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Feb 8, 2007 01:30 PM

Brasseries v. bistros...what's the difference?

So, this thought came to me after reading the post on polidor/balzar, etc, and reading rjkaneda's well written response.

I suppose after being in paris pushing 10x, i'm not quite clear what defines a 'brasserie'. I had thought something like Le Select would be considered a traditional brasserie, but I can see how the response makes sense.

So, how would you guys differentiate between the two types of places? I think i thought it had to do with the size of the space....hours open, outdoor capacities, etc (as in le select!) and generally a higher quality of food than an average corner cafe... Or, are the words brasserie and cafe sort of interchangeable? Is Le Dome a brasserie? Closiers des lilas a large cafe?

I guess I understand a traditional 'bistro' (polidor)....not really any outdoor space in general? smaller space? more defined/smaller menu?

Here in the states, the words brasserie/bistro/cafe are thrown around very loosely...all claiming to have authenticity....i'd love to get on my high horse and tell them otherwise.....


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  1. In simple terms, a "brasserie" is literally a brewery, a beer hall. To be a brasserie, the place has to have some kind of connection with beer, if not actual, then in a historical sense. Most brasseries have beer on tap. Food at a brasserie usually includes sauerkraut (choucroute) and shellfish platters of some kind. After that, standard brasserie fare includes steak-frites, salmon, steak tartare, veal cutlets, lamb chops, foie gras (usually as a starter), leek salads. There is often raie, roast chicken, and sometimes slightly more complicated things such as duck breasts.

    A bistrot is more of a restaurant, but less formal and fancy. Le Dome is a true restaurant. However, there is a "Bistrot du Dome" (two actually, one in Bastille, one in Montparnasse) which is an offshoot of Le Dome. It's very good, but less fancy and more informal. Bistrots usually don't have sauerkraut and much of the stuff you'd find at a brasserie (although there's a lot of overlap). Bistrots are where you'd find the boeuf bourgignon, pot-au-feu, leg of lamb, and more complicated dishes than you'd find at a brasserie. (The Bistrot du Dome is an exception, as it is all fish, much as Le Dome itself specializes in fish although it serves many other things.)

    I'm not sure I'd call Polidor a bistrot. It's kind of in a class of its own, mainly because of the communal tables. A bistrot, while less formal and fancy, can still be quite fancy, like Benoit. But then again, Benoit could be classed as a restaurant that bills itself as a bistrot. The dividing line between a bistrot and a restaurant is much less clear than the lines dividing brasseries, bistrots, and cafes.

    The Select is a cafe. Most cafes specialize in . . . coffee. They are meant to be places where you can have coffee and read the paper (and smoke). They also serve wine and beer, and food, but generally a much more limited selection. In a cafe, you often sit at a little round table, which is made to put coffee cups (and ashtrays) on. But they're big enough to accommodate a plate or two of food. When the weather is good, the tables extend out onto the sidewalk. A cafe is also much more likely than the other types of eateries to have what an American would consider a "bar."

    I could go on, but perhaps you get the idea.

    1. Very well put, rjkaneda.

      From an older post with the very same question some more here:

      You may find this site useful, too:

      PS: Sometimes, a little search does the trick. ;o)

      1 Reply
      1. re: Dodo

        thanks guys --- it's never really been explained to me like that....and thank you for the links!