Nick has two solitary meals in Paris. Not haute cuisine but possibly useful addresses.
In the 17 years that we owned a small apartment in Pigalle, in Paris's 18th arrondissement, there were plenty of physical changes. Not to its long-standing attractions – the Sacré Coeur, the great white-domed church crowning Montmartre, the small streets of rue Lépic and rue des Abbesses, nor even to its two windmills, the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin de la Galette – but rather to the nature of the smaller buildings in between.
In 2002 when we bought, encouraged by chef Ken Hom, who lived in the flat below ours, virtually every other shop offered something related to sex. Then along came the internet and, as in London's Soho, a great deal of this demand went online. Its place was taken by two less potentially offensive attractions, health and beauty and food and drink, pastimes that, pace Uber Eats and Deliveroo and the 'dark kitchens' that supply them, still require their customers to take their bodies along for full satisfaction.
On my most recent visit there, to pack up the flat, there seemed to be even more food shops than ever. The rue des Martyrs, just to the south in the 9th, is densely populated with so many independent food stores that New York journalist Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, has devoted a book to the street's 200 shops, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs (WW Norton & Co, 2016, £11.99).
And when I went out in the afternoon for a slice of tart to one of my favourite pâtisseries, Les Petits Mitrons on the rue Lépic, I could not help but notice a large group of Asian tourists being shown Le Café des Deux Moulins on the other side of this street where the film Amélie was shot in 2001.
Just these four paragraphs will give a brief overview of an area that has to be very appealing to the hungry and thirsty. My two meals on what may be my last trip to the area for a long time focused on one new establishment and one long-established restaurant no more than a kilometre apart.
In some ways Bouillon, which opened several months ago on a corner site on the Boulevard de Clichy, right by the Pigalle metro station, is not new, nor does its menu offer anything new. But nobody, in my opinion, ever went bust underestimating the world's appetite for reasonable quality, extremely well-priced, French comfort food.
This has been the story behind the success of Chartier in the 9th arrondissement, which opened in 1896 and was declared a monument historique in 1989. This bustling hall accessed by a narrow passageway has offered non-stop service from 11.30 am to 11 pm seven days a week ever since. Bouillon Pigalle is its little sister, and much newer, restaurant, having opened in 2018.
As at the original Chartier, this new branch is immediately recognisable by the queues outside. I joined the queue shown above at 11.50 and was ushered into the restaurant at about 12.10, the doors having opened a little late at 12.07. There is no reception but once inside the swing doors the management have installed a U-shaped waiting area. Once you reach the head of the queue you are greeted by the next waiter or waitress, who, with the single piece of paper that combines the menu and the drinks list, takes you to your table. All of which contributes to lower operational costs.
The room is fitted out in classic, inexpensive bistro style. The chairs are light bentwood; the tablecloths are paper; the tables are close together; the lighting is standard; but the big difference between this branch and the original is the huge amount of natural light that flows in from the large windows.
Everyone is here to eat, drink and have fun. The menu is a cream paper with everything on it written in black and red ink, the food on one side, the drinks on the back. The menu includes 14 first courses; 15 main courses with four side dishes; three different choices of French cheese; and 10 desserts. And while all the dishes and the drinks are in black ink, it is the prices that are more boldly in red ink.
Each one of these prices is surprisingly low, starting with oeufs mayonnaise at €1.90, with the most expensive starter, a slice of foie gras with onion compote, at €8.80. So too with the main courses that opened with the ever-so-heavy dish of soupe au fromage at €8.80 rising to €11.50 for saucisse served with pommes purée and €13.50 for the sweetbreads. Desserts range from €2.90 for a chocolate éclair to €4.50 for either the profiteroles or the rum baba.
My bill, including a 25-cl quart of red Côtes du Rhône for €3.30 (a 3-litre Jéroboam would have cost me €38.80), came to €24.10, which included a very passable first course of herring with boiled potato, a hefty dish of tête de veau with sauce gribiche (above) and an over-sweet, too-cold interpretation of rice pudding topped with a caramel sauce.
Bouillon's approach is based on their speed of service. I watched a couple of elderly women who came in at the same time as I did but did not order a first course. They were enjoying their main course before I had received my first course and they were on to their dessert and coffee pretty soon thereafter. Within minutes, their table was occupied by the next couple. The food, particularly the first and main courses, was pretty good. The bill, definitely small scale, made the whole experience fun and great value, though many will find the queues offputting.
No more than a kilometre away, and directly opposite the metro station on the place de Clichy, is the venerable Brasserie Wepler, which first opened its doors in 1881. This place is highly traditional, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and bedecked in red. Its interior is old wood, a lot of leather, and its clientele, with the odd exception of an English couple with their three young children at the table next to mine, considerably older than at Bouillon.
Wepler's great attraction is its list of the oysters and shellfish opened outside by two men dressed in navy-blue outfits with WEPLER emblazoned on them. I began my meal with nine, six from Utah Beach in Normandy, a beach made famous by the Allied landings there in 1944 and far more recently by a wonderful dish of these oysters we had enjoyed at Bon Bon restaurant in Brussels. They were delicious and made a lovely prelude to a trio of Gillardeau oysters that are in my opinion the sweetest oysters of them all.
With this I drank a bottle of Domaine du Roncée, Clos des Marronniers 2017 Chinon, a favourite appellation of Paris restaurants, and enjoyed a second first course that was listed on their specials, a massive piece of roast bone marrow with a spicy parsley salad. With dessert, my bill came to €91.
Sitting in both Bouillon and Wepler I was reminded of what had first made the restaurants of Paris so popular in the early nineteenth century – that they provided, and continue to offer the visitor, the rare opportunity of being able to watch the French at play. And while Bouillon's audience was principally young and comprised many customers in larger groups, that at Wepler was considerably older and at tables of twos and threes.
And even at Wepler, with its tablecloths, linen napkins and wood, I was reminded of one other fact of restaurant life – that it is only empty restaurants that are quiet.
Bouillon Pigalle 22 boulevard de Clichy, Paris 75018. Open seven days noon to 11 pm. No reservations.
Brasserie Wepler 14 place de Clichy, Paris 75018; tel +33 (0)1 45 22 53 24