Eggs with mayonnaise, onion soup, sausage and mash… these simple dishes have been behind long queues on Paris pavements in recent months.
It is all down to the rebirth of a Paris institution: the bouillon.
Almost 250 bouillons in Paris in early 1900’s
The promise is a hearty, traditional meal at low prices. The concept dates back to 1855, when butcher Pierre-Louis Duval had the idea of offering cheap meat cooked in a broth (hence the name bouillon) to market workers at Les Halles in Paris.
Duval went on to open 30 bouillons, based on soup and other simple dishes using cheap meat and vegetables.
The term became most synonymous with brothers Frédéric and Camille Chartier, who opened the first Bouillon Chartier in 1896 in the Grands Boulevards neighbourhood.
In the early 1900s, there were almost 250 bouillons in Paris, of which approximately 10 belonged to the Chartier brothers.
More refined brasseries took over
“They were the McDonald’s of the time,” said Luc Morand, owner of Bouillon Racine, referring to the cheap prices and modest clientele.
“In the 1860s and 70s, with Haussmann, the city expanded, and the number of bouillons exploded.
“Around 1900, there is the Art Nouveau movement, and you have Racine and a whole series of bouillons with Art Nouveau decor.
“After World War One, Art Nouveau became has-been.”
It was also around this time that brasseries were growing in popularity.
“They were slightly more refined. Bouillons were really canteen-style, with large tables.
“You were put right next to your neighbours, and the goal was to get you to eat and free up the table as quickly as possible.”
He gives the example of Bouillon Julien, which dates back to 1906, to explain how trends have evolved.
“It was a bouillon, but it became a brasserie, then an upscale brasserie, and now it’s a bouillon again.”
Only one true bouillon left 15 years ago
Bouillon Racine was created by the Chartier brothers in 1906.
It was taken over by the Sorbonne in the 1960s as a staff canteen, but by the 1990s it had fallen into disrepair and closed.
In 1995 it was bought by Belgian brewers who renovated the site, obtained historic monument listing, and reopened to the public.
Today, it is a classic restaurant rather than a bouillon.
Fifteen years ago, Bouillon Chartier at Grands Boulevards was the last true bouillon standing.
Christophe Joulie, who runs Paris’s three Chartier locations, said: “If my father and I hadn’t taken it over in 2007, nobody would be talking about bouillons today.”
These include a historic bouillon in Montparnasse, which reopened in 2019, and a completely new one at Gare de l’Est, created in 2021.
High volumes mean lower prices
“Our idea was for somewhere you could eat for less than €20 and in under 30 minutes, to be able to compete with fast food restaurants.”
Twenty euros is the average price of a meal. Starters begin at €1 for the soup of the day, and mains at €7 for frankfurter and chips, with pot-au-feu costing €11.50. For dessert, a crème caramel will set you back €3.20.
While Mr Joulie says the prices are partly down to knowing which ingredients to buy, the business model also requires high volumes.
At Grands Boulevards, it is impossible to reserve a table, and they do 1,800 covers a day.
Clients range from Parisian business-people to students and tourists.
‘Some new bouillons are opportunist’
The concept has now also spread outside the capital: bouillons have opened in Lille, Lyon, Dijon and Bayonne over the past few years.
Mr Joulie remains sceptical of those he sees as seizing on the success of Chartier.
Among the new bouillons, some are priced like a restaurant and lack a large, open space.
“If you have 50 seats, for me it’s a bistro. It creates confusion. A bouillon is about the ambiance, movement, lots of people and noise, shared tables.
“At the beginning, nobody believed in the product. Today, certain people are doing it out of opportunism.”
Alternative to fast food chains
Mr Morand said he could understand the growing popularity of bouillons.
“In France, we don’t really have a culture of high-quality cheap food. That is why McDonald’s was able to develop, and why there are lots of pizzerias.
“There were brasseries, but they often served food that was not very good and more expensive than a McDonald’s.”
He has particularly noticed interest among young adults.
“I’ve been here for 20 years. For a long time, nobody knew what a bouillon was. Then some smart people opened Bouillon Pigalle. They got great press, and brought the term bouillon back in fashion.”
Bouillon Pigalle opened in 2017, and proved such a hit with a new generation that the owners soon opened a second restaurant at République.
Mr Morand has no intention of riding the wave and transforming his restaurant back into a bouillon.
“That would mean increasing the number of tables by 50 or 100%, and doing everything much more quickly. It is not the same profession, the same cuisine, or the same waiters.”
Regional restaurant styles
Other parts of France have their own traditional settings, such as the winstub in Alsace or, perhaps most famously, the bouchons found in Lyon.
According to the Michelin Guide, a bouchon is where you come to enjoy “regional wines and local cuisine, fish quenelles, tablier de sapeur, tête de veau ravigote [..] The menu changes every century”.
A bouchon is usually on the smaller side, with tables pushed close together, red and white tablecloths, and a bar. Everything is carefully designed to create a welcoming and convivial atmosphere.
Any restaurant can call itself a bouchon lyonnais, but to help people find authentic eating places, an association of restaurateurs partnered with the local chamber of commerce in 2012 to create the Bouchons Lyonnais label.
Certified restaurants can be found at lesbouchonslyonnais.org