Dunkirk in the very north of France has welcomed its first ‘bouillon’ restaurant as the trend for the traditional low-cost fare continues to spread across the country.
A ‘bouillon’ is the “ancestor of the Paris bistro,” said Jason Groux, head of new restaurant Le Petit Montmartre, to BFMTV. “[It’s where you can] eat simple cuisine…that we could have found on our grandmothers’ plates.”
Around 15 years ago, there was only one of these restaurants left in the whole of Paris. Now, there are only about 100 across France and 25 in Paris alone.
But, despite the inspiration for the restaurant coming from Paris, the Dunkirk restaurant has not forgotten its roots. The staff are all from the coastal city, and trained locally. Moreover, the restaurant, which was previously a restaurant cabaret, will continue to host dinner shows on the weekends.
Open continuously from 11:00 to 23:00, it was busy on its first day, the manager said, and has continued to attract customers.
One spoke approvingly of the “low prices, great atmosphere and traditional food”, when interviewed by BFMTV, all of which are the calling cards of the traditional bouillon restaurant.
The first bouillons
The concept of the bouillon restaurant dates to 1855 when butcher Pierre-Louis Duval had the idea of offering cheap meat cooked in a broth (hence the name ‘bouillon’ linked to the French word for ‘to boil’) to market workers at Les Halles in Paris.
The term later 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.
The restaurants started to fall out of popularity after World War One, when their Art Nouveau style fell out of fashion and slightly more refined brasseries started to grow in popularity.
To quote Luc Morand, owner of Bouillon Racine in Paris: “[Brasseries are] 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.”
Only one left 15 years ago
Bouillon Chartier at Grands Boulevards was considered to be the last true bouillon standing, 15 years ago.
Christophe Joulie, who now runs Paris’s three Chartier locations, said: “If my father and I hadn’t taken it [the business] over in 2007, nobody would be talking about bouillons today.”
The business’ sites now include a historic bouillon in Montparnasse, which reopened in 2019; and a completely new one at Gare de l’Est, created in 2021.
A meal costs €20 on average, with starters beginning at €1 for the soup of the day, main courses at €7 for frankfurter and chips, and pot-au-feu at €11.50. For dessert, a crème caramel will set you back €3.20.
While Mr Joulie says the low 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 professionals to students and tourists.
Bouillons have spread from Paris
More bouillons have also opened outside of Paris in recent years, with ones now operating in Lyon, Lille, Metz, Grenoble, Orléans, Dijon, Tours, and Deauville.
Such is the style’s growing popularity, that leading figures in the culinary world are joining in.
Thierry Marx, head of the Madame Brasserie restaurant on the first level of the Eiffel Tower, is set to open his own ‘bouillon-style’ restaurant in Saint-Ouen, in the northern Paris suburbs, in 2024, reports French newspaper Le Figaro.
Mr Morand, owner of Bouillon Racine in Paris, said he could understand the restaurant style’s growing resurgence.
“In France, we don’t really have a culture of high-quality cheap food,” he said. “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 in bouillons among young adults.
“I’ve been here for 20 years. For a long time, nobody knew what a bouillon was,” he said. “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 in République.