Mark Bittman in an article last summer in The New York Times discusses the evolving Parisian bistro, or at least his favorites and reports that “the choices are better than they have been in years”, which is great for those who have the time and resources to take advantage of it. In my role as the local editor for Zagat, I went through thousands of readers comments, and the term “bistro” came up more than a few times. But, what really is a bistro (or is it a bistrot)? In the diverse, dynamic and free-form North American dining landscape, these terms can mean almost anything. The underlying termed restaurants often don’t resemble their original namesakes in any appreciable way. It is easy to picture a bistro, though, even if it might be difficult to find words to define it properly. Having “bistro” in the name denotes a level of unpretentiousness coupled with a sense of intimacy.
The word “bistrot” appeared for the first time in the 1800s. It originally meant a place where the workers would stop for a drink after returning from the fields or factories before going home. It usually featured a zinc-plated bar and most of the customers drank quinine or wine. Food was not a primary concern in these earlier years. The tradition of food began with the bistrot (or bistro) owner offering something to customers, as they would develop an appetite to go along with their thirst. It was anything that the owner and his wife had on hand, often a stew, which could serve a number of patrons over a period of time, or an omelet, which was easy to make quickly.
A friend whose grandparents ran one of these humble eateries in southern France, “a good bistrot is a small restaurant where the food is authentic, homemade, sturdy and simple where dishes depend on what the local market and fresh ingredients dictate… There is never much of a variation of the menu and dishes because people come to have the same comforting dishes they remember from childhood. Décor is never important. It is the food which takes center stage.”
Many bistros in Paris, and in the other large cities morphed from their humble origins into full-service restaurants due to their location in increasingly expensive and modern cities. These bistros first served just their neighborhood, but later many began to attract customers from beyond. Over the years, many of these modest eateries grew in ambition, capability and comfort, not to mention expense, but retained the familiar “bistro” in their name.
Philippe Schmit, the former executive chef of bistro moderne, who began his cooking career in Paris explained that the first of the so-called “modern bistros” arrived on the scene in Paris almost twenty years ago. These grew out of the considerable expense of operating (and dining at) the Michelin two- and three-star restaurants. The high-quality decorations, the linen service, the china, the glassware and even the flowers, plus the best and most luxurious ingredients, the freshest seafood and the considerable staff necessary both to create intricate and expert dishes and serve them, especially for five- and seven-course tasting menus, all of which are necessary for the top ratings, ran expenses to such high levels that at even at the highest prices that the market would bear (often $200 to $300 per diner), these restaurants were often barely turning a profit.
To make some money out of the situation, an enterprising two-star chef decided to trade on his name and open a more casual restaurant that would reflect his skills, but without nearly as much expense given to décor, ingredients and staff. The result was excellent food, if not quite as fanciful as the flagship restaurant in a more casual setting. Patrons did not have to wait for the special occasion to visit, and the profit margins allowed the chef and restaurateur to live more comfortably. Others followed the trend, including now two of France’s most acclaimed chefs, Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, and the starred grand restaurant became advertisement and, in some cases, a loss leader for the bistro or bistros.
So, there are now two bistro traditions, modern and traditional. In Houston, it is a little simpler, though quite a bit more diverse, as the term does not have to imply French-themed food.
There is more.