The Bistro Archetype
What makes a bistro a bistro? What is the archetype?
In ancient Greek, the word “archetype” came from the root word “archetypon” which means “first molded.” It is an original pattern, model or type from which copies are made.
Plato viewed the archetype as a pure form which embodies the fundamental characteristics of a thing.
Jung said that archetypes are a set of memories and ideas that are shared by all of humanity. They emerge as themes, characters and images in our dreams and
emerge in our culture as myths, books, films and paintings. Archetypes reside in the collective unconscious.
Like art and love and life and beauty a bistro is difficult to define. We can point to its essential features so that we will know it when we see it!
One of the best books on the subject is “French Bistro” by Bertrand Auboyneau and Francois Simon. French Bistro is a romanticized examination of bistro culture in Paris. French Bistro celebrates Bistro Paul Bert and uses it as a lens to define an authentic bistro. French Bistro describes the ten characteristics of the bistro archetype and has history, recipes, and photographs of some of the best bistros in Paris.
I relied on this book heavily in describing the bistro archetype and I recommend it highly. By evaluating how closely a bistro hews to the archetype I can evaluate its authenticity and quality.
But a quality bistro does not need to emulate a time, place and culture that never existed in New York. There is room for evolution and creativity and the emergence of the neo-bistro movement. If I am reviewing a neo-bistro, I will evaluate how it varies from the archetype and whether it is successful on its own terms.
The Ten Qualities of the Archetypal Bistro
There are ten essential characteristics of the archetypal bistro. These are:
1. The Owner
The owner is the focal point of the bistro. Clients come for him, for his cheeky humor, for his presence. They take refuge under his tutelage. He sums up the soul of the bistro in his person, defining it with his sunny or foul temperament….The character of the owner colors the character of his establishment, setting its spirit and its noise level.
Auboyneau and Simon
The owner works at the bistro and presides behind the bar. He is its heart and soul. He negotiates the menu and the daily specials with the chef. He greets guests, manages the flow of the restaurant, oversees the servers, dispenses wisdom to the customers, and mediates between the kitchen and the customer. He solves problems. The on-site owner seems to be rare in New York. The role of the owner may be filled by the host or manager but they should still reflect the owner’s personality.
2. The Chef
Who slaves over a hot stove thirty-six hours a day, juggles the work of eight, and endures the rages of the owner and the impatience of the clients? You guessed it-it’s the chef….He has to juggle his stock of knowledge, his wishes, his ambition, the owner and the clients….The bistro chef is a superman, made of one part humility, one part patience, and one part admirable self-sacrifice.
Auboyneau and Simon
We hope to meet these supermen and superwomen and learn about their training, cooking philosophy and personal stories.
3. The Bar and the Chalkboard Menu
The bar is the heart and soul of the bistro. The bar is the command center behind which the owner directs the dance of the chef, the servers and the customers. The bar should be comfortable, inviting and magnetic. It should draw customers into wine and conversation.
Is the bar the focal point of the restaurant, and does it have character? Do other diners eat and converse and enjoy the bar, or is it just a parking spot to wait for a table? Do I want to sit there and have a glass of wine?
The bar should be made of zinc, copper or old wood, it should have the wisdom of age and the patina of time, it should have a brass foot rail running along the bottom, and it should project a welcoming energy to all who enter the bistro. The bar stools should be made by Thonet or a similar design of simple brown wood.
In the bar area may be an espresso machine, an old clock, black and white photographs, posters, vases of flowers, and bottles, glasses and objects that the owner has collected.
The bistro should have a chalkboard menu. This is because many of the dishes change daily depending upon what is available in the markets, and a chalkboard may be easily changed to offer what is fresh.
4. The Wine
Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.
Earnest Hemingway, Death In The Afternoon
What would a bistro be without its wines? Wine compliments food, bread and cheese. Wine animates the conversation and lifts the spirits. The wine list is an expression of the owner’s history and his personality. The wine list does not have the high cost and pretentiousness of a restaurant’s wine list. A bistro’s wines are simple, easy to drink and natural. The wine list may be on a chalk board or on a wall.
The wine is served from a carafe in simple glasses.
5. The Servers
If a bistro is a success, it is due to the waitstaff. If they are cheerful, savvy, and happy to be where they are, then-and only then-can the clients sit back and relax. You can’t over-estimate just how important this aspect is to the bistro experience. Gloomy, badly treated waiters are indicative of the rest of the establishment’s state, right down to the vegetables that are badly chosen and carelessly stocked.
Auboyneau and Simon
Yes, yes and yes! Good servers can redeem bad food and bad servers can destroy good food.
6. The Still Life of the Table
The moment has arrived. Along with the lighting, stage and actors the table is set for the much anticipated dinner. In a matter of minutes the food will make its dramatic appearance.
Auboyneau and Simon
I enjoy the aesthetics of the table. I enjoy the table before it is disturbed by the appearance of the menus, the carafe, and the bread basket. It is like the stillness of a stage before the curtain rises and the spotlights find the actors.
The table setting should be a simple and artful still life. The elements are flowers, glasses, plates, silverware, napkins and a candle. Careful attention should be paid to light, shadow, form and line. The arrangement should have the quality of a still life by Giorgio Morandi. The quality of the still life reflects the quality of the bistro.
When it is time for the carafe of fresh water, the bread basket and the butter to appear, they should be placed carefully on the table. They should not be carelessly tossed on the table by rushed busboy.
Consider the napkin. Is the cloth high quality, properly starched and large enough to cover the lap? Or is it a cheap paper napkin? As Auboyneau and Simon say: “A generous napkin is a poem in its own right. It protects the chests of gentlemen like a Roman shield and the legs of ladies when too much skin is showing or the temperature drops.”
Consider the plate. It should be round and white and solid. It should not be frivolous nor should it be expensive. It should be perfect in its simplicity.
Consider the silverware. It should be simple, solid and substantial. It should be well worn. It should fit the hand and function as a baton when the conversation becomes passionate.
Consider the flower. Do we get a flower in a glass? Is there a candle to illuminate the flower with soft and warm light?
7. The Decor
Bistro decor is like traveling back in time to a golden age. There will be exposed brick walls, vintage posters and enamel signage. All of these elements contribute to the enjoyment of the food; they are an extension of the owner’s character and taste….They all transmit the same timeless message of enduring, reassuring solidity that can be relied upon to carry you effortlessly throughout your evening.
Auboyneau and Simon
These are some signs of the bistro archetype: the old bar made of tin or wood, Thonet chairs and bar stools, red leather banquettes lining the walls, old tables and chairs with scratches, chips, scrapes and fading varnish, vintage movie or art posters, opaline globe lights, chalkboard menus, old black and white photographs of Paris, jazz musicians, personages and lovers, Jean Perzel light fixtures, antique mirrors, Art Deco, and tiled floors.
Is the design consistent with the bistro archetype or does it have other creative elements? Does the design reinforce the warmth and charm of an authentic bistro or does it make me uncomfortable and want to wind up the meal as quickly as possible?
8. The Cuisine
Dishes concocted from rustic ingredients, such as the cheaper cuts of beef or a whole range of winter root vegetables-turnips, parsnips, rutabaga-offer the weary palate a substantial connection with the more basic raw materials.a
Pierre Rival and Christian Sarramon
Patricia Wells says that bistros reflect the aesthetics of home cooking. The menu should reflect traditional favorites that are regional or local. The food should be simple and hearty. Bistro cooking is for common people and is the antithesis of “cuisine savante” which is the highest form of cuisine found in elite restaurants.
Bistros are rustic and traditional.
The menu should reflect what was purchased at the local market that day. Bistros are one of the earliest forms of farm to table restaurants!
9. The Ambience
Ambience is a quality that is felt but not thought. It is the emotional valence of a space.
Bistros evoke a feeling of nostalgia. In some ways they reflect a time gone by, a simpler time, a life lived in the county-simple and wholesome. A bistro has a timelessness quality, and its predictability makes us comfortable. The bistro’s customers are families, friends and neighbors.
The best word I know that points to the bistro ambience is neither French nor English. It is the Dutch word “gezelligheid.”
There is no equivalent in English but gezelligheid can be translated as convivial, cosy, fun, or quaint. It suggests belonging, time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or a general sense of togetherness that gives a warm feeling. It is a positive atmosphere that is comfortable and happy.
All bistros should have gezelligheid but the French variant of the feeling!
10. Coffee and Dessert
The bistro dinner should end with a well made espresso. It is the last taste of heaven before the presentation of the bill brings us back to earth. Auboyneau and Simon say: “coffee is as complex as wine, and its quality and taste depend on it provenance and terroir, the way its blended, the treatment used when it is harvested, of course the way it’s roasted.”
The deserts are traditional. We may find cheese courses, chocolate mousse, strawberries or seasonal berries with cream, a tarte tatin, creme brulee, profiteroles, chocolate cakes, and sorbets and ice creams.
Bertrand Auboyneau and Francois Simon, French Bistro, Seasonal Recipes (Flammarion 2011).
June Sigal, Bistronomy, Recipes From The Best New Paris Bistros (Rizzoli 2015).
Pierre Rival and Christian Sarramon, Gourmet Bistros and Restaurants of Paris (Flammarion 2005).
Patricia Wells, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris (Workman Publishing 1999, 4th Edition ).