Bistro vs. Brasserie: what's the difference?
The Chowhound Team split this question off from the Manhattan board
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Help me out, I'm not sure of the difference between a bistro and a brasserie. Could you clarify that for me and others who may not know? thanks
In France, a bistrot is a small, fairly casual and typically family owned restaurant. A brasserie is a type of restaurant that evolved from Alsatian breweries (brasserie translates to brewery) that serves alcohol (typically beers, but also other stuff), sometimes coffee, and simple plates of food. They tend to serve more popular French dishes from many different regions.
The terms are not used as rigorously in the US, and can sometimes mean any kind of restaurant.
The word 'brasserie' is French for brewery , and bistro is the name of a small unsophisticated styled restaurant. However , in the US these names have been used to describe a variety of operations. Many people toss around terms such as Café, Bistro, Brasserie, Pub, etc, without really paying much attention to where the words came from , which in some cases works - but in many doesn’t. IMHO its better to be sure that what ever word you use to describe your operation , it is as accurate as possible.
Here's a slightly edited version of an explanation I once wrote on another, now defunct board (have excised the discussion of bar and café). It's also worth noting that the terms are increasingly used loosely, especially on this side of the pond.
Originally a brasserie was a brewery. Today it's also an establishment that serves beer and other low- or no-alcoholic beverages (e.g. cider; rarely wine) and usually food; pub is probably the closest term in English. One of the things that distinguishes them from restaurants is that they often serve food throughout the day. The food can range from terrible (hot dogs, microwaved pizza, poutine and, shudder, hot chicken sandwiches — standard fare at most Quebec brasseries) to the exquisite (oysters and choucroute are French classics). Language note: Brasserie is also the French word for what North Americans call brewpubs. Trivia: In Quebec until the late '70s, there were two types of pubs: tavernes and brasseries; by law tavernes were male only and brasseries co-ed.
A bistro is a small restaurant, usually with a bar and always with wine service. "Most simply, a bistro is a small, neighborhood-style restaurant serving home-style, substantial fare. The china is almost always thick and plain white, the tables covered with waffled, crinkled-edged paper, the floor peppered with sawdust. The menu — often an illegible mimeographed sheet encased in clear plastic — is brief and changes infrequently, save for perhaps the ritual plat du jour: if this is Monday they must be serving pot-au-feu," writes Patricia Wells in *Bistro Cooking*. In Montreal, bistros typically have small, square, marble-topped tables (convenient for pushing together for larger parties) that are often covered with butcher's paper (back in the good old days waiters added up your bill on the paper), big blackboards on which the menu is written, wooden chairs, tiled or wood floors and, often, mirror-lined walls. There's not much space between tables and noise levels are invariably high (nary a sound absorbing surface in sight). One thing I love about a good bistro is the customer mix: the nose-pierced punks rubbing elbows with grey-suited bankers; the gorgeous actress asking the surburban nerd at the next table if that's the blanquette he's eating and, if so, would he recommend it; francophone separatists and anglophone federalists, whose paths wouldn't cross anywhere else, cheerfully trading wine tips in an impossibly fractured franglais; the young lovers in the corner who hold hands throughout the entire meal. The cooking is also part of what defines a classic bistro — casual, homey, local — but also, in France at least, it's the way the food is presented: "Order terrine de campagne ... and you are not served a thin slice on a plate. Rather, the waitress offers the entire terrine, and you're meant to eat your fill. Order a roast chicken and a whole golden bird arrives tableside, to be carved in front of you" (Wells again). The dishes are standard enough to have been compiled into cookbooks and, often, thoroughly banalized.
Of course, there are plenty of upscale bistros. A while back the New York Times had an intersting review of number of Paris bistros, ranging from traditional joints to one that even has a Michelin star. And more than one Montreal bistros bills itself as a "bistro de luxe", a conceit that's reflected in the cooking and the decor (e.g. linen tablecloths).
Still, bistro is a state of mind as much as anything else, I think. But one thing's certain: it has to be French. One of Burlington, Vermont's better-known dining establishments is the Asian-influenced Five Spice Cafe. Five Spice Bistro would not compute. You could get away with Bistro Beaujolais though, which might be advisable since there's already a Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino...
My understanding is that a bistro is precisely the French equivalent of the Italian Trattoria: a family-owned, family-run, independent restaurant, serving serviceable, ordinary fare. It is never part of a chain, so of course Louise's Trattoria is misnamed. The menu can change daily, and is based on what is seasonal, what is cheap, and what is left over from last night (but, we hope, still good.)
In France, at least when I was visiting frequently in the 80s/90s, brasseries were known for fast service--you ordered something, it came pretty quickly. For a bistro, speed of service was not a defining characteristic.
These comments help a lot. It's an important distinction for me to grasp, because, someday I expect to be operating a small (technically, 'pseudo-french') restaurant of of my own here in rural Arkansas. Having visited France for several months, back in 1976, I sense a distinct pictorial differentiation, but a fuzzy culinary one. As I recall, we regretted spending a dime in every Brasserie we tried. Principally, the polished brass & mirrored decor was quite something to marvel at. Local Parisians appeared to flock to their favorite neighborhood Brasserie for a cocktail at happy hour.