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Jul 16, 2009 07:41 AM

How do you define Bistro, Brasserie, Restaurant?

I'm interested in your comments on the definitions of the various "restaurant" styles in Paris/France. I think of a Brasserie as a large, bustling place with a traditional menu, where the food is good, but does not necessarily aspire to cutting edge. In terms of a stricter definition a Brasserie is open all day, more days of the week. I think of a Bistro as a small personal restaurant with the intentions of creating original imaginative cuisine. Not open all day or all days. For Restaurant I classify the high-end destination places. Not all places fit these definitions, of Chez Denise a bistro? Is Balzar a Brasserie? Is Le Reminet a bistro or what I've termed a Restaurant ? I know this is all idle speculation, but I'd like to know how you all explain these types of establishment classifications.

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  1. That is pretty much it, not a lot to add, except to say that with any definition it tends to blur at the boundaries.

    1. I think you need to go back to the origins: Brasseries (Brewries) used to serve beer, therefore traditionally choucroute; Bistros (named from the word "red" during the occupation of Paris by the Prussians) used to serve wine, therefore simple dishes like sausages. Restaurant is a generic term which includes any establishment serving set meals, including the Brasseries and Bistros... :o)

      9 Replies
      1. re: monchique

        Hi monchique
        Tx for reply. Actually "bistro" is from the Russian word for "quick" allegedly as Russian mercenaries pounded their glasses on the table demanding to be served in a hurry. Red in Russian is Krasny"

        1. re: corporal nym

          Thank s for the precision... I thought it stood for "red" in Polish or something like that, but now, having checked the French Wikipedia, I see the origin of the word is pretty uncertain. However, they traditionally served wine and simple food... which they still do!

          1. re: monchique

            I don't think history adds a lot to how he terms are generally used today.

            Bistro's are more casual than restaurants, restaurants have more bells and whistles. IMO a 2 0r 3 star Michelin will always be a "restaurant", whilst may one stars are restaurants, with a few Bistro's. Bistrot's are generally small with a small team in the kitchen and FOH. It is very wrong to say that Bistrot's only serve "simple" food, certainly some do serve simple food and make a virtue out of it, but many others offer sophisticated food cooked by a passionate chef (often the owner).

            Remember the "Bistronomique" movement was all about ex-Michelin stared chefs cooking great good, in simpler surroundings, and the "neo-bistro" movement continues this tradition with extremely food driven menu's.

            OK Brasseries were traditionally where beer was served, and the dishes reflected the local cuisine of the brewers (Choucroute from Alsace), but these days a Brasserie are usually large, and generally serves food all day, you can get beer at Brasseries, but the emphasis is now on wine. Brasseries are usually "historical" sites with much of the decor maintained. As the OP says some are less true to the tradition i.e. I don't believe Balzar serves food all day anymore. But I suspect this is a result of Flo Group ownership, which saved many of the grand old places (the loss of some of the individuality is a price that is probably worth paying for this).

            Bars and Cafes also serve food throughout the day, but the emphasis is different to a brasserie. A Cafe will be very simple with more snack like meals than a Brasserie, and will often close in the early evening. A bar will have simple food, and the emphasis will be on drinks and coffee rather than food, although food will be generally available.

            OK technically the term "restaurant" is generic and the dictionary would probably define it as place that sold meals. But in reality a "Restaurant" in France is going to be more upmarket than a Bistro or Brasserie and you would expect better and/or more formal service, higher quality decoration, and a meal with all the bells and whistles.

            1. re: PhilD

              Being French, I beg to disagree with PhilD. One does not say "nous allons au bistrot or "nous allons à la Brasserie", but "nous allons au restaurant".
              As you said in an earlier post, boundaries are blurred, and overclassifying does not help. For me, Bistronomique was not about bistrots but about tired Parisian chefs capitalising on their fame (far, far away from the genuine and unpretentious "Bisrot du coin" we all love), and the Flo Group bears no relation with the "Brasserie de la gare"...I must be old fashion, but Paris is not la France, fortunately. Whatever the name, what matters is the smile and the food!

              1. re: monchique

                I thought I had agreed "restaurant" is a generic noun for places that serve food? But in the spirit of the OP I was commenting on the way the terms are used in France. Compared to other countries the terms are still very specific, in other countries the terms are interchangeable and have lost meaning. From my experience the terms are still used in France to differentiate between styles of restaurant, with "restaurant" as a sub category that implies a higher level of service/decor.

                I am not a fan of Flo Group food, but I would rather still have the brasseries under their ownership than yet another branch of Zara.

                We clearly have had experiences of "bistronomiques", as a trend I thought it reinvigorated a sector and ensured talented chefs stayed in, or returned to smaller kitchens rather than getting lost in the large brigades in the grand kitchens.

                I wasn't intentionally being Paris centric, it is just where I lived.

                1. re: PhilD

                  Yeah... well, I think if someone says to me 'brasserie' or 'bistrot' I would have a rough idea of what kind of place they meant, but no more than that, as boundaries are indeed always fluid. For me, brasseries are large, open all day for both food and for drinks, are not cheap but not gastronomic prices, often they date from the 19th or early 20th centuries (I'm thinking of places like the Brasserie des Brotteaux in Lyon). A bistrot is a smaller, less elegant, more neighbourhood-y kinda place. Or at least it used to be. But there are plenty of places which don't attempt to fit into either of these categories, which are simply restaurants.

                  Some guidebooks (for example le Petit Futé) still divide their eating sections up, with a separate section for brasseries. They also have a section called 'gastronomiques' to refer to Michelin starred (or with ambitions to be!) restaurants. I wouldn't agree that 'restaurant' refers to a place with a higher level of service or deco. I can go to a restaurant that wouldn't class as a bistrot and pay less than €20 for lunch.

                2. re: monchique

                  I disagree about bistronomiques. First, if anything, it's the Parisian (and other) journalists that are tired, not the chefs. Second, bistronomique is a very real category, precisely situated in time and space, basically initiated by the pupils of Christian Constant -- it consists of fine dining ingredients and techniques with casual service, and as such it is fundamentally different from your regular and traditional bistrots, as it is different from the "bistrots de chefs" where young chefs try to innovate and express their personality in a seemingly less socially exclusive environment.

                3. re: PhilD

                  If it has flowers on the table, it is not a bistro.

              2. re: corporal nym

                Well, according to the Trésor de la langue française... "l'hyp. qui voit dans le mot, l'adaptation du russe bistro « vite » remontant aux cosaques assoiffés occupant Paris en 1814 n'est pas suffisamment fondée".

            2. Two comments mention the etymology of the word bistro. While I live in Russia, am a neophyte in Russian, but my wife is Russian and a linguist. This is Natalia's offering:

              быстро ы adjective; fast This is considered an original Russian word and is very commonly used. Emphasis is on the first vowel.

              бистро о noun; small restaurant or cafe This sounds like the word above, however, the emphasis is on the last vowel. Russians assume the word was borrowed from the French, but recognize it as a cognate.

              Peter the Great "Since coming to power in 1689, the Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) had pushed ahead the forced modernisation of Russia. One country fascinated him in particular: France. He travelled there in 1717 at a time when the Regent sought closer Franco-Russian ties." France so fascinated Peter, that he made French the language of his court and Boyars,nobility. There are countless French cognates in Russian tongue; almost as many as shared with Engish from the 1066 Norman conquest of Britain. Apparently the languages went both directions to some degree. Bistro/'fast' travelled to France; perhaps by rude Cossaks, Chochotte. Hence, bistro, apparently as a noun; a small restaurant or cafe' is a reverse borrowed word in Russia ?? Who knows? Russians consider their bistros to be fast food, no table cloths (not in the sense of burger chains, of course, but much quicker meal than a restaurant). Do you frankophiles see any relation to speed of cooking or service in the various establisment appelations?