A Madisonian in Paris

An artist finds a new side to the City of Light

When I first went to Paris as a graduate student in art, I had only two weeks’ notice before I left. There was no time to learn the culture, the language or how anything worked. By necessity, I walked everywhere and became thoroughly familiar with Paris that way. Every street was saturated in history, art was ubiquitous and the continual sensory stimulation was a way of life. I loved it.

Since that time, I have returned to the city almost every year; guiding tours and lecturing in the art museums gave me a way. In fact, over the past twenty-one years, I have taken close to five hundred Madisonians on art tours to Paris! I knew what to expect in the City of Light, and I thought that now, after dozens of trips there, nothing in Paris could surprise me. I was wrong.

During a recent visit to Paris, my husband and I walked into a restaurant and within seconds were stunned by an artistically exhilarating experience. Startled by the scene in front of us, we took a seat and let out the breath we were holding. It seems we were engulfed in a room of “living art” that radiated energy, excitement and a sense of frozen time.

Myriad mirrored panels on either side of the room disoriented our sense of space as they reflected each other as well as dozens of unique lights, creating a pattern that played with infinity. The ceiling lights were brilliant—inverted plant-like stems of black metal hung down with delicately sculptured leaves at their sides, ending in exquisite blooms of water lily-shaped light bulbs!

Hundreds of tiny mosaic tiles danced across the entire floor in a vast, vivid pattern. On the wall near our table I noticed the signature of the famed, master glass artist L. Trézel, who invented new techniques for glass artists in the early 1900s. His lavender-colored iris and yellow flowers created in glass panels were bordered by green, vine-like, wooden frames.

Nearby, four large, white chunky candles held by curving wire tendrils dripped onto a round table that was covered with tiny mountains of melted wax. The clock above the bar was held by spirals of iron rods, while the chair backs echoed the organic shapes in the room. Upstairs, sensuous paintings of women with flowing long hair echoed the curvilinear patterns in the room.

The whole effect looked like a swirling ink drawing on top of a garden of illuminated and living green vines, and was a breathtaking example of “Art Nouveau” alive and well in Paris, France, in a restaurant called the Bouillon Racine.

I asked if I could photograph the room and was graciously granted permission plus an interview with the owner, Luc Morand. Since I am an artist and have taught college art history, I was familiar with Art Nouveau, but I had never been inside a building like this (which is now an historic landmark), and the answers he gave me were fascinating. First question: Why would a stunning Art Nouveau restaurant be called “Bouillon,” or in English, “broth”?

He explained that in 1855 a butcher named Pierre-Louis Duval opened a restaurant for workers in the heart of Paris and served only one menu item—meat with broth (bouillon). The idea caught on, and within five years there were twenty “bouillon” restaurants in Paris and by 1900 there were 250. Morand told me that these were actually the first known chain of restaurants.

After Duval, two brothers, Camille and Edouard Chartier, entered the scene and opened more bouillon restaurants. A charming feature of some of these establishments was a rack with numbered cubby-hole compartments to hold the used napkins of regular customers! Some of the bouillon restaurants even included a reading room or had interesting attractions such as giant tortoises. Eventually, these restaurants served different varieties of bouillon as well as the more classic cuisine. But they still were called “bouillons.”

Camille Chartier began the Bouillon Racine in 1906 and renovated it in the Art Nouveau style, with the help of architect Jean-Michel Bouvier. The outer facade, with its huge decorative windows, floral designs and name, “Grand Bouillon Camille Chartier,” remains exactly the same today.

The name “Chartier” is also embedded in the mosaic pattern of the front step, along with a mysterious metal plate full of holes. I asked Morand what it was and he explained. “The answer is quite simple—there is a cellar under. The holes brought fresh air to it. The cellar was completely renovated in 1996 to adapt it to a modern kitchen and, needless to say, to different sanitary regulations than in 1906. At that time, they put concrete on the earth ground, remade the walls and … filled in the holes.”

We talked about the Art Nouveau style, based heavily on nature and kicked off by the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, and the designs of the famed architect Hector Guimard. At that time, he launched his organic-shaped iron and glass designs for the Paris Métro (subway) entrances, which you can still see today. Even the shield-like railings on the outside of some of his Métro entrances were created in painted cast-iron with the Art Nouveau signature “coup de fouet” (“whiplash” in English) curves. Reverse the words to find the meaning—the lash of a whip, suspended in time and space, thrusting its line like a curving, energy-filled promise of movement.

It wasn’t long before three hundred Parisian restaurants embraced the Art Nouveau style, with various images of irises, lilies, dragonflies, fish, birds or butterflies and twining plant stems. Females with flowing, sensuous long hair were frequently depicted in paintings and were charged with symbolism. Colors remained muted with pale green the most popular. Ceramic borders, mirrors and candles added to the magical effect, along with a variety of beautiful woods like oak, walnut, pear tree, mahogany and ebony.

How did the Bouillon Racine restaurant fit into this history? Camille Chartier owned it first, but over time and two wars ownership changed and eventually from 1962 to1993 the restaurant was leased out to the Sorbonne University for use by its personnel as a sort of canteen. Needless to say, they did not appreciate the historic value and the magnificent decor was not kept up. A Belgium beer company named Palm (you can still see their sign on the outside of the building) purchased it and renovated it in 1996.

When did Luc Morand come to own it? He explained that his grandparents, father and brother had all been in the restaurant business in the Alps. Thinking the restaurant business consumed too many hours of the workday, Luc decided to go to the United States in 1994 for an MBA at the Wharton School of Business. After working in business in sales and marketing, he came back to Paris. By coincidence, a friend of his father told him about a restaurant in Paris that was for sale. Morand took it over in 2002 and hired Alexandre Bethoise as his chef. Morand intended to work in the restaurant for only six months. But he is still there, and says he really likes it. In fact, he lives right above the restaurant in the apartment once occupied by the famous French woman writer, Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand.

When asked if any famous people had eaten in the restaurant, Morand said, “Yes! Former president Chirac’s wife and daughter came here to celebrate a birthday. The former prime minister Lionel Jospin and the present mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, have both dined here as well. Then there are the professors from the Sorbonne who eat here regularly since the university is close by. The restaurant also draws the senators from the nearby senate building in the Luxembourg Gardens.” He went on to say that “although not famous, a very old lady who dined here was looking at the black and white photo on the wall that was taken in 1919. Suddenly she burst out in tears as she recognized the face of her grandmother!”

As we were talking about the fascinating history of the place, Morand took out a stack of black and white photocopies, enlarged from postcards from the 1900s. Each street scene showed a bouillon restaurant somewhere in Paris. There were horses and buggies, men in top hats, women in toe-length skirts, flower vendor carts and young men in “newsboy caps.” The most striking image showed the Paris flood of 1910. Horses were standing in water up to their knees, while a dozen people on a makeshift wooden sidewalk on stilts gathered under a bouillon sign, somewhere in Paris.

At the end of our interview, Morand showed me some of the restaurant’s menus from the 1900s. By 1924 the menu had evolved past broth to show a wide variety of food including tomato salad for one French franc, at that time around 20 U.S. cents. You could buy an omelet with parmesan, an egg with mayonnaise, ham with spinach or smoked sausage with French fries, salad or a main dish for less than a dollar. The famous bouillon cost only a few pennies!

Today, a delicious variety of food is offered. Their current menu includes “the suckling pig stuffed and spit-roasted, the duckling with bush peaches, the farm chicken blanquette, the cod with tapenade and Aix-en-Provence virgin olive oil, or the coffee from Liege, the waffle with crème brûlée with maple syrup.” For our dinner there, my husband and I ordered waterzooi, a Belgium chicken stew served in an iron mini pot, with out-of-this-world-rich cream sauce. Since it was also my birthday, we indulged in a chocolate cake with a warm fudge-like center. By the way, the service was impeccable and the dining atmosphere was so warm that we came back the next night for dinner.

When we left the restaurant that night we felt invigorated visually and intellectually from the sights and stories of the Bouillon Racine. Suddenly I realized that the restaurant was only a few blocks from the Boulevard Saint Michel in the student quarter where I lived when I studied in Paris in the ’80s. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Guess the Rue Racine was one block I missed when I was walking around studying Paris. Then I realized I had been on a student budget and lived mostly on sandwiches.

Adrienne Michel Sager is a professional artist (and a five-time Best of Madison “local artist” winner) who has taught college art and art history courses. Those interested in learning more about her tours and experiences in Paris may contact her at adrisager@yahoo.com.

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