Did Paris invent gastronomy?

An ongoing exhibit at the Conciergerie is making that claim. To quote one of the signs at the exhibit entrance: “France may no longer have a monopoly when it comes to gastronomy (…) but it can definitely pride itself on having invented its spirit, its substance and its rulebook.”

The exhibit runs until July and anyone interested in Parisian history, food, the Conciergerie (not necessarily in this order) should look it up.

This is not a review of a self-proclaimed eclectic “expo” (exhibit) but rather selected highlights of some of my favorite sections.

Covering over six centuries of Paris’ gastronomic heritage is a challenge. From the famous banquet organized in the 14th century by Capetian king Charles V to prestigious state dinners held to this day, visitors travel through the ages and meet French gastronomy icons along the way (personalities, culinary specialties, landmarks.) It doesn’t hurt the exhibit is surrounded by the imposing walls of la Conciergerie, a historic landmark once part of a royal medieval palace then a dreaded jail during the French Revolution. Ah, if these walls could talk!

Exhibit at the Conciergerie Paris

Exhibit entrance

Several years ago, the Forney library located inside the Hôtel de Sens in le Marais held an exhibit titled: “Feeding Paris.” The most interesting part was the exploration of the ways Paris built its own “terroir over the ages, producing then distributing food and wine from the Ile de France through its many markets including the most recognizable of them all “les Halles.”

“Les Halles” is one of my favorite Parisian stories, one of the saddest too. “Les Halles” are no more. They ruled the Paris food scene for almost 800 years and were famously destroyed in the early 1970s to make space for a controversial shopping center and massive underground transportation hub. The Paris wholesale market has been located well outside the city in Rungis since then.

“Les Halles” are featured at the Conciergerie exhibit. I had a chance to get up close and personal with a giant representation of a favorite painting, Leon Lhermitte’s “Les Halles” (the original can be found at le Petit Palais.) The painting captures the lively, colorful, loud, messy scene that repeated itself daily in the “metal Babylon” for generations of Parisians from all social backgrounds. The onion soup so popular with tourists (even in the spring and summer!) was known as “la gratinée des Halles” and fed the market’s workers at the end of the night shift. Served in most restaurants in the area, it soon became a favorite for Parisian revelers recovering from wild nights.

The first restaurant was born in Paris, the exhibit claims. From humble cafés and bistros to brasseries and gastronomic, Michelin-starred restaurants, the French capital has had them all. Artist Jean Béraud excelled at capturing late 19th century elegance in his paintings. As such, he often gets top billing in my online French conversation classes. His paintings are so detailed they could be photographs.

Couple having dinner

Dîner aux Ambassadeurs (Jean Béraud, circa 1880)

When I travel around Paris and France, I like nothing more than a small neighborhood café. If it features a beautiful “zinc” (countertop) even better. That’s where “les habitués” (regulars) hang out, chatting up their favorite waitress or “le patron” (the owner.) The Conciergerie exhibit pays tribute to the French bistro and its iconic accoutrements (zinc countertop, rattan chairs, small, round tables.) Rightfully so. Cafés and bistros have been the backdrop of special moments  for decades. They continue delivering authentic slices of French life in spite of rampant gentrification in many city centers.


The exhibit includes one of the hottest trends in Parisian gastronomy, then (and now) “le bouillon.” I have featured my favorite “neo-bouillon” restaurants in recent stories. The original “bouillons” were gigantic eateries, on several floors. They could sit up to 500 people. Like le bouillon Chartier they took the Parisian dining scene by storm in the mid-19th century welcoming working classes with affordable, hearty meals (like the original “bouillon” or broth.) Soon white-collar workers, the bourgeoisie and just about everyone else flocked there. Today locals and visitors still do. “Bouillons” are experiencing a revival. In 2023, French and international diners are seduced by the lively atmosphere, decent food, fully-renovated, spectacular interiors in the Art Nouveau style and irresistible prices. Paris: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Large restaurant

A 19th century “bouillon”

There’s a lot more to discover at the Conciergerie’s exhibit, like this large map.  It’s taller than I am and features food specialties in old French regions. Who doesn’t like a good map?

Of course, there’s the Conciergerie itself. So many visitors brave long lines at the Sainte Chapelle nearby but don’t it make it all the way here. C’est dommage. What a pity.

The Conciergerie boutique (a dangerous one as museum boutiques go) reminds visitors Queen Marie-Antoinette was once a prisoner here and awaited her fate in a small cell one can only see when renting a Histopad for a few additional Euros. Thanks to the ongoing exhibit the boutique also offers a tempting selection of books, prints and other goodies focusing on French gastronomy.

Good luck resisting those!


Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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  1. Julie Goodrich on May 12, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Wonderful article! La Conciergerie is a gem that we love to visit. I chuckle when I remember our tour there when our kids were little…..our guide supposedly did the tour in French and English, but when he would switch to English, his accent was so strong that I ended up translating for my husband and kids!!

  2. Michelle on May 14, 2023 at 12:26 am

    Fascinating, Veronique. Love the history of gastronomy with background of Les Halles & Les bouillons. There was an article in NYTIMES last week highlighting 6 restaurants in Paris offering 3 course meals for under 20€ & reviews were very good about the menus which sound much like Les Bouillons maybe??? Thank you for your posts. I always learn such interesting things.

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