I had heard about the Bouillon Chartier for years, but had always avoided it.
This might surprise you if you knew me. The restaurant dates to the Belle Epoque (it was founded in 1896, to be precise), my all-time favorite era of history. While it’s not an Art Nouveau marvel like several other eateries from that time, its Beaux-Arts style still has its charm.
But among many Parisians, the Bouillon Chartier is often written off as a tourist trap. I thought that would go hand in hand with one of the most common trappings of a tourist trap: a pricey menu of mediocre, if not downright bad, food.
Still, it called to me, its retro neon sign pointing to a corridor with a charming old wood and glass facade at its end. Those windows seemed to show another time inside. And so, after many years in Paris, I finally decided that I wanted to eat at the Bouillon Chartier.
To be honest, it also helps that I found out that the menu was one of the most reasonable — no, even downright cheapest — in the city. (Like many of the Belle-Epoque artists and bohemians I admire, I don’t have the biggest budget.)
So, one February evening, my husband, son, and I followed the arrow-shaped neon sign and passed under the corridor and then through the revolving door.
We found ourselves in a massive, crowded room that has probably looked more or less the same since the restaurant’s opening day. If it weren’t for the modern-day clothes, conversations, and cell phones of the customers, I might have felt suspended in time.
Not that I can blame them for the cell phone thing. The Bouillon Chartier may have been founded long before mobile devices, but it seems made for photos and selfies, Instagram-worthy food shots, and even videos of the clamor inside.
That clamor, really, hasn’t changed. The restaurant’s goal has always been to serve cheap food to working class customers (and wealthier ones, should they be so inclined). The tables seem like they’ve always been full of people talking loudly about this and that — this is not a place of bourgeois manners.
One of the distinctive things about the Bouillon Chartier in its early days (and today) was its way of letting customers store their coats and any other accessories. Instead of racks or hooks, there are shelves above the tables that look like those you’d find in the trains of the era. As someone who’s always carrying a massive purse and probably some other bag, and who’s usually too hot to keep her coat on, I found this arrangement perfect.
Another distinctive thing about storage at the Bouillon Chartier are the countless little numbered wooden drawers you’ll find tucked away in corners and standing against columns. More than a century ago, these were rented by regulars as a place to keep their napkins (and possibly silverware). This was common practice in many Parisian brasseries, but despite my research, I can’t find out exactly why it was done. Was it because napkins cost extra due to laundering expenses? Was it because people wanted to flaunt their fancy or fine linens? Was there some hygienic reason?
What I do know is that the drawers are a really cool connection to the past, and also, if you’re wondering, that they no longer open. This is because the current owner glued them shut after numerous clients had a hard time resisting the urge to try to take one home as a souvenir.
For all these details, the turn-of-the-century ambiance flickers and fades a bit the more you look around. For one thing, ugly modern-day electric fans spot the glass and crown-molding-embellished ceiling. I get it (remember how I said I’m always hot?), but I wish they could at least have wooden blades.
On one wall, a doorway adorned with its original wood paneling reveals a modern, stainless-steel kitchen.
Again, I get it. I want clean food cooked in a sanitary, modern kitchen. And actually, I quickly came to love that contrast of the old with the new, the way walking through a doorway could move you back and forth through decades.
It wasn’t just the 2010’s and the 1890’s coexisting and clashing with one another in the Bouillon Chartier. When we looked at our menus, as well as at the charming printed napkins and, when we got our food, the flatware, suddenly an Art Deco vibe came into play.
I’ve been to other historic restaurants where one era is chosen and privileged, at least in terms of décor. I was disappointed at first that the Bouillon Chartier didn’t seem to ascribe to this philosophy, and yet, I found myself warming to it, as my first course, a traditional bouillon (probably the same or similar to the one that gave the place its name, and just as cheap, relatively speaking — only one euro a bowl!), warmed me.
This visit, it turned out, wasn’t about going back in time to one era, but taking a ride in a sort of unpredictable time machine that lets you visit several periods in Paris’s recent history.
As for the food, well, it was traditional, cheap, and pretty good! Don’t take my word for that last detail; I am an American, after all. But my French husband was also impressed. He gave his meal, an andouillette sausage and French fries, a 7 out of 10.
The desserts were even better. Sampling chocolate mousse at every Parisian dining venue I go to is a hobby of mine. The mousse at Chartier is a bit thick and has a lot of flavor and seems to be homemade. I prefer my mousse a tad lighter, but this one was still delicious, and for 3 euros, it’s the cheapest mousse I’ve ever had in this city.
The Bouillon Chartier apparently attracts a lot of theatergoers, who stop in for a bite after their shows on the nearby Grands-Boulevards. I think they probably order full meals, but if you find yourself there in the evening, even if you’ve already had dinner, it’s worth heading to Chartier for a cheap but delicious dessert, or just a bunch of desserts shared with your friends (or for yourself — I understand).
All in all, for three courses (appetizer, main, and dessert) for two people, a plate of French fries for my son (who refused to eat anything but French fries that day and whose toddler determination broke our spirits), plus dessert for him, too (I mean, he only ate French fries, but we’d be cruel parents if we didn’t let him have one), plus a cider and an apple juice, we spent around 46 euros.
Most importantly (even more important than a good, inexpensive chocolate mousse), we got to experience little flickers of my favorite city’s past.