Historic Paris Restaurants
Eating establishments called public houses, inns or taverns have been around since people have been traveling. They were also quite important in cities where people didn’t necessarily have individual cooking possibilities. Many prepared foods were however monopolized by the guilds. One couldn’t simple begin to offer cooked food out of one’s house as it was illegal for a non guild member to sell cooked meat in any form. Things began to evolve in 1765, when a man by the name of Boulanger added cooked lamb to a stew he sold in his shop, near the Louvre. The guild attacked in in court, but Boulanger won the case and over the next 20 years, leading up to the French Revolution, more and more shops like Boulanger’s began opening up all over Paris. But it was after the French Revolution that the laws were liberated in the concept of a gourmet restaurant spread.
The old ways of French society were upturned. The guilds were swept away and many chefs previously employed in aristocratic households recycled their skills and opened their own restaurants in Paris, bringing with them a new way of dining. China, cutlery and tablecloths were now available to all. Guests no longer took their meals at a common table, as was typical of taverns and roadside inns. Instead, they had private tables held by reservations. Menus became more diverse, offering both prix fixe and a la carte options. Though public houses continued to exist, the rise of fine dining in France would soon spread throughout Europe and the New World. The term restaurant is itself French, coming from the verb “se restaurer” meaning to restore the spirits and relieve ailments. Before the Revolution, there were less than 50 restaurants in Paris. By 1814 3,000 restaurants were listed in the Almanach des Gourmands– a popular travel guide. The 19th century also was the beginning of cafés, a type of restaurant that did not offer table service.
Many restaurants in Paris were once called bouillons. The concept started with a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval in 1855. Mr Duval’s bouillon didn’t serve food, but a broth of meat and stock – a bouillon. He served the workers at Les Halles and the idea spread. In 1896 the Chartier Brothers expanded on the idea creating a brasserie called “Le Bouillon Chartier“. This establishment still exists today.
Bouillon Chartier’s decor is now listed as a historic monument. It includes two floors (A bullet-manufacturer was the original occupant of the space), a glass ceiling, pillars and mustard yellow walls. There are Spherical lighting fixtures, bustling waiters with floor length white aprons, brass hat racks, dark wood and mirrors. The Bouillon Chartier was born out of a very simple concept – provide a decent meal at a reasonable price and give customers good service in order to earn their loyalty. 50 million meals, and only four owners later, the recipe is still every bit as much a success. You don’t become a legend by accident. They are open 365 days a year noon until midnight and serve typical traditional French food at truly inexpensive prices with main courses around just 10€. You can count on waiting for and even sharing a table with Parisians and tourist alike! Don’t miss noticing the little wooden numbered drawers on the sideboards – where regulars used store their personal napkins! 7 rue du Faubourg-Montmartre 75009 (Incidentally a “faubourg” is a place that is outside the city walls.)
There are several other Historic Paris Restaurants which have kept their decor. Here’s a selection.
Auberge Nicolas Flamel (1407). Flamel was an alchemist and is said to have created gold three times. That was enough for him to be wealthy and while he and his wife lived modestly the donated much to charity. In 1407 they built a three story house in the center of Paris. The house was an inn for the poor and destitute. The Flamels asked only for prayers in return. The house is thus considered to be the oldest inn in Paris and still works as a restaurant today. The decor and cuisine are 21st century alchemistry, but the building is historic. Menus 42/60€. 51, rue de Montmorency – 75003 Paris
La Tour d’Argent (1582). Established in 1582, La Tour d’Argent is considered the oldest restaurant in Paris. During the reign of Henry III a certain Rourteau opened an elegant inn for noblemen who wished to avoid dirty and ill-reputed taverns. “L’Hôstellerie de La Tour d’Argent” took its name from the nearby Château de la Tournelle whose tower was built with stones flecked with silver. One of Rourteau’s innovations that brought elegance was the fork which made its first appearance in France at his inn. Rourteau’s signature dish was heron pâté. It has always been the table of the famous. Henri IV, the Duke of Richelieu, Madame de Sévigné, czars and emperors, Sacha Guitry, Alfred de Musset and John Kennedy all ate here. The Tour d’Argent is still quite elegant, luxurious and of course expensive. It has a Michelin star. The view on Notre Dame is probably worth the splurge once in a lifetime. They recently created a rotisserie restaurant with prices that are affordable on the ground floor. 15 Quai de la Tournelle 75005 Paris
La Petite Chaise (1680). In 1680 a certain Georges Rameau sold wines and food in this very building. The restaurant takes its name from the transformation of the old French word “cheze” which itself comes from the Latin casa and means isolated house. Cheze, Chais (a wine cellar) or chez Georges leads up to today’s name of La Petite Chaise. The iron gate on the front door dates from the 17th century. As you can imagine with such long history the guest list is also long and illustrious: Philip d’Orleans regent, George Sand, Brillat-Savarin, Juliette Recamier, Chateaubriand, Toulouse Lautrec, François Mitterand to name a few. La Petite Chaise is still a place to find politicians, artists, actors and writers. They serve straight forward French cuisine from French onion soup and snails to duck and pot au feu. Menu 36€. 36 rue de Grenelle – 75007 Paris
Le Procope (1686). The oldest café in Paris is a legendary spot in the 6th arrondissement of Paris since 1686. Opened by a Sicilian named Procope who had an inkling that coffee, introduced to Paris in 1669, was going to be more than a passing fad. It fast became a literary café and a place full of history with illustrious clients such as Voltaire, Crébillon, Diderot, and Benjamin Franklin. During the French revolution it was a central gathering spot for the Club des Cordeliers with Danton and Marat; Robespierre and the Jacobins and today’s decor reflects that period right down to the labels on the WCs: “Citoyen” and “Citoyenne”. You can also see one of Napoleon’s hats and some revolutionary documents on the walls. Reflecting its prestigious and historic setting, the Procope offers traditional cuisine through different specialties such as Coq au vin. Menus 22-40€. 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie 75006 Paris
Le Grand Colbert (1900). In 1637 Guillaume de Serrant built a town house. It was sold to its namesake owner Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1665 then to Philippe d’Orléans in 1719. From 1806 to 1825 the building was home to the federal treasury. The town house was torn down to make room for the building we see today as well as the opening of the Galerie [passageway] Colbert in 1825. The area was fashionable for clothing, perfume and reading rooms. A new shop opened, called Au Grand Colbert, in hommage to the early owner. The name was kept when in 1900 it was turned into a restaurant. It was an inexpensive “bouillion” style place up until 1985 when the building’s owner, the National Library, decided to renovate the building and the galerie. All the historic details were left intact; impressive six meter ceilings, consoles, sculpted pilasters, pompeiian-style paintings (rare in Paris), and the elegant mosaic floor. Today, Le Grand Colbert is listed as a historic monument and is managed by Joel Fleur. They welcome and serve a cosmopolitan clientele among which are actors, top models, designers, movie stars, businessmen, tourists and some regulars. The menu offers a choice of traditional brasserie meals where typical French dishes are mixed with original recipes that have an exotic touch. Menus from 19 to 40€. 2, rue Vivienne 75002.
Le Train Bleu (1901). Also from la Belle Epoque it dates from the opening of the Gare de Lyon in 1901. The menu is limited and fairly expensive, but the service is impeccable. They have nothing to prove, they know it and they don’t flaunt it. You will find: leg of lamb, carved on a trolley in front of you, a traditional cheese trolley and chocolate sauce for the profiteroles warm in a double boiler. The space is huge and runs the entire length of the station’s façade. The ceilings are eight meters high and along with the walls are covered with frescoes of the places where the PLM (Paris, Lyon, Marseille) train traveled. It is called the Train Bleu in reference to the famous train that ran to the Cote d’Azur and Vintimille in Italy. Grand arched windows allow the lucky ones to enjoy both the bustle on the tracks below and the gilt interior. They serve 500 customers day, so there is plenty of bustle but you won’t feel a bit rushed. You can also just visit the bar inside the restaurant for breakfast, lunch, tea time or dinner and walk in the footsteps of Coco Chanel, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Jean Gabin, and Marcel Pagnol. Gare de Lyon, 75012 Paris; website: www.le-train-bleu.com
Au Chien qui fume (1740/1920). As strange as the name of the restaurant is there are several with this name in various places in France, in fact the seemingly oddball name is downright popular. In Versailles there is a Le Chien qui fume and across the street Le Chat qui prise (tabac à priser is snuff)! There are others in Elbeuf (near Rouen), Lille, Amiens. In Paris you’ll find Au Chien qui fume in the first and sixth arrondissements, but they are not the same owner. The historic one is in the first arrondissement. In 1740, near the market known as the “Halles au Roy”, a small inn opened. One hundred years later the building fell to Baron Haussmann’s plans, but was finally rebuilt right nearby. In 1920, a new owner arrived with his dogs: a cigar-smoking poodle and a pipe-smoking terrier, whom he showed off his customers. Hence the name “Au Chien Qui Fume”. (Why isn’t it plural?) An authentic Parisian brasserie with a great name. 33 Rue du Pont Neuf 75001 Paris