Looking through the corner windows, it’s not immediately clear what’s going on inside the newest restaurant in Paris’ 9th arrondissement. The floor is covered in sand, and the space is bisected by a curtain of what looks like volleyball netting. Squinting through the knitted squares, it’s possible to make out a bartender wielding a miniature blow torch to ignite a flaming shot at the back-wall bar. His sweatshirt depicts a smiling, moustachioed man — the grandfather of restaurant owner Alexis Robert, and the inspiration for this unusual place.
Walking in, the expected sounds of French conversation and of draft beer being poured are punctuated by the surprising metallic clack of boules crashing together. A group of people watch a live game unfolding, cheering when the players come close to their target. They’re playing pétanque, better known in the U.S. by its Italian name, Bocce, and much beloved by Robert’s grandfather, a dentist in a small Cantal town. Welcome to Chez Bouboule.
Chez Bouboule feels a little like a miniature bowling alley — if bowling alleys smelled better, served dishes like salmon tartare with dill, and favored exposed concrete over neon carpeting.
As unorthodox a concept as this may be — and for Paris, it’s a pretty quirky combo — Chez Bouboule is actually not the first time Robert has combined dining and indoor sports. After some time spent working at IBM and as a corporate head-hunter, he tested his hybrid model with Le Vintage, a space in the 2nd arrondissement, where guests could kill time between courses by playing foosball (or, as the French insist on calling it, “le baby-foot”). But considering the space required for a game of pétanque, Chez Bouboule represents an ambitious upping of the ante.
The room feels a little like a miniature bowling alley — if bowling alleys smelled better, served dishes like salmon tartare with dill, and favored exposed concrete over neon carpeting. The decor is purposefully spare, with wooden stools lining marble counters. All the menu items are simple and delicious; guests can nibble on fresh charcuterie and prime paté as they wait their turn at the pitch. Besides flaming shots, the bar is stocked with a more typical selection of beer, wine and cocktails.
“I find the values of pétanque are excellent,” Robert says. “The friendship, the sharing, the sense of holiday…” It’s typically a fair weather sport, so Parisians are “delighted” to have a place to play all year round, he adds. And unlike some of the other innovative joints that are shaking up the bar and restaurant scene in Paris, like Holy Belly or Fondation Café, this one has been warmly received by the city bureaucracy: The mayor of the 9th arrondissement, Delphine Bürkli, sent a letter congratulating Chez Bouboule on its success.
That’s partly a testament to Robert’s ability to pull off a delicate balancing act between the old and the new. A quintessential Ricard sign still hangs above the bar, and nothing about the décor screams “we are different.” By camouflaging a fun concept in traditional bistro garb, Chez Bouboule hits an entrepreneurial sweet spot: enticing to outsiders, but familiar enough to also attract locals in search of an after-work apéro. Let the games continue…
Illustration by Kemi Mai
Photographs by William Lounsbury