Café, bistro, or brasserie? A glossary of Parisian dining culture
Paris, Ernest Hemingway famously said, ‘is a moveable feast’ – a city, yes, but also an experience that one holds onto long after one’s Parisian visit has ended. Vivacious, alluring, dynamic: these are all adjectives many would use to describe the French capital, which has long been regarded as a world center for cultural and artistic exchange, as famous for its notorious occupants (Hemingway included) as it is for its architecture and gastronomy.
It’s hard to imagine Paris without thinking of its distinctive boulevards, lined with bustling cafés and restaurants. Paris may be a ‘moveable feast’, but it is also a place in which one moves – from street to street, café to café, aperitif to cheese course – and feasts.
What are some of the venues Parisians (and Parisian tourists) can visit for coffee and wine, or full meals or quick snacks? There are a number of terms for Paris’s dining places, each with their own unique histories, which have entered Anglophone culture and language: Brits and Americans alike can find versions of these seminal spaces in their hometowns. Yet it’s not always clear where these terms originated or what sorts of settings they refer to. What differentiates a bistro from any other kind of restaurant, and what makes a café different from a regular coffee shop? Here’s a quick lexicon.
Legend has it that Russian troops in Paris after the Napoleonic Wars were fond of visiting Parisian restaurants and hassling servers for faster service. ‘быстро, быстро,’ the soldiers would exclaim, meaning ‘quick, quick!’ This command was supposedly pronounced as ‘bistro, bistro’.
Recent research has debunked this myth: as Anatoly Liberman explains, ‘быстро’ was likely pronounced ‘bistra’, and in the end it’s not entirely clear where the word bistro came from or how it came to connote a restaurant offering quick, small, and cheap meals.
Although France and Russia have enjoyed centuries of cultural exchange, it seems more likely that the bistro developed within its home country, perhaps from the French bistouille, a colloquial term used in Northern France meaning ‘bad alcohol’. If this is indeed the source of the word, it doesn’t bode well for bistro cooking.
Nor do other potential source terms such as bistre, meaning a combination of wood, soot, and water, and bistrouiller, a verb referring to the creation of bootleg wine from alcohol, water, and other elements.
It is also possible, though, that bistros developed from café-charbons; small, family-run businesses that sold coal and firewood and later began to offer wine, coffee, and family-style eats to frequent patrons. And Robert Giraud, a lexicographer and specialist in bistro slang, speculates that the venue’s name has an even more complicated origin. The archaic term mastroquet, a café-owner or wine-seller, became bistroquet through frequent mispronunciation, and bistro, the abbreviated form of this term, was eventually applied to the particular café run by the bistroquet. (Mastroquet itself evolved from ‘mi-stroc’, an informal term for a measure of liquid equivalent to four French pints.)
Though American and British bistros tend to be more ritzy and upmarket – bistro has become a restaurant buzzword, connoting sophisticated offerings and swanky service – French bistros have cultivated a reputation for friendly, local cuisine: cuisine de grand-mère, or grandmother’s cooking, meaning simple, traditional meals.
If you’re looking for a pub or greasy spoon, a brasserie isn’t the way to go. In French, the word brasserie means ‘brewery’, but brasseries aren’t exactly beer gardens; these are full-service restaurants with white linen and a fixed menu, providing hearty meals and alcohol. The term ‘brasserie’ refers to the fact that traditionally, these restaurants brewed their own beer in-house to serve with prepared dishes. (Brasseries are Alsatian in origin, which explains the dishes they frequently serve: sausage, sauerkraut, and other Germanic food.)
Though brasseries are expected to provide professional service, catering to more upscale clientele than bistro-goers, they’re usually small and relatively informal – a far cry from the typical pomp of Michelin-starred restaurants. The same goes for the brasserie’s Italian equivalent, the trattoria, which is more formal than an osteria – a café-type venue serving wines and quick bites – but less upscale than a ristorante. Unlike brasseries, though, trattorias don’t have printed menus or white linen, and some use family-style dining set-ups instead of individual tables.
Like cafés, brasseries became popular in the twentieth century for the communities they hosted and fostered. Since 1935, Paris’s most famous brasserie, Brasserie Lipp, has sponsored an annual literary prize, the Prix Cazes, and Hemingway was a frequent patron in the 1920s. ‘The beer [at Lipp’s] was very cold and wonderful to drink,’ Hemingway recalled in A Moveable Feast: ‘Eating is wonderful… Lipp’s is where you are going to eat and drink too.’
The English word café comes from the French for ‘coffee’ or ‘coffee house’, café, which in turn comes from the Italian word caffe (from the Turkish kahve and the Arabic qahwa). Cafés originated in Turkey in the sixteenth century, though they were known then as ‘coffee houses’: small restaurants offering coffee and serving as spirited social hubs – poets and preachers often delivering speeches over the hubbub of café-goers. By the seventeenth century, coffee houses had reached Vienna, Paris, London, and Oxford, though it was French café-goers, infatuated with the exotic, energizing drink served at coffee houses, who gave the institution the name café, making these venues synonymous with their product.
Today, though, French cafés also sell pastries or light meals, and many serve alcohol all day. Their counterparts in the early twentieth century usually served coffee in the morning and transitioned into nightclub or bar-like spaces at night, becoming raucous sites of bacchanal for French locals and American tourists and expatriates seeking relief from the restrictions of Prohibition. This was the height of café society, when individuals of many nationalities – artists, thinkers, public figures, and throngs of anonymous patrons – patronized Paris’s storied cafés in the Montparnasse and Saint-Germain neighborhoods on the city’s Left Bank.
Later, in Britain, cafés became caffs, more casual, working-class establishments for quick refreshment. In the United States, Internet cafés – an urban phenomenon dating from the early 1990s, allowing patrons easy Web access alongside their cappuccinos – have been eclipsed in popularity by the rise of Starbucks and other WiFi-equipped chain cafés.
It goes without saying that Parisians love their food. As a result, there are more kinds of dining venues in Paris than one could possibly keep track of – salons de thé, or teahouses; wine bars selling only wine, cheese, and charcuterie; outdoor markets offering every kind of meat, fruit, cheese, and vegetable under the sun; and today, owing to the influence of American trends, health food restaurants, including juice bars and gluten-free patisseries.
Nevertheless, bistros, brasseries, and cafés remain the most iconic (and perhaps the most inimitable) features of the Parisian culinary landscape. ‘Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half,’ the philosopher Montesquieu once remarked, and it’s easy to see why. From quick bistro visits to rounds of coffee and cocktails at cafés, endless eats and delicacies seem to be waiting on every street corner in the City of Light.