Vacation in Paris Blog

Soup Kitchens à la Française

Places To Visit - Posted on Jan 04,2021 by JanSmi

The Bouillon Chartier as captured by artist Marko Stupar. Photo courtesy of Galerie Roussard

People starving, unemployment skyrocketing, mobs in the street, a government about to be replaced and doing nothing to help. Sound familiar?

This was the scene in 1789 and the French Revolution was getting underway. But so was something else: the modern restaurant was being born and, alongside it, the soup kitchen for the hungry masses.

Bad weather and drought swept the country, prices of foodstuffs, especially bread, soared. Peasants, who made up nearly 90 percent of the population, could no longer afford to feed their families. The aristocracy fled in fear of its lives, leaving behind staffs and servants without jobs and without income. Like farmers, workers and others, they were added to the crowd of the disaffected. Paris itself filled up with people from throughout the country who came to join the anti-government protests and witness the work of Madame Guillotine. By the time they reached the city, however, they were hungry and tired and essentially centime-less.

Some of the unemployed chefs and cooks who had fed the nobility spotted an opportunity and took a cue from a certain, Monsieur Boulanger who, a few years earlier, in 1765, he had begun selling “restorative bouillons.” The soups had traditionally been made only for pregnant women. Boulanger went further and set up a shop on rue de Poulies in Paris, making those bouillons daily and selling them to anyone who felt the need for a pick-me-up. “Venite ad me, omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos,” he posted in Latin above his door. “All of you who have stomachs crying in misery, come to me and I will restore you.” (The French verb restaurer means to restore and is the origin for the word restaurant.)

Soon street corners of revolutionary Paris sprouted kettles of bouillon – undoubtedly more like a stew and much heartier than what today’s bouillon cube produces. It was hawked and sold for a few sous, making it the 18th century equivalent of outdoor dining.

The idea of “bouillons” expanded as the years went on until the word came to mean both a recuperative meal and a place to get one. When the industrial revolution came along in the middle of the 19th century, workers also needed places to eat, and like their revolutionary ancestors, they needed meals they could afford. Once again, the bouillons, now established as indoor dining spots, or basically democratized restaurants, came to their rescue.

These bouillons had as their goal providing good, basic French food at a reasonable price, but they did it in exceptional settings. Their interiors reflected the Art Nouveau design of the Gay Nineties, France’s Belle Epoche, and then the Art Deco that typified the Roaring 20s, or les Années Folles, as the French would call that time period.

Although the Gay Nineties and les Années Folles have vanished into the pages of history, the bouillons have not. They still exist in Paris and maintain all their Belle Epoche and Art Nouveau grandeur.

They also maintain the same goals as the originals: places anyone can go anytime for basic traditional French food at reasonable prices.

But today’s customers are no longer just the workmen and women of the neighbourhood trying to grab a hearty meal cheaply. Instead, tourists and day-trippers, and an occasional artist, throng the bouillons eager for a glimpse of the incredible decors diligently preserved and maintained by the restaurant owners, as befits National Historic Monuments. The interiors of Bouillon Chartier were listed as such in 1989, fittingly on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution which gave birth to the bouillons.

“Throng” is a key word here because the bouillons do not take reservations, so there usually is plenty of wait time for a table to eye-ball not only the interiors, but also the waiters who, in their multi-pocketed vests and long aprons, look as though they themselves stepped out of another time.

Bouillon Chartier at 7, rue de Faubourg Montmartre in the 9th arrondissement with its listed historic interior, is probably the most famous. It has been in operation for 125 years and shows no sign of stopping. There is a sister Chartier on the Left Bank at 59, boulevard Montparnasse, 75006 Paris, and she is every bit as glamorous.

In both spots, “old” is proudly the modus operandi. Why mess with a good thing? Bills are written on the paper tablecloths and menus are almost unchanged for a century. This means one can happily add Bouillon Chartier and all the other bouillons of Paris to the list of “old things” - like “old friends” and “old wine,” - things that only get better and better as they age.

When the pandemic is brought under control, when travel feels safe again, the bouillons will have aged a little more and be even more worthy of a visit - true monuments to surviving bad times. Even though the food may not give you raptures of delight, the surroundings will. A beautiful past to remind you that the good times can always come again.

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Our latest guest bloggers - Don and Petie Kladstrup

Don and Petie Kladstrup are authors of two best-selling books, the first being Wine and War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, a best-seller that has been optioned for a motion picture. Their second book dealt with World War I: Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Both books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Don and Petie are former journalists. Don was a award-winning foreign correspondent for CBS and ABC Television News. Petie worked for several mid-western newspapers before serving as an assistant to the American ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. They are the parents of two daughters and have lived in Paris since 1978, splitting their time between the city and their country home in the south of France.

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