In 19th century France, the industrial revolution was in full swing, drawing throngs of new mouths to feed to the cities. Lyon already had its Bouchons and Lille its Estaminets. Now, Paris was getting its Bouillons, working class eateries serving humble but hearty, and most importantly, cheap fare.
Fast Food In An Other Era
The first Bouillon (broth, or stew in this context) appeared in 1855 in Les Halles, the bustling wholesale food market in the center of Paris, when an ingenious butcher, Pierre Louis Duval, devised a way to dispose of his least desirable cuts of meat. He started proposing a filling dish of meaty stew to the workers who labored through the night, unloading the wagons that delivered foodstuff from the far reaches of the country. The concept caught on and began expanding to full-menu poor man’s brasseries with multiple locations across the city. By 1900, there were over two hundred Bouillons throughout Paris. They had become the fast food chains of the Belle Epoque.
The Bouillon Bandwagon
In 1896, the brothers Camille and Edouard Chartier got on the bandwagon, opening their Bouillon Chartier in a former train station concourse of the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre on the northern side of Paris. The long Art Nouveau dining hall with its high metal columns holding the opaque glass ceiling, wall-size mirrors set in the swirling woodwork and extensive menu of affordable dishes, quickly became a popular local hang out.
Boosted by the success of this first venture, the brothers opened a second venue on the Left Bank’s Boulevard Montparnasse in 1903. Here they pulled all the stops, fully embracing the Art Nouveau craze unleashed by the Paris World Fairs of 1878, 1889 and 1900. They commissioned Parisian ceramist, stained glass designer and decorator Louis Trézel to create a trendy environment for their crowd-pleasing menu.
Alas, as fast as the Bouillons had prospered in the optimistic decades of the Belle Epoque, they faded in the aftermath of the First War War. By the 1930’s they had all but disappeared from the Paris dining scene.
The Unsinkable Bouillon Chartier
One notable survivor is the original Chartier. Having managed to endure through both World Wars, its popularity has kept on growing ever since, although with a different clientele. These days, it’s tourists from all over the world who flock to the faded Art Nouveau dining room of the Faubourg Montmartre to experience such retro-French dishes as poireaux (leek) vinaigrette, escargots, andouillette grillée (chitterling sausage), or for the less adventurous, confit de canard (duck confit) and blanquette de veau (veal stew) at prices of a bygone era.
Then this past January, the denizens of the Left Bank were pleased to see that almost a century after its demise, the Bouillion Chartier Montparnasse had been resurrected. Sold in 1924, the restaurant had gone through a couple of different identities since then. However, it had managed to maintain its stunning original décor: delicately painted glass ceiling, mirrors set into the elegant curves of the woodwork and dainty garlands of morning glories climbing up the ceramic- tiled walls. The décor alone would warrant a visit.
Retro Food is New Again
But the menu is just as authentic as the venue. With a friend who lives nearby, I popped in for mid-afternoon late lunch/early dinner on my most recent stop in Paris. We deliberately timed our visit to avoid the long line that reliably forms in front of the place at conventional meal times (sorry, no reservations. But with seating for almost 200, the line does move fast).
A cheerful young waiter wrapped in the traditional white apron writes down our order in a corner of the paper tablecloth. I start with frisée aux lardons, a salad of crisp curly endive topped with lots of sautéed bacon cubes and croutons (€4 – that’s $4.5 at current exchange rate). My friend chooses the block de foie gras, three generous slices of the famed duck liver paté served with toast points (€7.5 = $8.80). Main course is confit de canard with roasted grenaille potatoes for her (€10.60 = $12) and pied de porc grillé (grilled pig’s trotter) with french fries for me (€10.50 = $11.75) – no apology for my seriously retro choice. My grandfather loved it and I acquired the taste at an early age. Dessert is crème au caramel for her (that’s crème brulée in the U.S. €3.00 = $3.40). The caramelized top is crusted just right. As for my baba au rhum (€4.60 = $5.00), another one of my nostalgic guilty pleasures, the sweet light brioche is sufficiently soaked in rum syrup that it might require proof of age in a U.S. restaurant. A winner in my book.
The Net of It
Don’t go to Chartier expecting a haute cuisine extravaganza. But if you yearn for, or are curious about the comfort food once concocted by thrifty French grandmothers at a price that will not ravage your travel budget, this is definitely the place. Add two espressos and a half-liter carafe of Merlot, and our dinner for two in a priceless Belle Epoque setting barely topped fifty-five dollars U.S., including tip, which is by law included in the tab in France. The service was prompt and good humored on the day of our visit, and a quick glance around the room showed the clientele to be evenly distributed between locals and tourists. For Parisians, retro-food is trendy again, and the newly open Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse is once again one of the neighborhood go-to places – and now mine whenever I happen to be in town.
Good to Know
- Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse, 59 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris is open daily from 11:30 am to midnight. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 1 45 49 19 00. No reservations.
- Both Bouillon Chartier locations are listed historical monuments.