French bistros are celebrated the world over. But do you really know what all the fuss is about?
This week, 100 bistros received the prestigious Medal from the City of Paris. Because even if you haven’t visited Paris, you know this city is nothing without its bistros. Where would Parisians go for un café and people-watching? Paris without bistros?! Pas possible!
As with so many things that involve France and food, at some point bistros became an international icon. They’ve been copied countless times around the world. They pop up in paintings, photos, and postcards. They birthed a cuisine that ranges from your home-cooked-style bistro menu to its fancy big sister, bistronomy. They’ve even inspired an entire aesthetic, best represented by the iconic woven bistro chairs.
Which is why France will soon nominate its bistros for recognition as a UNESCO world heritage. The road was paved back in 2010, when “the gastronomic meal of the French” became the first cuisine added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritages.” Getting on the list opens up access to benefits like funding for projects that will help preserve the culture, and French bistros need saving. While their status is legendary, their numbers are dwindling.
What can you do to save French bistros? Go eat at them, of course. But in the meantime, read on to find out what’s behind all the bistro buzz. I promise I’ll have you dropping knowledge that will impress even the surliest server.
1 – Bistro or Bistrot?
To “t” or not to “t,” that is the question. So which is it, bistro or bistrot?
No one knows why it’s written differently and both are totally acceptable, according to the Larousse dictionary. Which everyone knows it THE French dictionary. Or that’s what my French teacher used to say.
How did the word “bistro” come to be, anyways? Some people think it came from one of any number of regional terms, like bistraud, someone who sells wine, or bistouille, a coffee with a dash of booze in there. ‘Cuz, hey, who can’t use a lil’ extra kick sometimes?
But the most likely origin of the word dates to 1814, when Russian troops who had just defeated Napoleon were hanging out in Paris restaurants. I guess no one told them about the French love for a long meal, so the increasingly hungry – and agitated – soldiers took to screaming “hurry up!” over and over while waiting for their meals. And how do you say “hurry up” in Russian? Bistro!
2 – All in a Name: Bistro, Café, Brasserie, or Restaurant?
Confused tour clients often ask me what the difference is between these seemingly similar establishments. Let’s take a look.
We’ll start with the woman of the hour, our bistro buddies. These “hurry up” spots are where you can quickly eat from a simple menu of food. And by quick I mean in and out in 30 minutes to an hour, because faster than that is a downright scandale in France.
Bistros serve standard menu items, like croque-monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich) and oeuf mayonnaise (literally a boiled egg, sliced, and covered in mayo). In the 90s, a new generation of bistros popped up serving elevated versions of the classics, and that’s what we call bistronomy. Bistro + gastronomy . . . you get it.
The words café and bistro are mostly interchangeable. In theory, cafés are focused on a singular star, le café, but they’re usually the same as any bistro. The exception is the crop of coffee-specialist cafés that have popped up over the last decade, usually run by Australians or other non-French people who want more than a regular bistro espresso.
The word brasserie actually means “brewery.” Traditionally, these were places that had their own beer on tap. Today, there are only a handful of of brasseries brewing their own beer in Paris, but any spot with this name will be sure to have beers on tap.
Finally, we get to restaurants. These are exactly what you think of. Places to sit down for a full meal. Don’t expect to be out in 30 minutes to an hour, that’s for sure.
3 – The Auvergne Mafia Behind the Bistro
Did you know Paris bistros are controlled by the Auvergne Mafia??!
Okay, les Bougnats are not actually a mafia. But look, I’m a book girl living in a click-bait world, so bear with me as I figure out how to keep the kids scrolling.
Les Bougnats are people from Auvergne who left “the land of volcanoes” in central France to trade coal in Paris. The term Bougnat comes from a composition of Auvergnat, someone from Auvergne, and charbougna, their regional word for coal.
The Auvergne region is marked by spectacular mountains and valleys that are a testament to the area’s volcanic past. And although those volcanoes aren’t active anymore, the high-mineral volcanic soil has been great for keeping pigs and cows, and the area is famous for its cheeses and charcuterie.
But it was also long an impoverished area, and once the coal trade died down in the early 20th century, many Bougnats decided to stay in the city and set up no-fuss bistros where they could sell those famous Auvergne products. Once they got themselves going, they brought more Auvergnats to Paris to work for them.
Today, les Bougnats still control some 40 percent of Parisian bistros.
4 – How Do I Spot a Good Bistro?
There are approximately 34,669 bistros in France, of which 1300 are in Paris. This is actually a cause for alarm here, since in 1960 there were about 200,000 of these establishments across the country, which is precisely why the government is asking for UNESCO protection.
Still, if you’re hanging out in Paris, you’re still likely to be overwhelmed by the number of bistros to choose from, and let me assure you that the quality at these places can vary drastically. How on earth will you know which one to choose?
You’re in luck, because I’ve got two pro-tips to help you pick the right spot.
First, look for the words, fait à maison. This means made in house. Under the law of 15 July, 2014, food establishments can use this term on signage and menus if they are making all their food from scratch. Everything except things that require special equipment, like smoked fish, and items that the French traditionally do not expect a restaurant to make: pasta, bread, and cheese. Any establishment caught using this term misleadingly faces fines for false advertising.
The other thing to look for is a yellow sticker from Gault & Millau, a guide that awards restaurants with one to five toques (chef’s hats) depending on the quality of the food. It’s a system based on a ranking of 0 to 20, but establishments need at least 10 points to be recommended. Unlike the Michelin system, which favors high-end establishments (though they claim not to), Gault & Millau offer ratings for bistros and other everyday food spots.
Or, if you really want to be sure you hit the best bistros – plus restaurants, cafés, and brasseries – you can sign up for my premium guide service. I’ll make you a personalized guide with the lowdown on the top Paris spots, plus vocabulary and pro-tips to ensure you get the best food, service, and experience. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Now, go forth grasshopper – er, snail? – and spread the bistro love.