I hesitate to start out by saying that the food at Bouillon Chartier isn’t that bad. But the truth is, no one comes here for the food. Three of us lunched at this cavernous restaurant a couple of weeks ago, and we chose the place for two bald reasons: 1) We wanted to meet near les Grands Boulevards; and 2) It’s open on a Monday. Oh, and 3) It’s historic. And 4) It’s cheap (bonus!).
The word “bouillon” in the name of Bouillon Chartier refers to a fascinating bit of Paris restaurant history. In 1860, a butcher named Monsieur Duval had the brilliant idea of opening a restaurant that served cheap bowls of beef broth to the workers at Les Halles (Paris’s former central food market). Eventually the word bouillon, or broth, became synonymous with a type of inexpensive restaurant.
(Little did Monsieur Duval know that 155 years later, East Village hipsters would rename bouillon “bone broth,” and sell it for $7 a cup.)
At the end of the 19th century, the Chartier brothers expanded upon Monsieur Duval’s concept and founded their own chain of bouillons. Though only two still exist—Bouillon Chartier and Bouillon Racine in the 6e—these establishments continue the mission of offering a “decent meal at a reasonable price” with “good service.”
From the great big door on the busy Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, you walk through a courtyard to the restaurant at the back. The line can stretch all the way to the street, but when we arrived on a rainy Monday at 12:30pm, we were seated right away.
The dining room is full of Art Nouveau charm, a vast space with high ceilings, soaring mirrors, brass rails, and carved balustrades. Along the walls are wooden armoires with small, numbered drawers where regulars once stored their couverts, or silverware and napkins. I tried to peek inside, but they’re now sealed shut. Tables are shared, which means if you’re eating alone, you can expect three strangers to be seated next to you.
The menu still features bouillon, now renamed consomme, a daily brewed vegetable broth offered for 1€, which is officially the cheapest thing I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant in France. It was thin and watery, but I could taste a faint, earthy hint of vegetables in there somewhere, as if the liquid held a distant memory of carrots and leeks. The table’s other entrées of oeuf mayonnaise and carrottes rapées looked better, dressed with industrial-esque vinaigrette and mayonnaise, yes, but simple and tasty (though accompanied by perhaps the world’s saddest tomato garnish).
The list of main courses reads like a dictionary of classic bistro cuisine, including choices like roast chicken and fries, grilled andouillette, or tête de veau with tangy sauce gribiche. At a place like this, it seemed wise to keep things simple with confit de canard, pommes grenailles and I am happy to report that the confit was one of the better versions I’ve had, the fat completely rendered (whether by design or neglect, no matter) and the skin pleasingly crisp. Accompanying new potatoes were properly roasted, though without crunchy edges. My friend, Erin, described the steak as “definitely not the worst I’ve ever eaten.” Also, it arrived perfectly cooked, à point.
Old-fashioned desserts included fresh pineapple, wine-soaked prunes with ice cream, and other classics, but I splurged (calorically, at least) on the chou glace vanille chocolat chaud, a spongy profiterole puff filled with vanilla ice cream, flooded with warm chocolate sauce, and garnished with a handful of toasted almonds. Though my watery first course had left me hungry, I couldn’t finish the generous portion.
Efficient service meant that three courses AND coffee were served in less than an hour. (Noisy, casual, and fast, this is a great place to eat out with kids.) Before we even knew we wanted to leave, our waiter had bustled up and calculated the bill on the paper tablecloth—the first time I’ve ever received the check in France without asking for it. Three courses for three people plus two coffees (no wine) came to €50.70 or €17/person, when rounded up.
Ah, Bouillon Chartier, still cheap after 119 years.
7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre
01 47 70 86 29
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