In Paris, even the soup kitchens are works of art.
To be clear, we’re not referring to charitable organizations here, but to a kind of restaurant known as a bouillon. A butcher, Pierre-Louis Duval, founded the first of these in 1855 to serve meat scraps in broth (hence, bouillon) to the workers at the old Les Halles market. In ensuing decades, this style of eatery saw a rise in popularity, coinciding with the advent of Art Nouveau, meaning that while the meals remained cheap—even today a three-course meal with wine costs less than 20 euros—the interiors were often adorned with ornate carvings, paintings, and mosaics. As architect Édouard Fournier declared when the 10th-arrondissement restaurant that is now Bouillon Julien opened in 1906, “Here, everything is beautiful, delicious, and great value.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, bouillons declined in favor of places that boasted more sophisticated menus. But now simple, comforting dishes—think oeufs mayonnaise and sole meunière—are in vogue again. In 2017, the brothers Pierre and Guillaume Moussié opened Bouillon Pigallein the eponymous trendy neighborhood near Montmartre. Their restaurant nods to tradition with red leather banquettes and brass hat racks and serves family recipes, such as beef bourguignon with pasta. Recently, they expanded, with Bouillon République, which serves a similar menu, along with a few Alsatian specialties, in a space just off the Place de la République.
“We are trying to deliver our version of the 21st century,” Guillaume Moussié says, “while keeping the spirit of the first Parisian bouillon in the 19th century.” The Moussié brothers aren’t the only ones widening their reach. Gérard Joulie, the owner of the 1896 Bouillon Chartier, the first of the Art Nouveau bouillons (he says it’s “a great honor to own this veritable institution”), debuted a second location, Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse, in 2019.
Aside from new openings, some historic bouillons are being restored. When Jean-Noël Dron acquired Bouillon Julien in 2018, restaurant designer John Whelan of The Guild of Saint Luke persuaded him to restore it to its glory days (when Édith Piaf frequently took table 24). Whelan stripped the tobacco-stained paint back to its original celadon, which he complemented with prune-colored velvet seats. “I like to think that I have contributed in a small way to the legacy of this institution,” the designer says, “helping it appeal, perhaps, to a younger generation through a bold reworking and restoration.”