A few years ago a guy I didn’t know was opening a restaurant in the United States and wrote me asking if I could recommend some typical bistros in Paris serving good food that would supply the “typical bistro look” he sought. “Sure,” I wrote back.
So I spent some considerable time and came up with a list of old and new, comprehensive and seafood, established and edgy bistros for him, his chef, his girlfriend and an as yet undesignated 4th member of the party (he later invited me to sit in that #4 seat). I thought that my list was inspired and was quite proud of my (failing) memory, comprehensive knowledge and mastery of the world.
It turned out I had to be at a meeting somewhere else that week, so I missed the experience. But he later wrote that instead of going to many of the bistros on my list he went to lots of famous, starred restaurants that every Michelin reader knows and all rich American tourists eat at.
Plus – he went to a brasserie he’d read about somewhere et voila! – that was the “bistro look” he was seeking. A brasserie – with brass rails, red velvet banquettes and bustling waitfolk in black ties and pants and aprons.
Well, why didn’t he say so in the first place?
Answer: because the terms bistro and brasserie have become fungible at worst and blurred at best. In the US what’s called a bistro can serve anything from soups to salads or pizza to designer sandwiches. Not in my day.
When I first set foot (as an adult) in France it was very clear what the distinction was:
A brasserie was founded and sometimes still owned by folks from Alsace or Lorraine (blurred in Americans’ minds but very different places in fact) who brought with them German-type beer (on tap of course) and choucroute; adding oysters, salads frisée and other classics of the genre. They were indeed furnished with glorious ceilings, gleaming brass fixtures and red velvet fabric on the chairs and banquettes and staffed with bustling wait-folk in black and white “uniforms.”
A bistro, on the other hand, was smaller, and while it might have a brass rail or coat rack for the coats and hats (a la l’Ami Louis), it served French comfort food – escargots, cassolet, magret de canard and sautéed fish. Again, in my day, the décor was often dingy, intentionally so, warm and welcoming, with no waitstaff hustle and bustle and certainly no spigots of beer.
Now, as I say, they’ve begun to merge; most brasseries often have huge menus with much more than beer, oysters, choucroute and salade frisées and bistrots often have those brasserie staples on their cartes as well as the original comfort foods and newer types of fare – meat stews, vegetable purees and fish dishes.
But does it really make a difference? I suspect not, so long as you know what to expect.
The place where I had these thoughts was:
64, rue Rebeval, 19th (Metro: Belleville or Pyrenees)
Menus: one dish = 10, 2 = 13.50 and 3 = 16.50 €
©2008 John A. Talbott