The Observer

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the French Bouillon

As economic conditions tighten and nostalgia takes hold, an old-fashioned eatery makes a comeback in France: the bouillon.
© Bouillon Chartier

Amid the hubbub surrounding the Paris 2024 Olympics, one otherwise unmissable event seems to have fallen off the French public’s radar: le Championnat du monde de l’œuf mayonnaise, or Egg-Mayo World Championship. While not attracting the same media coverage as, say, the 100-meter hurdles, this annual contest is equally competitive and, from an observer’s perspective, culturally more important. It was conceived back in the 1990s by the food critic Claude Lebey to counter the fad for overwrought, over-complex and over-hyped cooking styles – think molecular gastronomy – that had eclipsed traditional cuisine and, in doing so, masked the essential mission of restaurants, which is to feed and nourish.

Lebey was especially concerned by the disappearance of bistros, those honest-to-goodness establishments that had long formed the backbone of simple French cuisine. In the sixty-odd years between 1960 and 2019, the number of bistros across France plummeted from 200,000 to 34,000, according to INSEE, France’s national statistics office. In Paris alone, around 300 shuttered between 2014 and 2018. So dire was the situation that Claude Lebey launched a campaign to revive the bistro and have it recognized by UNESCO as a stronghold of French culinary tradition. To him, the edible symbol of that tradition was the humble œuf mayo, which he deemed “as indispensable to cuisine as the paperclip is to the office.” Simplicity was key. Nothing foraged, deconstructed, or curated; no mouthfeel or micro-seasonality; just plain food, shorn of fancy menu descriptions. (A study by Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, found that when a restaurant uses longer words to describe a dish, it charges more for that item – an additional 18 cents per letter!)

Whether it’s the efforts of Lebey and his acolytes, the wallet-squeezing effects of soaring inflation, or a combination of both, la cuisine traditionnelle is now back on the menu, so to speak. Anyone visiting Paris or other major French cities in the past couple of years is bound to have noticed the seemingly recent phenomenon of the bouillon, a pocket-friendly, no-frills eatery where a three-course meal costs less than 20 dollars. In the hierarchy of Food-Away-from-Home (FAFH) classification, bouillons sit below restaurants and bistros – FAFH without the faff. But they are certainly not new.

In fact, they date from the 18th century and have more to do with Enlightenment philosophy than fine dining. Although the actual origins are disputed, the consensus view is that the bouillon was invented by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, an economist and disciple of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that the secret to good health was plain, simple food rather than the rich, meat-heavy diet of the aristocracy. The healthiest dish, he said, was a nutritious broth, or bouillon, a word derived from the verb bouillir, to boil. In 1765, Chantoiseau set up a couple of marble-topped tables in a Parisian bakery and invited the hungry public to come and refresh themselves with a steaming bowl of broth. His unique selling proposition was summarized in a Latin tag using the verb restaurare, to restore. The term un bouillon restaurant, or restorative broth, became so popular that the adjective was eventually nominalized and “restaurant” became a place rather than an attribute.

Grands Boulevards, 1946. © Bouillon Chartier

The word crossed the Atlantic in the aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, when many French cooks lost their jobs (their bosses having lost their heads) and fled to America. One of them, a certain Jean-Baptiste Julien, opened Julien’s Restorator in Boston in 1793, serving healthy broths and meats to an eager but impecunious public. “Restorator” became a common American English noun for a public eatery, along with “dining hall” and “victualizing house,” but was gradually replaced over the 19th century by “restaurant,” a fancier term with French connotations.

In France during the same period, restaurants became more sophisticated and expensive, which put them beyond the means of ordinary working people and left a gap in the market. In 1860, a butcher called Pierre-Louis Duval had the idea of opening a place where Parisian laborers could get a hot, healthy meal for a few sous, or pennies. Now Monsieur Duval was no philanthropist: Since his high-end clientele was uninterested in his cheap cuts of meat, he sought to use them in a way that would cut wastage while boosting the bottom line. His brainwave was a vast 800-seater dining room serving a single specialty (or signature dish, in today’s parlance): a beef stew in vegetable-rich broth.

The proposition was an instant hit, and the bouillon was reborn, this time as a place to eat. Duval opened several other establishments across the capital, always paying attention to the minute details – proper flatware, china plates, servers in bonnets and aprons – that made patrons feel special. In practice, he gained control of the entire food supply chain, from abattoir to table, and thus created a fast-food operation before the concept was invented. Canny competitors were quick to spot an opportunity, and bouillons popped up all over Paris – more than 200 were in operation by the end of the 1800s. Great emphasis was placed on interior decor, with many of the new establishments sporting elaborate Art Nouveau interiors.

© Bouillon Chartier
© Bouillon Chartier

This new generation of bouillons began to attract middle-class customers and, like restaurants, drifted farther up market and beyond the reach of the people they had been set up to serve. Their raison d’être gradually disappeared and most of them closed between the two world wars. By the 1980s, the only notable survivor was one of the original establishments, Bouillon Chartier, in the ninth arrondissement, founded in 1896 by two eponymous brothers. Over subsequent decades, Chartier became a Paris institution, frequented by impecunious students, office workers on lunch break, families in their Sunday best, celebrities slumming it with the common folk, and, eventually, hordes of starry-eyed tourists. Despite its popularity, the bouillon’s traditional menu of homemade traditional French food did not succumb to fads, apart from the odd incursion into tomato-and-mozzarella territory.

Chartier and the bouillon tradition might have remained nostalgic reminders of a long-gone past if the restaurant industry had not suffered a series of body blows in the early years of this century. Rising food and labor costs, fine-dining fatigue, the onward march of fast-food chains and sandwich shops, and the delights of home delivery resulted in the closure of hundreds of restaurants all over France. To stem the decline, the owners of several high-end Parisian brasseries decided in the late 2010s to revive the cuisine populaire tradition and win back penny-conscious eaters. They bought up Chartier and later acquired a number of other bouillons that had suffered various fates over the years, restoring their ornate decor and revamping the menu to concentrate on traditional fare. As happened in the early days of the 1860s, competitors – including a multi-Michelin starred chef – quickly opened similar establishments and started a trend that is still gathering momentum, both in Paris and in other big cities.

Yet despite their popular, common-touch image, most of the new bouillons’ core clientele are middle-class income earners. Loïc Bienassis, a historian and specialist in French culinary heritage, is amused by the mismatch. “What makes the current crop of bouillons so successful is that they play on tradition,” he observes, “whereas the success of the original bouillons founded by Duval was based on modernity.” So, is the new-look bouillon a welcome revival of affordable democratic tradition or a nostalgia-driven marketing ploy? Why not go along and judge for yourself? And don’t forget to order the œuf mayo.

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.