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LIVING IN PARIS

Revealed – the hot French dining trend that’s delicious, traditional and cheap

Every weekend a queue snakes down the street not far from the Moulin Rouge in Paris. This is not some hoard of clueless foreigners easy prey for the tourist traps that dot Pigalle and Montmartre.

Revealed - the hot French dining trend that's delicious, traditional and cheap
The new Chartier in Montparnasse. Photo: AFP

These are savvy and often stylish Parisians eager to sit down to one of the best value meals in the French capital.

Earlier this month the Bouillon Pigalle's egg mayonnaise was voted the best in the world by a jury of French gastronomes, beating Michelin three-star restaurants and the version served up by President Emmanuel Macron's kitchen at the Elysee Palace.

For just €1.80 you can feast on this simple but exquisite French culinary classic.

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Chartier is one of Paris' oldest bouillon restaurants. Photo: AFP

So it is easy to see why the crowds are flocking there and to a clutch of other older and grander “bouillon” restaurants, which serve classic French comfort food at modest prices.

These places, where you can eat well amid Art Nouveau splendour for as little as €20 for three courses, are having something of a revival.

“What is not to like about this?” declared Edouard, the moustachioed patriarch of the Bordier clan, with three generations of his family from the Paris suburbs seated around the table at Bouillon Julien.

“Just look at this,” he said, pointing at the enormous cream profiterole before him and then sweeping his hand out to take in the restaurant's original Belle Epoque decor.

“And they say the French no longer know to live!” he laughed.   

The South Korean fashionistas at the next table, where singer Edith Piaf once dined daily, told AFP that it was their “favourite and cheapest meal” since they arrived.

One, Kim Bo-young, liked its thick paper tablecloths so much she wondered aloud about making a dress out of them.

Bouillons were invented to serve up cheap soups and stews at speed to busy Parisians in the 19th century.

The traditional classic egg mayonnaise. Photo: AFP

“Bouillon” means broth in French, and it was from the restorative qualities of their principal dish that the word “restaurant” comes.

Bouillon Julien went back to its roots last year and lowered the prices for its clever hearty food after restoring the frescos and mosaics in its beautiful 113-year-old interior.

Walking through mahogany dining hall with its glade-green walls is like “going back in time”, said Kim, 32, tucking into a rabbit terrine with nuts and ravigote sauce for €5.20.

It is a similar story at Chartier – the daddy of all Parisian bouillons which has been going since 1896 – where the white-aproned waiters write down the orders on the paper tablecloth before totting up the bill with head-spinning speed.

Chartier opened a second enormous restaurant earlier this year in Montparnasse in the south of the city with a stunning brass and tiled interior that dates from 1903.

Serving traditional starters like snails and leek vinaigrette at unbeatable prices, the hip French gastronomic guide Le Fooding saw it as further proof of the trend towards “le retrofoodisme” that has seen French diners re-embrace butter.

Its director Alexandre Cammas said the bouillon revival was a part of a wider return to comfort food.

“This is cooking that gives you a big hug in contrast to (top-end) cuisine which can be very refined and cold,” he told AFP.

But Chartier boss Yann Hulin bristled at the thought that there was anything in the least trendy about what they were doing. 

“We have just kept doing what we always did.

“If there is a trend, it is to copy us,” he said, in a swipe at Bouillon Julien and Bouillon Pigalle, which is setting up a second dining room that will feature Alsatian food at a historic brasserie famous for its frescos near Republique next year.

Hulin said that having been made to pay through the nose for trendy food, the public want to be served quickly and “eat good and cheap food, that is prepared simply and well”.

The high turnover of diners allowed Chartier and the other bouillons to keep their prices down, he added.

In another twist on the trend, the Mamma group also have diners queueing around the block at its Paris eateries for back-to-basics Italian trattoria food, with one restaurant-cum-street market set over 4,500 square metres. 

Jean-Christophe Le Ho of Bouillon Pigalle said sourcing quality ingredients direct from producers also cut out the middleman.

He said his nostalgic menu was about rediscovering the joy of eating traditional French dishes that are being threatened by fast food, pizzerias and sushi joints. 

A century ago Paris had 250 bouillons before their numbers withered to just one.

But the “strong demand we have found… for these dishes our grandmothers made” shows they very much have a future, Le Ho insisted.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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