this 19th-century institution.

Bouillon Chartier is one example of the Paris bouillons that have withstood the test of time.
Bouillon Chartier during the characteristic mealtime rush. Photo credit: Jayfredem

The bouillon origin story

The original bouillon dates back to 1860, when a Parisian butcher with high-end clientele decided to open a casual eatery to make use of unsold cuts of meat. It was meant to be a place where workers could eat a hot, satisfying meal at a good price. The menu featured traditional dishes like hochepot de boeuf, served in broth, or bouillon—from which the establishment got its name.

With the success of the first bouillon, several more opened throughout Paris. At one point, there were nearly 250 bouillons across Paris. But over the years, one by one, most of them shuttered—until recently, when they’ve started experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Bouillons in Paris take their name from the meat-based broth.
The hearty, flavorful broth known as bouillon is what gave these classic establishments their name. Photo credit: Marco Verch

Bouillons in Paris today

The most famous, the aforementioned Bouillon Chartier, recently opened a second location, across the Seine in the Montparnasse neighborhood. And in Pigalle, a pair of youngish restaurateurs opened a slightly modernized version, Bouillon Pigalle. While the presentations here might be a touch more polished, the menu stays true to the original bouillons—and the prices remain refreshingly cheap, too. Lucky for us, they’re opening another outpost near Place de la République later in 2019.

One of the more modern bouillons in Paris is Bouillon Pigalle.
Bouillon Pigalle is a modern take on the classic Parisian establishment. Photo credit: Thomon

What to expect at a bouillon

A typical bouillon meal might begin with a classic starter, like oeufs mayonnaise (eggs hard boiled, sliced and served with a pile of dijon-y mayonnaise) or escargots swimming in butter, garlic and parsley.

The second course options show clear favoritism toward meat eaters, with a handful of hardy options like grilled rumsteak, lamb chops, steak tartare and tête de veau (veal head—but doesn’t it sound better in French?).

Still, there is plenty of fun to be had by vegetarians and pescatarians, from roasted bass in fennel sauce and cauliflower gratin to a slew of tasty sides like green beans à l’anglaise and mushrooms à la provençale. Plus, you can never go wrong with a plate of skinny, crispy pommes frites (french fries).

To round off your meal, the dessert menu offers uncomplicated sweets like wine-simmered prunes with vanilla ice cream and roasted apples with pralines—all in the €2–4 range, so you may as well. My most recent bouillon dinner ended with a mound of fresh whipped cream (€2.50)—simple, yes, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Next time you’re in Paris, a meal at a bouillon is a must. Think of it as a taste of Parisian history—on the cheap. There may be a line, but trust me, it’ll be well worth the wait.

Want to discover the secrets of French cuisine like a born-and-bred Parisian? Our Ultimate Paris Food Tour is calling your name. You’ll do so much more than eat—you’ll learn about why each bite has won the hearts of Parisians from all walks of life, and meet the proud families who work tirelessly to keep tradition alive. Come hungry!

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