Taking stock at Chartier

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 13, 2016

Despite the positive reviews online, Bouillon Chartier fails to impress


The quest for a moveable feast in Paris doesn’t always lead to happy endings

Visitors to Paris are often in search of a “real” French experience, the kind that you see in Woody Allen movies or Fitzgerald novels. The moveable feast of everyone’s dreams isn’t easy to find, though. I often find myself at a loss when people ask me if I know of a reasonably-priced, “authentic” restaurant here in Paris.

So this year, in anticipation of the next lot of holidayers’ queries, I thought I’d investigate a restaurant I’ve heard about for years, albeit not from anyone French.

Bouillon Chartier was founded during the Belle Époque, the “beautiful era,” which lasted from 1871 to 1914, or from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the start of World War I. Brothers Frédéric and Camille Chartier started their eatery in a former train station, specialising in cheap, filling fare, named after the word bouillon, or broth, referring to the restorative stews served. Unlike its contemporaries La Coupole and Le Dome, though, Chartier’s prices are reasonable enough to be accessible to most; entrées start at under €2, and mains (from €8.70) and wines are among the most keenly-priced in Paris.

Neither of the two French test subjects I cajoled into accompanying me knew of it, but I decided to disregard that. They don’t take bookings, so you can expect to queue for your meal (and share your table with other people), but as we were early enough, the maître d’ waved us past with his walkie-talkie to a table for four.

Chartier’s dining room retains its original Belle Époque decor, with columns, mirrored walls, ball-lamp chandeliers, and a glass-roofed ceiling. Wooden sideboards are marked with the numbered drawers where regulars would keep their personal napkins. The menu is a traditional bill of French fare, entrées ranging from vegetable soup, garlic-butter snails, and marinated herring with potatoes, to salads and charcuterie platters. Mains run the classic gamut too, with pot-au-feu, duck confit, and various steak variations (and bizarrely, spaghetti bolognaise).

TripAdvisor had warned us about surly waiters, but ours, in the traditional long white apron, was amiable, even chatty.

“I am the only waiter here who will not sell you the beef muzzle,” he said dramatically. “You know a real muzzle? This one is all chopped up, it’s not the real calves’ muzzle salad. Well, I can only advise you. After that, it’s up to you, of course.” After this virtuoso routine, naturally we vetoed the beef muzzle salad for foie gras with fig chutney (a steal at €7), a terrine (country-style pâté), and a plate of ham and saucisson (sausage).

“Well,” said French tester #1, chewing thoughtfully. “It’s passable, I guess. In the style of Monoprix Gourmet.”

The couple next to us came over as they left. “Would you like our wine?” the man said in English. “We ordered a bottle of white, which we haven’t finished. It’s just going to go waste.”

“Oh, yes,” we said at once, our hearts warmed by this camaraderie. He brought over their ice bucket, and the half-full bottle of Gerard Bertrand chardonnay.

So far so good, even with our supermarket-gourmet-aisle starters. The busy hum of people eating together under the warm glow of the ball lamps suffused the dining room; if you squinted, you might be persuaded that it was 1910.

And then, the spell broke. A line of noisy Chinese tourists in identical fluorescent parkas filed past to what appeared to be the restrooms, but turned out to be the souvenir shop, filled with glasses, dish towels and other Chartier merchandise.

From then on, everything went downhill. Our waiter brought us a bottle of overpriced mineral water, and told us that they were out of carafes to put the tap water in. Telling a French person to pay for their water is like depriving them of bread or giving them a well-done steak; it awakens bloodthirsty Revolutionary instincts. “Well, we’re not having any of it,” said Frenchman #2 firmly. “We will not hydrate ourselves tonight!”

We clinked glasses, and when we finished our house wine (a red Moulin de Gassac 2015, at €12.50 a bottle), poured out the chardonnay.

“I see why they didn’t finish it,” said Frenchman #1, putting his glass down hastily.

Mains arrived, but they were dispiriting. The duck confit was strangely oily, accompanied by limp, insipid potatoes. My rump steak was draped in an unobjectionable sauce au poivre (pepper sauce), but both the rump and the entrecôte steak came with anaemic fries reconstituted from sad, frozen potatoes.

“Dessert?” queried our waiter.

“I’ll have the Pont-l’Évêque,” said Frenchman #2, taking refuge in the last resort of the French when things are going south: cheese.

In retrospect, this was wise. The chou Chantilly was a kind of cream sandwich, four inches of whipped cream between two claggy chou buns. My baba au rhum was inedible: a cylindrical sponge cake soaked in an acrid bottom-shelf Bacardi dupe.

Our waiter appeared to tot up the bill (about €25 each) from what he’d written down on our paper tablecloth. “Don’t worry about the water,” he said cheerfully, as if he hadn’t just tried to upsell it to us.

We paid and left, passing a long queue of waiting diners, mostly non-French-speakers, on our way out. I wanted to turn and tell them that it was cheap and the room was nice, but that this was well, all. Every neighbourhood in Paris has a bistro where the food is better, the staff charming, and there’s no tourist-trap gift shop at the end. Even if it’s not at Chartier prices, it’ll be worth your while.

Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Paris

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Published on May 13, 2016
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