What is the reason for so many different types of places to eat in France? What is the difference between a café, bistro, brasserie or restaurant? Their common denominator is that they all serve food, but how are they different?
Cafés mostly cater to local residents, who casually drop by either for something to eat, or drink, or both. The first café in Paris, Le Procope, started out in 1686 when the only item it served was coffee, a new drink at the time, and let us not forget that the French word for coffee is ‘café.’ Since then, cafés have evolved into neighborhood haunts that one frequents to have a drink of anything from water to tea, coffee, soda, juice, wine, beer or spirits. They also have a selection of light fare, from sandwiches to hot dogs, salads and a small selection of hot or cold meals that usually include a daily special.
Cuisine quality in cafés can be good, or far from it, so local experience in choosing a café is important. Prices are usually reasonable, but that can change if the café has turned into something of a legend, such as Les Deux Magots in St. Germain, a café opposite the St. Germain Church tower which dates from 1090, and where the setting and mood approach a cross between a Hollywood set and Cannes during its Film Festival, and where prices can be a lot more than twice what you might expect in a normal café.
It and its closest rival, the Café de Flore, are known to Parisians as ‘literary’ cafés, thanks to the former patronage of the likes of André Gide, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whose spirits linger on their premises and add magic to your experience at either one.
Bistros are a step up the ladder of cuisine sophistication, when compared with cafés. They serve simple fare in an informal setting. They are not bars in which you stop simply to have something to drink. They are eating establishments where the cuisine can be very attractive, but not usually very complicated to prepare. At the time of this writing, there is a bistro in the 4th district of Paris that sports a Michelin star: Benoit. That is unusual for a bistro, and the anomaly is explained by the fact that its owner is France’s stellar chef, Alain Ducasse, who, of course, charges Alain Ducasse prices, which are much higher than typical Paris bistro rates.
In the bad old days before the European Economic Union, brasseries were microbreweries that served their own brew. Brasserie literally means brewery. Since the Middle Ages, if you craved beer, whatever the hour, your best option was to drop in on your favorite brasserie, where, after quenching your thirst, you might also be struck with a pang of hunger. Brasseries catered to those pangs by offering food that is good accompaniment to beer: lots of pork dishes, steaks, chops, sauerkraut… whatever beer washes down well.
When the EEC emerged, constituent countries lobbied for regulations to protect that part of the national identity most precious to it; and in Germany beer was right near the top. To ensure that its market would not be sullied by unscrupulous foreign breweries, the EEC adopted rules governing brewing that were so stringent that most microbreweries could not comply, and therefore they stopped brewing. Did they go out of business? Of course not: they simply started selling beer produced by those breweries that complied with the new rules.
Brasseries are also casual establishments, where dress is informal and where the quality of the cuisine is more or less on a par with bistros. There are exceptions, such as Maxim’s a beautiful Belle Epoque brasserie in Paris, which is neither casual, nor inexpensive.
Most brasseries feature, when in season (normally all year-round except May to August), a shellfish bar outside the establishment, where an ‘écailleur’ or shucker will on the spot open oysters and clams and assemble magnificent platters of shellfish for the customers inside, or for take-out clients who usually order them in advance. A variety of types of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimps, sea urchins, periwinkles, whelks, crabs and lobsters are usually available.
Brasseries continue to be open earlier and remain open later than most bistros or restaurants. The majority offer service at stand-up bars, but some do not. They continue the tradition of providing fare that is good accompaniment to beer, but have branched out to sell a wide selection of other drinks, including wine, and there are even some brasseries that specialize in more elaborate seafood. Le Dome in Montparnasse is a good example. It started out as a cafe, evolved into a brasserie, and today its fare is so refined that many patrons consider it one of the best seafood restaurants in Paris.
That brings us to the top level of eating establishments in France: restaurants. They offer cuisine prepared by chefs talented enough to concoct complex dishes that most of us (adherents of Julia Child excepted) do not have the savoir faire to conjure. They are where serious, sophisticated cuisine can be found; and where considerable effort is lavished on transforming the ingredients into something unusually enjoyable when done well, or over-worked and unrecognizable when not.
Is restaurant fare better than that found in the other levels of dining establishments? It depends on your perspective, mood and budget. You are far more likely to find inspired combinations of flavors in dishes prepared at restaurants crowned with three Michelin stars such as Le Pré Catelan or Le Grand Véfour, when compared with excellent bistros such as La Fontaine de Mars and Chez Michel, or great brasseries such as Balzar or Le Stella.
Each of the establishments cited above list among my favorite places to dine in Paris. I choose bistros and brasseries far more often than restaurants because I do not always feel up to eating sophisticated cuisine, which is frequently rich and sometimes a challenge to digest. Restaurants are also more formal places, where the formality and bill climb in proportion with the number of stars they may have garnered.
On the other hand, I travel a great deal through the French countryside, where the array of wonderful restaurants, frequently classified as ‘Auberges’ (the French word for inns) is so alluring, and their prices are so seductive, that one can hardly pass them by. But that will be the subject of a future post.