French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir portrayed a waitress from one of several Parisian restaurants established by a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval who began by using meat scraps to make broths.1 The Établissements Duval were commonly referred to as the “Bouillons Duval,” or “Établissements de Bouillon,” in reference to this signature dish. Founded in 1854, the business expanded to about a dozen locations by the end of the following decade. The chain almost exclusively employed women servers who wore black dresses, half hidden by aprons and snow-white bibs, and caps.2 The Baedeker guidebook (1881) advised travelers that Duval offered a limited and affordable menu to customers who were “waited on by women, soberly garbed, and not unlike sisters of charity.” In much the same vein, a journalist from the New York Times wrote that the “neat, nun-like uniforms” reminded him of what the cooks wore in the kitchen of the House of Commons.3,4 Nevertheless, “Renoir imparted to his comely model an unaffected grace,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its gallery label. Three menus recall these low-cost restaurants that were renowned for their waitresses.
Renoir painted the portrait a few years before the 1878 Exposition Universelle, a World’s Fair held in Paris to celebrate the recovery of France after the Franco-Prussian War. The fair provided many places to have lunch, including a branch of Duval situated next to the École militaire, on the Champ-de-Mars. Communicating with sightseers from other countries was not always easy, as indicated by the puzzled look of the waitress in this illustration of the interior of that restaurant.
British journalist George Augustus Sala wrote that Paris was back to herself again in 1878 and that young gentlemen who were anxious to “see life” should go to a Duval restaurant. Although they could be crowded and steaming hot, and served small portions, these restaurants were popular with citizens of all classes and visitors to the city. The handbook Abroad and at Home; Practical Hints for Tourists (1891) reported that “in every quarter of Paris you see one or two sober and respectable-looking façades painted dark red and lettered simply ‘Établissement Duval.’ (They are) wonderfully organized, exceedingly cheap, and all the food that is sold in them is good and genuine; these establishments now serve an average of three million meals a year.” This menu comes from the 1878 Exposition Universelle and is dated May 30 of that year.
In 1900, the waitresses went on strike for a 12-hour day and against having to give some of their tips to management. The disruption did not affect their popularity. French bibliophile Octave Uzanne observed in The Modern Parisienne (1912) that “the little waitress at Duval’s is generally charming, very clean, helpful, intelligent, and gifted with an extraordinary memory and attention to clients.” They were praised in poems and café songs. The menu below comes from the branch at the Place de la République on December 25, 1917. During the grinding attrition of the First World War, a melancholic mood may have pervaded these plain restaurants where diners sat at bare marble tables. Perhaps it was a hospitable waitress who inspired an American far from home on Christmas to keep this drab and poorly-printed menu as a memento.
Thirty-two locations dotted Paris in the early 1920s when a French-American restaurateur saved the menu below from the one on Rue Lafayette near the Gare du Nord.5 The illustration shows that the Duval waitress had become an iconic symbol of these restaurants from a bygone era. And it seems the old system had not changed much over the years. In Dining in Paris (1925), Sommerville Story disclosed: “These waitresses are not paid. Each girl has five tables to wait on, for which she pays so much a day. She is given her food, and for the rest relies on tips, so they have good days and bad ones.”
Some women worked there for many years, while others moved on to the other jobs, including the stage. Whenever Alexandre Duval, the son of the founder and owner of the chain, saw one of his former waitresses, the restaurateur would take off his hat in a grand gesture. According to one story, a prominent actress once said to him: “Monsieur Duval, I should be obliged if you would not salute me quite so elaborately every time you see me. People will be thinking I’m an old Restaurant Duval girl!”
1. The portrait was painted in about 1875 when the artist was 34 years old. Renoir may have eaten at Duval restaurants many times during his early, difficult years.
2. The Duval on the Rue Montesquieu, near the Palais Royal and beside the Hôtel Duval, was the only location that had waiters. This flagship of the chain served a more refined cuisine and charged higher prices.
3. Jim Chevallier, ParisFoodHistory.blogspot.com/2018/12/rouwens-van-coppenaal-inventor-of-chain.html (accessed 5 January 2020).
4. In April 1886, the “Pall Mall Gazette” announced the opening of a bouillon restaurant named “Duval” in London. The British venture, which was unaffiliated with the French company, was located at Charing Cross. The manager and servers were bilingual French women.
5. The menu was discovered in the Mailhebuau family papers. In 1922-23, Camille Mailhebuau, formerly part owner of Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog in San Francisco, went to France where he looked for ideas as to what type of restaurant might do well in the United States during Prohibition. (See A Moment in Time).