The complexities of Parisian dining: choosing between a bistrot, a brasserie and a restaurant?
Finding a place to eat in Paris can be quite confusing, especially with all the different varieties of cafés, restaurants and bistrots which is why I’m writing this post in an attempt to clear up any misunderstanding.
Bistrot (or “bistro” as it is sometimes written)
A bistrot is a smallish bar, that serves drinks and food. It is in between a bar (that stays open at night) a café (only open during the day) and a more sit down sort of meal offered by restaurants (open only at meal times).
My favourite explanation for the word “bistro” is the following; it dates back to the year 1814, after Napoleon Bonaparte and his armies were defeated by the cold of Siberia, Paris was occupied by the russian soldiers. The russian soldiers were not able to drink while on guard and they would get impatient with the lazy french service. The russians would shout at the french waiters to hurry up and bring them a bear, using the word “bistro bistro”, mean “quick quick”.
At your typical bistrot you can have a drink or coffee any time of the day and the food is tasty, simple and reasonably priced. Most Parisians choose to go and have a light lunch there in between work times or have a fun dinner with friends on a friday or saturday evening.
At a prize winning restaurant, the chef will serve you what you have ordered carefully following your instructions. The bistro is quite the contrary, clients will eat what the chef has prepared for them on the day that they come. The choice of the platters is narrowed down and it is not the same from day to day. The chef cooks with what he can get his hands on, constantly reinventing the menu and evading the routine and monotony of the menu.
A few signs to spot a good bistrot:
1- The “patron”, the manager of the bar, is loud, proud and direct; friendly, he inspires a air of “bonhomie” that will define the spirit of the bistrot. The “chef” is there to invent, have fun and to add a twist to french recipes.
2 – Look for the all important blackboard (rather than the menu). Offering the “plat du jour” or dish of the day, it could be considered as the most important element of the bistrot. The dishes on offer will very much depend on the fresh food that is available on the day. It is a type of opportunistic (not a negative connotation) daily type of “cuisine” that still manages to stay interesting. On the blackboard you will find your traditional french dishes like egg mayonnaise, entrecôte frites, rabbit stew “lapin à la moutarde” and boeuf bourguignon, followed by a cheese platter (“la planche”) and desserts: paris brest (pastry in the shape of a wheel made of chou paste incorporated with almond crumbs, crème patissière mixed with praline, a mix of crushed hazelnuts and almonds) tarte tatin or crème brulée. You will also find some fresh salads like your Salade Niçoise, Salade a la Provençale, Salade Méditéranéenne, and a fish of the day.
Note: Most of the Parisian bistrots, or “neo-bistrot” offer more of a fusion french cuisine, taking some of the elements from french traditional gastronomy and blending it with foreign cuisine (often Japanese or Italian influenced).
3- On the blackboard you will also features a list of wines, not your “grand crus” (top fine dining wines), but a great selection of “vins de terroirs” regional sometimes handpicked wines.
4- The waiters are chatty and witty and add to the atmosphere. As does the décors of the bistrot, unpretentious and simple, the wooden chairs, the plain white plates.
5- The clients bring with them a good mood and a healthy appetite, chat loudly, laugh, often devoid of music as the sound of the conversation makes up the vibrant atmosphere.