The scene is a familiar one in Paris: an expansive, brightly-lit dining room and servers decked head-to-toe in black and white, darting between tables with a balancing act of dishes in one hand and carafes of wine in another. Diners sit elbow-to-elbow in rows of ruby red leather banquettes or wooden bistro chairs, chatting over generous portions of beef bourguignon and escargots dressed in parsley butter.
This genre of old-timey Parisian restaurant is a lot less visible today than it once was, displaced in part by the bistronomy movement of the last several years. But if the local media frenzy and blocklong lines at Bouillon Pigalle are any indication, there has been a glaring unmet hunger for such nostalgic comforts.
A precursor to the Parisian bistro boom of the mid-19th century, the original Bouillon was a restaurant serving hearty, simple and, most important, inexpensive dishes that could be consumed quickly for a predominantly working-class clientele. It began with Pierre-Louis Duval, a butcher who needed a place to serve les bas morceaux, the least preferred cuts from the front of the cow, which he couldn’t sell. He cooked them in different ways, including in their broth, or bouillon — hence the name.
Its popularity inspired hundreds of similar restaurants and a fan base that extended into society’s upper echelon. By the belle epoque era, however, tastes veered upscale and bouillons faded or transformed entirely, their charming interiors left untouched while their menus became decidedly upscale.
With the opening of Bouillon Pigalle last November, occupying a former bar-restaurant called La Maison Pigalle that sprawls across 6,400-plus square feet, the restaurateurs Guillaume and Pierre Moussié are reviving the format for a new generation, but sticking to the spirit of the original: 320 seats, paper place settings, less showy tableware, local event posters doubling as décor; a multigenerational crowd; and reasonable prices — not to mention nonstop service from noon to midnight.
“Our challenge was to do good food for little money and at high volumes; we serve around 1,400 people each day,” Guillaume Moussié said. “But that means no entrecôte or lobster on the menu — too costly.” Instead, the brothers offer what they consider the essentials of the bouillon experience: affordable wines; barrel-aged classic cocktails like the Americano; sourdough from Jean-Luc Poujauran, an artisanal bread maker; feel-good classics like pâté-en-croûte and veal blanquette; and a spirited atmosphere led by good-humored and efficient servers.
While my friends and I appreciated the democratic approach and high energy, not everything was a hit. The leek-vinaigrette salad, escargots and slow-cooked lamb with white beans — all strongly recommended by our server — were bland and under-seasoned; the steak was rubbery, though served with perfectly crisp fries. The satisfying saviors arrived last: a luscious chocolate pot de crème and a comforting cream puff filled with homemade whipped cream.
The culinary flaws can be forgiven, though, when you consider the restaurant’s place as an anti-gourmet alternative to the proliferation of shared plate and tasting menu spots. Much in the way affection for the humble American diner runs broadly across wallets and classes, the Bouillon Pigalle is a genuinely fun marker of Parisian heritage, where food plays a supporting role.
Bouillon Pigalle, 22 Boulevard de Clichy; bouillonpigalle.com. An average meal for two without drinks and tips, is 30 euros, about $36.