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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Bistros - French Bistro Menus. The History of the French Bistro.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated May 2018.
Bistro on Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris.
The History of Bistros
With the advent, of the French revolution in 1789 and the breakup of the large estates owned by aristocrats, the staff, including all the kitchen staff were out of work.  They went back to their homes in France’s villages, or they went to poorer parts of the cities and towns; this was a very hard time to find work.  Nevertheless, some of these graduates of aristocratic kitchens had learned a great deal and had saved a few Francs; they opened France’s first small bar/restaurants. (Brasseries have a different history and different menus).
 Parisian Bistro.
Photograph courtesy of Amy Glaze

The menus of the first bistros.
These first bar/restaurants would have a menu of maybe five to six dishes. Everything that was offered would be well prepared and inexpensive. Acceptable, low-priced, wines were offered, and they came from barrels, not bottles.  Most of these nameless bar/restaurants would later be called Bistros while a few would go on to be really excellent full-service restaurants.

Braised Short Ribs of Beef mashed potatoes, roasted beets.
Photograph courtesy of Larry Miller

In 1815 came the soldiers of the Royal Houses of Europe.
The soldiers came from Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, and Portugal and they defeated and exiled Napoleon I for the second time. However, this time the armies occupied France, mainly in the cities, and many NCOs and lower level officers were quartered in private homes.
NCOs and lower level officers do not have the time to sit down for a three, or a possibly four or five-hour meal like their commanders, and at that point, four hours was the norm for a full multi-course dinner at the few high-class restaurants that existed.  In all of Paris, in 1815, there were less than 50 full-service restaurants. Today, in Paris, there are over 20,000 full-service restaurants.

The meaning of the word. 
These soldiers demanded a whole, well-cooked, meal that could be served in less than an hour and a half at a price they could afford. The Russian soldiers were among those who shouted the loudest, and when they entered these small restaurants, they shouted, быстро “Bistro,” which means “quickly” in Russian.  Within a few weeks all the soldiers from the different armies had one word in common and on entering a restaurant they would call out Bistro and dinner would be cooked and served in less than an hour and a half.
Boudin noir et gambas grilles,
Black pudding sausage and large shrimps, bistro style.

   Bistros were  France's first fast-food restaurants.  
With high quality and low prices, these new restaurants also drew in skilled workers from the area around about, those who could pay for an inexpensive lunch.  This took business away from the carts in the streets that sold stews; the first French fast food restaurants had arrived!  In a Bistro today expect dinner for four still to take about one and a half hours.

From then on, and for the next one hundred and fifty years Bistros were a uniquely French mixture of bar, cafe and restaurant with even the smallest village having one or more. Many are or were family-owned with Monsieur cooking while Madame runs the dining room and keeps an eye on the cash register. The reverse is also seen.

The words Bystro, Bistro and Bistrot first appeared in French dictionaries in 1884. That tells us that from the time that the foreign soldiers had left France in 1818 the Bistro had remained popular. Bystro, Bistro, and Bistrot had become part of the French language and are part of France’s culinary history.

Today's Bistros  today offer France's favorite comfort foods

Then came WWII and the economic turn down after the war; that and the move to the cities closed tens of thousands of small Bistros all over France. The Bistros that remain (not the contemporary bistro variety), still offer local comfort foods along with national bistro favorites such as Andouillettes and other sausages, snails, frog’s legs, roast chicken and steak frites. Organ meats (calf's liver, pig's feet, sweetbreads, etc.) are also essential to the bistro menu, as is such homey fare as pâtés and terrines and more. Apart from towns where tourists are valuable customers Bistros depend on their regular clientele, and these are locals who demand their timeless favorites served in pleasant and moderately comfortable, but not hi-tech surroundings. The traditional bistro is small, intimate and low-key.
Duck Leg Confit and Slow Cooked Duck Breast with Cabbage.

Some bistros have remained much as they were with plain tables and simple glasses and cutlery; others have linen tablecloths and serviettes. Neither format will tell you much about the food being served though you will notice a difference in the prices on the menu. Nevertheless, since the traditional Bistro has a limited and recurrent menu both will produce well-prepared food day after day.

Contemporary Bistros, Gastro Bistros and more.
Contemporary bistros are something else.  It seems to me that many excellent French chefs, after achieving success while working for a restaurateur in a Michelin guide restaurant with one or more stars will go back to their childhood dream and opens a bistro they own themselves.  However, these are chefs with lots of knowledge will be constrained by the traditional bistro’s menu; their Bistro will become a “contemporary bistro”. Alongside Contemporary Bistros are Gastro Bistros, Néo-Bistrots and other versions of Bistros with upgraded menus; some are now owned by celebrity chefs.  When you visit France first try the traditional Bistro first and only then branch out; in Contemporary Bistros expect unique dishes not usually seen. 

The Bouchons of Lyon

In addition to bistros, there are the Bouchons of Lyons. Bouchons were formerly coaching inns where passengers could eat and rest while the horses from their carriages were changed. When coaching inns were no longer required many became a unique Lyonnais restaurant that served local comforts foods. Unfortunately, few remain, there are maybe 20 Bouchons in all of Lyon.


Sweetbreads in French cuisine, Ris de Veau (d'Agneau) on French Menus. When sweetbreads are on the menu in France do not pass them by.
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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2016, 2018
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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