Why Paris’ Old School Bouillons Are Back in Business

Why Paris’ Old School Bouillons Are Back in Business

Forget bistros and brasseries: Paris’ new haute spots are the old-school bouillons serving cheap, traditional fare that’s worth the wait times. Lucas Oakeley joins the queue.

weather in Montmartre is warm, but not roasting – it’s a
“wear a T-shirt and maybe bring an extra layer just in case” kind
of day. Despite all the Gallic sunbeams and the chirpy cerulean
sky, a large huddle of people on the street are getting tetchy.
They’re checking the freckles on their wrists for where their
watches should be and tutting loudly to let everyone around them
know that they are, in fact, rather cheesed off. Others in the
swarm are standing, arms folded, with more resigned expressions of
acceptance on their face. “At least it’s moving fast,” says one
man, evidently hungry for steak haché and freshly fried frites.
That man is me. I’ve taken the Eurostar to Paris to join the queue.

The line is about 25-people deep and, although my partner and I
have been waiting for 30 minutes already, we’ve made a promise that
we’re not going to leave until we’ve had a long lunch filled with
cheap wine and even cheaper laughter. A little bit of patience is
nearly always required when you’re looking to get a table for lunch
in a food-obsessed city like Paris. But the restaurant we’re
queuing for isn’t a brand-new swanky bistro, a hot natural wine and
small plates spot, or an upmarket brasserie opened by a big-name
chef: it’s a bouillon.

The wood-heavy dining room of Bouillon Pigalle in Paris, France
A steak and frites on offer at Bouillon Pigalle in Paris

Tables at Bouillon Pigalle, and the restaurant’s steak
frites. | Photo credit: The Travel Buds Studio

You’ll likely recognise a “bouillon” as being one of those
delicious cubes of concentrated flavour that you revive with hot
water and throw into risotto. The word in this instance, though,
refers to a traditional style of French eatery where that titular
broth is served up alongside a selection of other humble eats. The
concept was dreamt up to provide blue-collar workers with quality
food at an affordable price, offering a simple menu of bread, beef,
bouillon and wine that was served to customers at a breakneck
speed. The price and pacing of a meal at a bouillon meant that just
about everyone could afford to spend their time and money there
during their lunch hour. According to food historian Jim
Chevallier, it seems “most likely” that the first bouillons
existed from 1838 to 1855. Aimed at appealing
to the masses and fitting in as many punters during service as
humanly possible, it’s a model that proved both profitable and
popular for many years after. Sources claim that as many as 250 bouillons
could be found in Paris at their peak, around 1900.

Although they were once hugely popular – and were in many ways
the world’s first successful chain restaurants and a predecessor of
the globalised fast-food franchises we know today – the bouillons
eventually found themselves replaced in France by sexier bistros
and brasseries. A hearty portion of pot-au-feu was suddenly
considered too basic or provincial for a lunch or dinner. Parisian
gourmands, and a growing French middle class, found the concept of
communal dining to be passé and began to demand more glitz and
glamour from their restaurants. It’s notable, in that respect, how
the UK is home to various self-styled bistros and brasseries but
not many (if any) bouillons. Having weathered that fallow period,
however, the bouillon and canteen-style dining in general have made
a roaring return to the consciousness of diners in recent

The soup was sweet, rich and topped with a heavy toupee of melted cheese

Brothers Pierre and Guillaume Moussié are the men responsible
for opening Bouillon Pigalle and ‎Bouillon République – two
restaurants leading the way in the bouillon renaissance. Knowingly
styled after its namesake but done so with an added splash of
panache, Bouillon Pigalle opened in 2017 to great critical and
commercial acclaim. République, on the other hand, is still
relatively box-fresh, following its opening in Autumn 2021. It was
Bouillon Pigalle that I found myself plonked out front of for over
half an hour, waiting for a meal that I was praying would be worth
it. Spoiler alert: it was.

We started with a bowl of soupe à l’oignon and an accompanying
country-style terrine with toast and cornichons. The soup, as
expected, tasted like the purest essence of onion. Reduced down to
an almost treacly consistency, it was sweet, rich and topped with a
heavy toupee of melted cheese. The terrine, studded with gloriously
gelatinous and miscellaneous chunks of meat, was just as luxurious
and rustic. Both plates helped to set the tone for the hefty
portion of saucisse au couteau with potato purée that followed. Had
we ordered too heavily for a hot, spring day? Absolutely. But it
all tasted so good that we had no choice but to keep eating and
push on through to the restaurant’s star dessert: a profiterole
split down the middle and stuffed with vanilla ice cream. Lathered
in an almost bitter chocolate sauce, that dish tied the bow on a
hearty meal that tidily summed up what bouillons are all about.

Exterior of Bouillon Republique, Paris, France
Onion soup from Paris' Bouillon Republique

The ornate exterior of Bouillon République, and a bowl of
soupe à l’oignon. | Photo credit: The Travel Buds Studio

It’s the heart and soul that has been injected into both Pigalle
and République that prevents them from existing in the same
gentrified sphere as a hipster revival of, say, a pie and mash
shop. The price point helps, too. Both of the Moussié brothers’
restaurants specialise in affable French food served at a
budget-friendly price from noon until midnight. That means oeufs
mayonnaise for around £1.90, steak frites for £10 and a slice of
tarte citron for £3.35. To get access to that standard of cooking
in a similarly food-centric city like London or Copenhagen, you’d
probably have to pay twice as much for the trouble. More than just
the price of the food, though, it’s the quality of the dishes and
the scale and speed at which the chefs crank them out like
clockwork that makes a meal in a bouillon so impressive.

Pigalle has 300 covers; République, 450. Neither restaurant
takes bookings, yet there’s nearly always a line anaconda-ing
outside both at all times of the day. They’re also, I should note,
far from the only bouillons in Paris today. As well as the newer
kids on the block, there are also older establishments like
, near Strasbourg Saint-Denis, and Bouillon
, in Montmartre.

The latter was founded in 1896 as a workers’ cafeteria and is
still open 365 days a year, having been given a quick lick of
paint, a grander interior and a somewhat more up-to-date menu since
its opening. Chartier’s simple approach has proven such a hit that
in 2019 they opened a second restaurant, in the Montparnasse area
of Paris and, in April of 2022, a third, opposite the Gare de
l’Est. All Bouillon Chartier outposts employ the same no-bookings
system as the Moussié brothers’ bouillons, and boast equally
impressive queues that move quickly thanks to the efficient service
you receive once you’re inside.

Dessert at Bouillion Pigalle in Paris, France

A trio of desserts at Bouillon Pigalle. | Photo
credit: The Travel Buds Studio

You won’t ever feel hurried during your meal at Bouillon
Chartier, but you’ll always be well aware that the staff are not
mucking around. Get in, eat well, drink the house wine and get out.
The bill will even be scribbled in biro right on the paper
tablecloth in front of you. It’s a rinse-and-repeat formula that
works in the restaurants’ favour and means that tables are turned
at an impressive clip. It’s a bit like dining in a school canteen.
Except, of course, that the colour of the room isn’t depressingly
grey, there’s no danger of someone calling you a loser for doing
your history homework and you’re far more likely to spy a calf’s
head in sauce gribiche on the menu.

They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but – having spent the
past couple of lonely, pandemic-addled years craving the rush of a
packed restaurant where you’re literally forced to eat
elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers – my plea to the jury (and
you, the reader) is that the world needs more big, cheap eateries.
Viva le bouillon.

Chef’s kiss: three Paris bouillons to try

Dessert at Bouillion Pigalle in Paris, France


Bouillon Pigalle

The no-reservations policy means that you’ll nearly always have
to wait to get a table here but it’s more than worth it. The food
is well-priced (read “cheap”) and the menu is well-stocked (read
“big”). Come here when you want to eat like a king on the budget of
a court jester.


22 Blvd de Clichy, 75018

Photo credit: Wild Snap / Shutterstock


Bouillon Chartier

A big, swanky dining room that feels like somewhere Oscar Wilde
would be well at home is one of the main selling points of Bouillon
Chartier. The other main selling point is the excellent food:
plates of garlicky escargots and rustic choucroute. The food is
impressively French, the vibe is killer and you’ll leave with
plenty of change in your pocket.


7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009

Bouillon Racine Exterior


Bouillon Racine

Located in the beating heart of the French capital’s Latin
Quarter, Bouillon Racine is a rip-roaring joint spread over two
floors. It’s all a bit extra and the interior is about as art
nouveau as it gets, but you shouldn’t let that distract you from
the quality of food on offer. This is definitely one to check out
if you’re a sucker for impressive dining rooms.


3 Rue Racine, 75006


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