Every tourist and hard-up student in Paris has surely passed through the doors of the first Bouillon Chartier on Rue Faubourg Montmartre. Opened in 1896 in a former arms factory, the bouillon (a 19th-century workers’ restaurant specializing in soup and other inexpensive dishes), has retained its original Belle Époque decor and is protected by its status as a historic monument. Chartier attracts crowds for both its unique decor and incredibly cheap prices, but not so much for its menu of French classics, which are not terrible but not great, either. Other attractions include the fact that it is open 365 days a year, providing a refuge for those who need a restaurant on Sundays and holidays, and its once famously grumpy but highly efficient black-vested, white-aproned waiters.
There have been a number of Bouillon Chartiers in Paris over the years. One on Boulevard Montparnasse, also a historic monument, has a stunning Art Nouveau decor dating from 1906. It has changed names several times over the years but returned to the Bouillon Chartier fold in 2019. And now there are three, with the recent opening of Bouillon Chartier Gare de l’Est, which we tested the other night.
The decor at the new Chartier is attractive, with its red banquettes, white tablecloths, tiled floor and colorful old-fashioned advertising posters, but not nearly as spectacular as the original
Because the prices were so low – between €1 and €4.50 for all the starters except escargots (€7.50 for six, €15 for 12; there must be an escargot shortage) – we went a bit overboard in ordering extras. In addition to one starter for each of the three of us, we got those 12 escargots to share, and we added an extra plate of French fries to go with the already generous main courses.
I was thrilled with my starter of egg mayonnaise, priced at €2. The eggs were super-fresh and not overcooked, and the mayonnaise was homemade. I was far less thrilled with the escargots, which had a strange taste and were short on garlicky parsley butter, the magic ingredient that makes them so wonderful. I gave up after tasting two of them.
The house-made terrine de campagne got a thumbs-up, but the leeks in vinaigrette were a flop. Overcooked and twisted into a mound, they were topped with just a small pool of vinaigrette.
The bœuf bourguignon I ordered, served with elbow macaroni, was so-so. The beef was rather dry, and the tart sauce lacked that wonderful winey flavor.
The blanquette de veau (stewed veal in white sauce), served with plain rice, was better. The meat was tender, which is not always the case in this dish (which I never liked much in the past because cheap cuts were often used), and the sauce was fine.
The boudin noir (black sausage), which came with tasty, creamy mashed potatoes and a baked apple, was also given the seal of approval.
For dessert, the profiterole, one of my all-time favorites, was not bad, but certainly not the best I have ever had.
One of my friends had an extra helping of whipped cream (€3 supplement) with the chocolate mousse, which was made with milk chocolate, not so much to her liking as a nice dark chocolate one would have been.
As noted above, Chartier has never been known for its great food – far from it – and you can tell from the photos here that little attention is paid to presentation.
The advantage of the new bouillon at the Gare de l’Est was that there was no unending line outside the door, as there is at the original restaurant. We were seated immediately, and the servers (wearing the traditional black vest, white apron and black bowtie), although a little slow, were amiable and otherwise efficient.
Two newfangled Paris bouillons that have opened in recent years, Bouillon République and Bouillon Pigalle, manage to provide better food for comparable prices, but if you’re near the Gare de l’Est and short on cash, it can’t hurt to give the new Chartier a try, at least until lines start forming outside the door once the public becomes aware of what a bargain it is.Favorite