What Is A Bistro?
If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.
Twenty years ago, the difference between a brasserie and a bistro could be reduced to the difference between the heart and the mind — or so it appeared to a young woman with poetic tendencies and expatriate ambitions. The beef bourguignon and homey roast chicken at the bistro were there to reassure and console, whereas the raw oysters heaped on ice and the slabs of pate at the brasserie catered to a more aggressive palate.
Molly O’Neill, Come to the Brasserie, The New York Times
In my recent trip to Paris, I saw many names to describe what we would call a “restaurant”: bistros, brasseries, cafes, bistro cafes, cafeterias, bar a vin and restaurant traditionnel.
I also saw many “restaurants” combine several names such as: “restaurant, bar, bistrot” or “restaurant and bistrot” or “cafe, restaurant, bar a vin” or “cafe, restaurant, brasserie.”
To compound the confusion, these names were often applied to “restaurants” that seem to be the same.
What do these terms signify?
Bistros are hotter than they have ever been. This can be explained by the proximity of the chef, dishes focused on the ingredients, the friendly atmosphere… Bistros are the Parisians’ second dining room.
Patricia Wells, who is a well known expert on Parisian restaurants and French cuisine, describes a bistro as a small mom-and-pop restaurant with mom at the cash register and pop in the kitchen. The menus are handwritten on a slip of paper or on a chalkboard. The food is limited to a small selection of traditional favorites. The wine is offered by the carafe, and the wine list is limited and inexpensive. Bistro food is simple, hearty and filling.
Bistros are rustic and comfortable and unpretentious. The decor is simple. Bistros feel like home. They reflect the aesthetic of home cooking. Historically, bistros used cheaper cuts of meat, leftovers to make soup and winter root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips and rutabaga. Good bread was essential. Bistros serve food for the proletariat.
The word “bistrot” was coined in the early 1800’s. One popular story about the origin of the word is that, in 1814, the Russian Cossacks occupied Paris. The Russians would crowd into the inns, and threaten the innkeepers with swords to bring their food immediately. The word “bistro” comes from the Russian word “bystro” which means quickly.
However, this popular story has been proved false. Pierre Guiraud, a linguist, studied the history of the word “bistro” and found that it was derived from the word “bistouille” which means a bad wine. It follows that a bistro is a place where one drinks bad wine!
Au Petite Riche-The Beginning
In 1861, the Paris Opera was built at the Place de l’ Opera. The Parisian high society (the demimonde, politicians, journalists, musicians and actors) which orbited around the Opera would dine at Cafe Riche which was nearby.
However, the common people-the coachmen, theater employees and servants-had nowhere to eat. They could not afford Cafe Rich and would not have been served even if they could.
Fortunately, Au Petite Riche (which opened in 1854) was close to Cafe Rich and offered the commoners a place where they could get good, simple and cheap food.
This is the beginning of the Parisian bistro and reflects the heart and soul of the bistro aesthetic.
In 1873 Au Petite Riche was destroyed by a fire. Au Petite Riche was rebuilt after the fire but it was upgraded to serve a much wealthier and classier clientele than the original restaurant. Its website says that is a symbol of Parisian gastronomic history and you can “immerse yourself in the restaurant’s beautiful Belle Epoque decor” and in its “lavish ambiance.”
Au Petite Riche began as a “bistro” but evolved into a “restaurant.” Its drinking glasses and plates are engraved with the lettering “Au Petite Riche,” there are classical paintings on the walls, and the feeling is one of luxury, wealth and splendor. It has a deep and expensive wine cellar. It draws clientele from the nearby art auction houses and the Opera. The website says it is a “true Parisian restaurant” and offers “bourgeois cuisine.”
The difference between the original Au Petite Riche and the modern version of points to the distinction between restaurants and bistros: one caters to the “bourgeois” and the other to the “proletariat.”
The early soup kitchens also influenced the evolution of the modern bistro.
In 1870, a butcher named Duval created the “bouillon” which was a working class restaurant that served only “pot au feu.” Pot a feu is a beef and vegetable stew that uses cheaper cuts of meat. The bouillon was a great success and Duval opened a chain of soup kitchens. The kitchens were charmless but the food was simple, cheap and filling. Over time, the menus of the kitchens expanded and the decor improved but they were stilled aimed at the working class. Many of these places had a regular clientele. In fact, some had racks of wooden compartments where diners could keep their napkins.
The best example of a soup kitchen is Bouillon Chartier. Bouillon Chartier has long tables with simple red tablecloths and old wooden chairs. Salt and pepper and utensils are on the table tops. The menu is on the chalkboard, the waiters were black aprons, white shirts and black vests, the bread comes in straw baskets, the lights are opaline globes. There is no pretense, elegance or glamor at the Bouillon Chartier.
Bouillon Chartier even has a large clock on one of the walls to remind the customers that it is time to go back to work!
From Bouillon Chartier’s website:
In 1896, the Bouillon Chartier was born out of a very simple concept – provide a decent meal at a reasonable price and give customers good service in order to earn their loyalty. It has developed more than a personality; they have given it a soul. Have a seat at a table and take the time to admire the famous sideboards where regulars kept their own, personal napkins and the painting by Germont, who gave it to the establishment as payment for his debt there.The dishes are traditional. Enjoy leeks vinaigrette, hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, vegetable soup or snails for starters; meat, fish or stews simmered to perfection come next. The menu is a long one, the meals are authentic and the mains are around €10.
The Polidor Cremerie-Restaurant is another example of an early bistro. The Polidor opened in 1845 and is near the Jardin du Luxembourg. The name “Polidor” came from the cream desserts it served in the past.
The interior of the Polidor has changed little over the past 100 years. The price of the meal is almost the same as well, as adjusted for inflation!
At the Polidor diners sit at long, community tables. Salt and pots of mustard are shared. The decor is simple with red and white checked tablecloths, old mirrors on the wall, and well-used utensils. The chairs and tables are worn and have much character.
The Polidor offers the following specialities: egg mayo, snails, ribeye or sirloin steak, veal blanquette, salt pork with lentils, flank steak with shallots, or its famous tartare steak with pommes frites.
The owners of the Polidor started the College Pataphysique which brought together important writers, artists and philosophers in the 1950s. Pataphysics was created by the poet Alfred Jarry. It means “the science of imaginary solutions.”
Raymond Queneau, Eugene Ionesco, Jacques Prévert, Max Ernst,Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were regulars at the Polidor. The Polidor remains a popular restaurant on the Left Bank, particularly among students at the nearby Sorbonne.
What Is a Brasserie?
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
And as the years go by, generations of deputies, literary men, artists succeed each other at my place. Frequent visitors for a long time, whom I have known since they were children, are still loyal to my brasserie and delight in reminding memories from this place. I know they like this immutable institution.
Marcelin Cazes, Brasserie Lipp
“Brasserie” means “brewery.” It is derived from the Middle French word“brasser” which means “to brew.” In the 1877 Edition of the Dictionary of the French Language, “brasserie” was defined as “a place where beer is sold by the measure and where there are only benches and wooden tables.” Its was first used in English in 1864. The 1901 Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of English defined “brasserie” as “in France, any beer-garden or saloon.”
The origin of the word comes from the fact that beer was brewed on the premises rather than delivered. An inn would brew its own beer and provide room and board.
Patricia Wells says that brasseries have Alsatian roots. This means “lots of beer, Alsatian white wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer and usually choucroute, that hearty blend of sauerkraut and assorted sausages.”
When France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Alsatian businessmen flooded Paris and opened restaurants which served sauerkraut and beer. Also, at this time, an epidemic had damaged the country’s vineyards and wine became expensive.
These places quickly attracted writers and artists.
Beer became a beverage for the working classes. Some of these early brasseries were wild. The beer was served by pretty barmaids who would sometimes take customers into the back rooms.
Brasseries tend to be larger than bistros and are more energetic, lively and loud. Many of the modern brasseries are elegant, bright and are decorated with Belle Epoque design. Brasseries usually serve food all day long where bistros usually just serve food at mealtimes.
Brasserie Lipp is a great example of a Parisian brasserie.
Four letters (LIPP) which epitomize gastronomy and history. Four letters which stand proud in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Crossing the threshold of this illustrious establishment is akin to entering a shrine to Parisian life and discovering its many treasures. Every object has a story and has witnessed a succession of French political and literary giants, as well as international celebrities in the arts.
From the Brasserie Lipp Website
Brasserie Lipp was opened in 1880 by Leonard Lipp and his wife at 151 Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Its original name was “Brasserie des bords du Rhin” as a tribute to Alsace. During World War I the name was changed to Brasserie Lipp. In 1920 the business was taken over by Marcelin Cazes who established house rules that jackets must be worn and pipes must not be smoked. In 1935 he established a literary prize that was awarded annually to a talented young writer. In 2015, the prize celebrated its 80th anniversary.
In 1935, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the great French writer who wrote such classics as The Little Prince, Night Flight and Flight To Arras, celebrated his return to France from the War at the Brasserie Lipp.
Other great writers such as Malraux, Gide, Proust, and Camus were regulars at the Brasserie Lipp. It was also popular with Lost Generation writers such as Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, Miller, Eliot and Fitzgerald.
Brasserie Lipp is listed on the register of French historic monuments because of its famous mahogany facade, Art Nouveau decor, ceramic tile murals by Léon Fargue and ceilings painted by Charly Garrey.
What Is A Cafe?
A girl came in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal.
Cafés serve snacks or light menus such as salads, platters of cheese and charcuterie. They have sandwiches like croques monsieur and madame. You can get coffee or wine standing up at the bar for less than it would cost if you take a table. Cafés are also known as “Tabacs” which sell cigarettes and lotto tickets. Old French men hang out at Tabacs during the day discussing politics and the news of the day, and smoking and drinking wine.
Le Procope was the first cafe to be opened in Paris. It was opened in 1686 by Francesco Procopio del Coltelli. Procopio was born at the base of Mount Etna in Sicily and spent much of his childhood playing in the snow. He owes his fame and fortune to the snow.
At the time, the snow from Mount Etna was mixed with fruit juices or honey to make an early form of sorbet. This was enjoyed by both the peasants and the aristocrats. This gave Procopio the idea of creating gelato and became a very influential figure in the history of gelato.
Procopio worked as a fisherman just like his grandfather and father before him. Procopio’s grandfather had built gelato machines as a hobby when he was not fishing. His grandfather left his machines to Procopio when he died and Procopio improved the machines until he became happy with the quality of the gelato. Procopio developed a machine that produced gelato on a large scale, and he decided to sell his new product He became a cook and moved to Paris.
After he moved to Paris, Procopio joined the guild of soft drink distillers and became an apprentice of an Armenian who had a lemonade stand. The lemonade stand was unsuccessful but the Armenian moved to London and left the stand to Procopio. Procopio took the stand and moved it to rue des Fossés Saint Germain (the present day Rue de l’ Ancienne Comedie)
Procopio opened his café in 1686, and it was named Le Procope from the French version of his name. Procopio purchased a bath house and used the fixtures in the bath house to decorate his cafe. This is the origin of such fixtures as crystal chandeliers, wall mirrors and marble tables that are commonly found in cafes. This was dazzling for its time and set the standard for all future cafes to follow.
Procopio introduced the Italian “ice cream” gelato at his cafe and is one of the first to sell this new European product directly to the public. Before that time it was reserved for aristocrats only. He is sometimes referred to as “The Father of Italian gelato.” Procopio’s café served the gelato in small porcelain bowls that resembled egg cups.
Procopio opened his café about the same time that the Comédie-Française opened across the street from his café. This stroke of good fortune contributed to its success. Procopio’s café is also considered the first true modern coffee house.
Le Procope also became the world’s first literary café. For over two centuries, everyone with a name, or who hoped to have one, in the world of French letters, arts and politics was a regular at the Le Procope.
The story is told that Lieutenant Bonaparte left his hat at Le Procope as a pledge to pay the bill for his coffee. There is even a table dedicated to Voltaire. Apparently, Voltaire drank forty cups of coffee laced with chocolate every day!
Three hundred years later Le Procope is still in business. A plaque at the cafe states that it is the world’s oldest continually functioning cafe. It says:
Here founded Procopio dei Coltelli in 1686 the oldest coffee house of the world and the most famous center of the literary and philosophic life of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was frequented by La Fontaine, Voltaire and the Encyclopedistes: Benjamin Franklin, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Gambetta, Verlaine and Anatole France.
Other Famous Cafes
The history of Paris is partly written at the counters and in the back rooms of its cafés and cabarets. From the medieval taverns to the elegant cafés of the Lumières, the place of cafés in Parisian society hasn’t stopped evolving over time. But what would Paris be without its cafés? Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir, all these impressionists met in the popular cafés of Montmartre.
There are many other famous cafés in Paris such as Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain, and Le Dome, La Rotonde, and La Couple on the Boulevard du Montparnasse.
Le Bar à Vin (Wine Bars)
Wine bars have grown in popularity in Paris and many of them offer a lunch or dinner menu as well. Most wine bars offer a snack or small plate menu and you can almost always find cheese or a charcuterie plate.
The history of French restaurants is long and complicated. Restaurants began in 1710 and continue to evolve. For our purposes, we will define a “restaurant” as a formal, expensive restaurant that serves “haute cuisine.” They are about crystal and ceremony. We will not be reviewing any restaurants in this blog.
An excellent history of French restaurants is in “Great Bistros & Restaurants of Paris.” Information about this book is in the Resources.
We can take a quick look at Restaurant le Meurice by Alain Ducasse as an example of a modern Parisian restaurant. From its website:
For Alain Ducasse, the meal tells a story, the table is a stage. New tableware finds its way to restaurant Le Meurice. Unique table objects give the tempo. Original creations by Pierre Tachon, or valuable pieces of Japanese craftworks by Shinichiro Ogata.
Inspired by the Salon de la Paix in the Château de Versailles, the restaurant imposes its majesty: antique mirrors, crystal chandeliers, bronzes, marbles and frescoes. All the elegance of the “Grand Siècle” to which is added the breathtaking views of the nearby Tuileries gardens, emerging through the large windows. A decor tinted with classic sophistication and contemporary touches.
The fixed price menu for dinner is 380 Euros!
Bistronomy and The Modern Bistro
Bistronomy is a blend of “bistro” and “gastronomy”. François Simon, the food critic at Le Figaro for nearly 30 years, said that “bistronomie” is represented by a “new breed of bistros run by creative young chefs with formidable haute cuisine training who serve honest food at gentle prices instead of reaching for Michelin stars.”
We can trace the beginnings of the bistronomy movement from the chef Yves Camdeborde. When he was twenty-eight, Yves left the venerable Hotel de Crillion to open his own restaurant. This was a radical move because the career path for chefs at that time was to train in an elite restaurant and then open a similar restaurant and chase Michelin stars and glory. He did not feel comfortable in such rarified air and he wanted to pursue his own vision. He opened a bistro called La Regalade.
The bistro was rustic, had a limited menu and affordable prices. But it also had food cooked by a classically trained chef who was able to combine haute cuisine technique with regional traditions. It opened up opportunities for innovation in food as well as the use of seasonal and local ingredients. It lead to an emphasis on high quality, organic and seasonal local produce. It had hospitality, creativity, reasonable prices and personality. It rejected the formality and pretension and high prices of haute cuisine. Le Regalade proved to be a smashing success. This led to many proteges who extended the bistronomy movement.
In the words of Pierre-Yves (a well known Parisian food critic), bistros “are hotter than they have ever been. This can be explained by the proximity of the chef, dishes focused on the ingredients, the friendly atmosphere… Bistros are the Parisians’ second dining room.”
For François Simon, a leading food critic for Le Figaro, bistros have become “the principle axis of gastronomy” in France. He says:
It’s between brasserie and restaurant with very technical chefs who know very well how to do classic dishes with a dash of originality and above all at much more affordable prices.Chefs now ask themselves: Do I shoot for the stars which is totally absurd and leads to a nervous breakdown? Do I want keep my wife and friends, or end up with a false blonde in 20 years?
The best book I have found on this subject is Bistronomy by Jane Sigal. See Resources for information about the book.
Parisian Bistro Guides
Le Leby Des Bistros (French only)
Jane Sigal, Bistronomy, Recipes From The Best New Paris Bistros (
Pierre Rival and Christian Sarramon, Gourmet Bistros and Restaurants of Paris (Flamarion 2005)
Patricia Wells, The Food Lover’s Paris (Workman’s Publishing, New York, 1999)