Travel

The Magic French Onion Soup I Moved to Paris For

Why the brasserie is the most romantic place to eat.

Photo by James Ransom

I plunge my spoon through the melted cheese, starting near the edge to try to get a neat spoonful. I dig deeper, through the next layer of spongy bread, and sweep across the bottom of the bowl.

The aroma of stewed onions hits. I’m brought back to my childhood, to a steakhouse in upstate New York where my parents went for the ribeye and I tagged along for the soup.

I pull back a spoonful, followed by a trail of molten cheese. Maybe I should be thinking about a neater way to do this—I’m in Paris, after all—but there’s no going back now. I’m all in. For a moment, the bustling brasserie around me disappears. It’s just me and my soup l'oignon gratinee.

Suddenly, the girl at the table next to us starts sobbing over a flute of champagne. I pause and blow lightly on my steaming spoon, trying not to stare. I want to comfort her, but I’m too shy to reach across the inches between our tables. Instead, I just wonder: What could possibly be so disappointing?

She buries her face in her hands and I take a bite. It’s even better than the French onion soup I remember.


It was my senior year of college, my first time visiting Paris and my second time overseas.

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“We spent Christmas eve at Bofinger with friends and it was memorable : Everything was perfect, had lobster and all kinds of seafoods, the atmosphere was festive and there was a old french women playing the accordion from table to table singing all the french songs we knew. Had a great time. We're returning to Paris in June and will probably return to have lunch. ”
— Linda
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I don’t think I said a single word during the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle airport. Instead, I scooted over to the window and kept my eyes glued to the world whizzing by outside. I saw every last detail through rosé-colored glasses.

This is Paris, I thought to myself, though it was actually just the suburbs.

As we drove further, my excitement grew. I had dreamed of visiting Paris for years. Like a wary sailor finally setting foot on dry land, I took it all in, voraciously: the creamy Haussmannian buildings with iron terraces and charcoal blue roofs; the corner brasseries with big red awnings and rows of wicker chairs; the flower shops lining the streets with their colorful bouquets.

By the time we were nearing our final destination, just around the corner from the Eiffel Tour, it was a done deal. I was in love—or at least very infatuated.

The grand roundabouts swarmed by small cars with skinny license plates, the navy blue street signs, the language: All of it was beautiful.

A gauche,” my then-boyfriend told the taxi driver. A gauche, I repeated silently.

Though I had only been there a couple of hours, I knew we were beginning what would become a much more substantial relationship. I decided then and there that someday, I would return. By then, the city would hardly recognize me: I would speak the language and know the neighborhoods and walk among the locals as though I belonged.

But for now, I knew nothing except bonjour and merci. And that I was happy, a little tired and hungry. I was ready to eat something in Paris.


A couple hours later, after a stroll across the Seine, we found ourselves at Bofinger, a mythical Alsatian brasserie in the Bastille neighborhood.

In retrospect, it was the perfect place for my first meal—traditional cuisine and more quintessentially French-looking than I could have imagined. It had the impressive, Belle Époque dining room; the aged mirrors covering the walls; the white table cloths; the tufted black banquettes; the high, stained glass ceiling; the bow-tied waiters.

Next to us sat a very chic French girl. (I suppose all French girls were chic to me at the time.) She was alone, scrolling around on her cell phone, drinking a demi-bouteille of Veuve Clicquot champagne. What a diva, I thought to myself, envious of her cool confidence.

The moment we looked up from our menus, a neatly groomed waiter was there to take our order. We chose one of the house specialties—a platter of fresh seafood served on ice—plus a half-dozen oysters for him and a bowl of French onion soup for me.

“And what will you have as an apero? Perhaps champagne?” the waiter asked.

Why yes, of course we would.

Minutes later, I took a sip of the sparkling wine, trying to savor every bubble, and settled back into the banquet to watch the ballet around me—the waiters gliding from table to table, noting new orders, removing empty plates, and scraping crumbs from table tops. Their performance was seamless.

The aroma of stewed onions hits. I’m brought back to my childhood, to a steakhouse in upstate New York where my parents went for the ribeye and I tagged along for the soup.

Our first courses arrived, the diva started crying, and I slowly continued with my soup. The Gruyère cheese was browned on top but still melted underneath, the bread crispy on the edges, the broth and onions deeply flavorful.

It was a rare moment when everything was just as it should be. I felt lucky to be exactly where I was—and at the same time, sorry for my sobbing neighbor.

I wondered how the situation would resolve itself. My boyfriend also cast sympathetic glances her way, as he slurped back an oyster and generously buttered another piece of bread.

“I think she was stood up,” he whispered, leaning across the table. Of course, I realized. That bottle of champagne was meant to be shared.

Then an older woman, seated on the other side of our distressed diva, reached over and placed a hand on the girl’s forearm. She wore a silver-white coif and a smart, silk neck scarf—the kind of woman who emits the confidence gained through years of life experience.

I kept on with my soup, balancing each bite with cheese, bread, and onion, and occasionally glanced to my right. I couldn’t make out what the older woman was saying, but I understood how she was saying it. She was comforting her, making her feel less alone. The diva nodded and sniffed back tears. Soon she let herself laugh a little, and quietly thanked her new friend.

Courage” said the older woman—loosely, be strong—as she collected her things to leave.

I took my last bite of soup, scraping the bottom of the bowl for any remnants of stewy onions.


On the walk home, buzzed from wine, good food, and my lingering excitement, I was still thinking about what happened at the restaurant.

That small gesture, momentary but so poignant, would stay with me. As would the soup—the best French onion soup I’d ever had. But I guess your first French onion soup in Paris is always the best.

Now I live in Paris. I’m still learning the language and trying to walk among the locals as though I belong. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and I struggle to remember what all the fuss is about—after all, it’s a city just like any other. Its people still get up and go to work every morning. Not every meal is memorable. And nice girls and boys still get their hearts broken.

But every once in a while, I go to a brasserie and order a French onion soup—or, if I’m feeling brave, I’ll make it myself. And I remember the three of us girls a decade ago: one filled with excitement, one with sadness, and another with confidence. I think about the brief moment we shared and how it touched me.

Things don’t always turn out as we expect them. And some things are beautiful at first, but lose their splendor with time. But then a simple bowl of soup can remind us of the magic of that first time. And the lasting power of even the smallest act of kindness.

Have you ever had the French onion soup at Bofinger? Tell, tell in the comments.

17 Comments

Laura A. May 12, 2019
I will forever treasure my husband's and my Honeymoon dinner at Bofinger 10 years ago. The waiter took our picture in the corner banquette under the oval belle epoque stained glass ceiling fixture with the wisteria beneath it. We ate Alsatian dishes, but next time, I will try the soupe a l'oignon!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. May 12, 2019
Perfect spot for a romantic din ❤️ merci, Laura !
 
Nancy F. May 10, 2019
Please add the cooking direction o no’s for the French onion soup.
 
Linda May 1, 2019
Hi Caitlin,
You brought back lovely memories to my mind. We spent Christmas eve at Bofinger with friends and it was memorable : Everything was perfect, had lobster and all kinds of seafoods, the atmosphere was festive and there was a old french women playing the accordion from table to table singing all the french songs we knew. Had a great time. We're returning to Paris in June and will probably return to have lunch.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. May 1, 2019
Ooh I love that ! The accordion just pushes the charm over the top - in a good way :-) Enjoy your next visit to Paris, and bon app!
 
Gail April 28, 2019
I am so glad you asked about Bofinger. It was a powerful recollection for me, too, from way back. Each time I went to Paris I returned there for the ambiance, the service, the delicious French traditions that ultimately led me down a culinary path in life. Each time I went I took new companions, so as to spread the joy.
Cut to the recent present. What blasphemy; no service, rude, sloppy food, everything over salted, nothing redeeming. Not one of us had a good dinner. Remarkable. Sad, pitiful. Never again will their food pass through my lips. Shame.
 
Jo A. April 26, 2019
Coming to France (Paris > Lyon) in June to July to support the international talent of athletes competeing in the Women's World Cup Soccer games.
PLEASE, Any and all delicious recommenations welcome!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. April 27, 2019
ooooh exciting! for Paris, I recommend Bofinger, of course, then checking out a bouillon (either Bouillon Chartier or Bouillon Pigalle) ... then making a reservation for a neobistro in the 11th arrondissement (Servan, Septime, Chateaubriand, etc.) and also exploring some of the hip spots in the 10th - Fontaine de Belleville is a great place to start. For breakfast, here's a roundup of my recs: https://food52.com/blog/23938-best-breakfast-restaurants-in-paris
BON APP!!
 
Jo A. April 27, 2019
Oh, thank you, thank you!
I cannot wait to explore your recs! <3
 
Terri M. April 24, 2019
Hi! Keep clicking on recipe and just takes me back to article! Would love to make for dinner tonight! Please help!
Thanks
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. April 25, 2019
Hi there! It should take you to this recipe: https://food52.com/recipes/20970-french-onion-soup-the-scorched-way

Bon courage !!
 
RobinT April 24, 2019
Loved this story! Paris is one of my favorite places and this brought it to life. I love onion soup, but it is a croque monsieur that brings back sweet memories for me. This story made me check airfares and vacation times. Soon. Thank you, Caitlin!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. April 24, 2019
Yessss the croque monsieur! Another simple, delicious brasserie staple. Bon app!
 
Joy H. April 22, 2019
Beautifully written...captures the Paris I wish to experience!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. April 23, 2019
Thank you Joy! I hope you have that experience, too l, and find your magical French onion soup (or croissant / omelette / croque monsieur - whatever it is for you !)
 
Simon S. April 22, 2019
Bravo Caitlin. Loved your French onion soup tale, almost tasted it through your words.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin G. April 23, 2019
Merciiiiiii Simon!