The current owners of Chartier boast that their old soup shop has served over 50 million meals to hungry folk over the past 100 years or so.
Their spectacular, belle époque dining room is a listed, historical monument and rightly so, it is impressive and I am so glad to see it will be preserved, not only for my generation but many more to come.
Don’t be surprised if you read scathing traveller’s reviews about this lively establishment, or at the least, very mixed reviews but don’t discount Bouillon Chartier yet…
The comments are generally about rude waiters, brusk service and average food.
There are a few things to take into consideration and armed with a little background knowledge, you will have a better idea of what to expect and enhance your experience when visiting this iconic Bouillon.
Its rapid and you will note my over use of ‘swift’ for a reason but its fun and one thing no one ever complains about, is the magnificent decor.
Let’s start with a very short piece of history:
Bouillon Chartier was first established in 1896 in a former train station concourse by the Chartier Brothers; Frédéric and Camille.
They set up what was known as a ‘bouillon ‘ or a soup shop.
This style of eatery was popular at the time and quite a few of these establishments sprung up around Paris.
Originally known as, Le Bouillon, it very quickly became well known for its fast, cheap, hearty food that fed the masses and the hungry workers.
The menu was basic and would normally include a very cheap bowl of warming broth (bouillon) and a meat based stew.
Cold hungry labourers would rush in during their lunch break, scoff down a warm and nourishing meal and head off back to work.
So, now we know that a ‘bouillon’ isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant but instead, popular for their bustling atmosphere and very affordable, old fashioned, traditional food, we can lower our expectations a little.
Here is what to expect today:
You will find a red neon sign above a long passageway that leads to a courtyard.
Unless you arrive early or late, expect to queue. It moves reasonably swiftly and a waiter will walk the line and ask you how many in your group, keeping a watchful eye out, for the next available table.
Enter through the revolving door of the bustling eatery and wait for your waiter who will swiftly escort you to a timber table, covered in a monikered red and white table cloth, topped with a fresh piece of white butcher’s paper.
This not only keeps the cloths clean for each sitting but provides a slate for your waiter to keep tabs on what you order and later, to tally up your bill.
You will more than likely share a table with others.
Place your belongings in the overhead brass luggage racks and ponder the menu but swiftly.
When your harried waiter reappears, he will, ‘swiftly’ jot down your order on your tablecloth, he is busy and has many other diners to attend to.
A bread basket will be plonked, unceremoniously, on to your table and shortly after, your food. Before you can say ‘Bouillon Chartier’, he will swiftly disappear.
If you have a question or something to add to your order, now is the time to do it, otherwise he has already moved on, to seat the next load of diners.
Phew! Now, you can relax, chat with your fellow diner, sip on some good but very cheap wine or you may meet new friends, seated beside you. This is when can take in the ambience of the room.
Giant mirrors, grace the yellow walls, which may have taken on a richer hue from years of cigarette smoke. Note the high, blue glass ceiling, the mezzanine floor, the lamps, the brass luggage racks, that you may not yet had a moment to admire and the little timber drawers, you can see to the right, reminiscent of office storage furniture are in fact, ancient drawers that once stored ‘the regulars’ table napkins.
The clock, of course there is always a clock in these establishments.
When you needed to watch the time, while you hurriedly slurped your hot broth before racing down the street and back to work, you needed a clock.
This is but a mere sepia toned snap shot of the bygone, Belle Epoque era.
It was not glamorous and luxurious for everyone back then but can you imagine yourself, strapped for cash but still in the need of a place to have a cheap bowl of soup, in fine, warm surrounds?
This was, day to day life for the average Parisian in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.
It makes me wonder, what the Parisians of that time would think of us now.
Sitting in a busy cafe, carrying a hamburger to our plastic chair, no waiter service, sitting as far away as possible from other diners and fiddling around with mobile devices whilst sipping on an expensive sugar filled drink from a straw in a disposable container.
Maybe that sums it up nicely and if the past patrons of Bouillon Chartier are watching us now, they may marvel at how the food, service and decor has changed in other mass market establishments of today.
My summary to you about Bouillon Chartier is this;
Go for the unique experience, after all you are in Paris and now that you know what to expect, you won’t have high standards.
Don’t expect first class food or service but do expect a grand old dining room, with an eclectic crowd, the theatrics and the hustle and bustle atmosphere with harried waiters, whizzing up and down the aisles.
Watch with admiration as the very busy wait staff, who may be swift but sometimes taken as rude, during their daily working lives, wearing traditional ‘rondin’ the black waiter’s waistcoat with multiple pockets, a white shirt, a black tie and a long white starched apron, will more than likely come across as grumpy or brisk and remember they are challenged to serve as many people as they possibly can and get their orders to the kitchen in a most timely manner as possible.
Be mindful to greet them with Bonjour and thank them with merci, if you don’t have any, or little French.
Be respectful that they are serving people from all around the world, who quite often don’t speak French and yet they are expected to understand Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, German, Danish and the myriad of nationalities from around the world who are expecting a dining experience of their lives!