Are Paris’ Bistros a Museum of Their Former Selves?
Bistros were once a stalwart of the French capital, but as chefs grow more interested in trendy, contemporary fare, this classic establishment may be relegated to become a relic of its former self.
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Paris has long been synonymous with the bistro, but try to find a good one these days, and you’ll likely come up empty. The trend in top Parisian restaurants is the simple, farm-driven plate you find in most major metropolises. Excellent steak-frites or fantastic beef bourguignon, once Parisian stalwarts, have oddly become thin on the ground in the French capital.
As with many culinary inventions, the story of the bistro is rife with urban legend, the most popular of which is a tale that the word originated among Russian troops occupying Paris after the Napoleonic Wars. According to this story, they would shout býstro (“quickly”) for faster service; the bistro thus gained acclaim as a place where one could be served with haste.
The truth, however, is the bistro is the result of mass migration to Paris from the provinces, specifically Auvergne. Beginning in the 1830s, peasants from this central French region began to traverse, often on foot, the 700 kilometers to the capital, bringing with them, according to Chef Daniel Rose, owner of bistro La Bourse et La Vie, “the traditions from their hometowns—where they might cook, but more likely, they saw their mothers cook or their fathers cook, and then they said, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
Opened not by restaurateurs, then, but by proto-entrepreneurs, the original bistros were known for their low prices, convivial atmosphere, and stick-to-your-ribs fare. And despite their innate regionality, bistros soon joined cafés in becoming the most essentially Parisian of establishments.
But in the 1970s, things began to change.
With the rise of the precision-driven nouvelle cuisine, championed by the likes of the Troisgros brothers or Paul Bocuse, people lost interest in maintaining spaces that began to be perceived as stodgy or old-fashioned. In the decade that followed, explains Emmanuel Rubin, culinary journalist and co-founder of Le Fooding, “people were excited by new technology, by fast food, by new changes. And they got swept away by modernity.”
Indeed, this interest in more technical, modern, avant-garde cuisine seemed antithetical to the bistro as it was, and over time, bistros became mere echoes of their former selves, purporting to still serve the same classics, albeit with a dirty secret: many were bringing in frozen food and cutting corners to keep prices low and a sizeable tourist population happy.
“Many of them disappeared,” says Rubin of bistros at this time. “Others, bit by bit, started serving crap. They were no longer what we wanted them to be.”
In the ‘90s, however, a handful of great chefs began to clamor for something different—not the Michelin-starred precision they had become known for over the past two decades, but rather a return to their roots. Atop bare wooden tables, they began serving the hearty, country fare bistros they had long been known for—but instead of Auvergnat peasants, there were haute cuisine chefs at the range.
Bistronomy was born.
A portmanteau of bistro and gastronomy, bistronomy, according to Allison Zinder, gastronomy guide and culinary educator, “is all about creating a more casual atmosphere for clients than in fine-dining establishments, while still privileging the contents of one’s plate.”
The term, coined by journalist Sébastien Demorand, was first used in reference to Yves Camdeborde’s La Régalade in 1992. But ask Rubin, and the seeds of this fancier, more precise bistro were sowed a bit earlier thanks to chefs like Michel Rostang, Guy Savoy and Jacques Cagna.
“They opened annexes to their great restaurants, and all of these annexes had a bistro form and made bistro food,” Rubin says, noting that if bistronomy really became possible on the French culinary landscape, “it’s because those guys moved the codes. And no one ever says so.”
The rise of bistronomy understandably changed the bistro in a number of ways. Dishes that were simple and hearty became more technical, thanks to the presence of a chef—not a cook—in the kitchen. Jason Gouzy, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Pantagruel, boasts experience in both bistros and haute cuisine restaurants, small establishments and lush palace hotels.
“Bistros, for me, have always been places where you find market-driven cuisine,” he says. “Bistronomy is a combination of a traditional restaurant with chef-driven cuisine. Market-driven, at reasonable prices, and for any kind of client, but still playing with that creativity.”
But 30 years later, bistronomy is no longer on-trend. Instead, Paris has become inundated with restaurants serving up contemporary, ingredient-focused fare—the same sort of stuff you find on trendy tables everywhere from New York to London to Copenhagen. Market-driven, yes. Chef-focused, yes. Reasonably priced—sometimes. But traditionally French? No more.
Gouzy bemoans this overly simple style, a cuisine that boils down to “cooked vegetables at reasonable prices.” While the ingredients are “amazing,” he can’t help but wonder: “Where’s the cooking?”
While many of the city’s most-watched chefs are found in these sorts of establishments, Paris’ streets do still play home to bistros, with their wicker chairs and Vichy tablecloths, their chalkboard menus boasting beef bourguignon and oeuf-mayo. The difference, however, is the bistros you find on most street corners are but museums of a former style. They cater principally to tourists, and many don’t hide the fact that their cuisine, as it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, comes frozen or pre-prepared. The true quality bistro as Paris once knew it seems dead and buried. Or, at the very least, one kind of bistro is.
For Rubin, Paris has long played host to “two kinds of bistros.”
“On the one hand, there were the chic, bourgeois, worldly bistros,” he says. “There were tons of them in Paris in the ‘60s, ‘50s and even before.” On the other hand, he cites, there is the “working-class” bistro—the day-to-day bistro.
The former, he says, never died; it was merely co-opted into the bistronomy trend. But as a result, our vision of what a bistro truly is has shifted. Bistronomy today, he says, “is more gastronomic, or semi-gastronomic, than bistro.” And if the worldly, chic bistro is the new status quo, then places like Michelin-starred Septime are unwittingly categorized as bistronomy.
“If that’s a bistro, I’m a priest,” scoffs Rubin.
For Rubin, the identifying criteria for a true bistro are simple: low prices and a convivial, nearly boisterous ambiance. Neither are present in most modern bistros.
“We’re no longer in the context of what made a bistro a bistro,” he says. “It was the noise, the joy, the popularity of the thing. And by popular, I mean the people. There’s no working class at Camdeborde’s [Le Comptoir du Relais]. There isn’t even a middle class. It’s just Left Bank bourgeois.”
Gone is the working-class menu. Gone is the natural heterogeneity of the bourgeois, middle class and working class. Gone is the inexpensive oeuf-mayo, which Rubin calls “the metronome” of the bistro. For this reason, he says, “the bistro isn’t dead, but the people’s bistro is dead.”
This dearth of working-class bistros is likely linked to a preponderance of other options for inexpensive fare—fast food and “fast good” options fill a need once monopolized by the bistro. Kébab, which first arrived in France in the 1980s with a wave of Turkish immigration, is one of the country’s most popular street foods. French tacos have developed a strange gravitational pull, and even McDonald’s has taken the country by storm, with 330 new restaurants opening in France between 2009 and 2019. But which came first—the death of the bistro or the rise of fast food—is a bit of a chicken and oeuf-mayo question.
“It’s a paradox in a paradoxical time,” Rubin says. “But I think bistronomy accelerated the death of the working-class bistro.”
Of course, a handful of stalwarts remain. The Petit Vendôme is an exception confirming the rule that Rubin says we should “put under glass.” Chez Georges was taken over by a younger restaurateur but retains its bistro charm. But if places that were once categorized as bistronomic are now truly restaurants with a bistro allure, if fast food has replaced the need for a true bistro, if the bistros that exist are more museums to themselves than living, breathing spaces—then what’s left?
Benoît Duval-Arnould opened Le Bon Georges in 2013. As he sips two espressos one right after the other in this space bedecked with retro bar signs and massive chalkboard menus—all of the codes of the traditional bistro—he speaks convincingly and passionately about his desire to return to the traditions of yore.
“I’m not a fashionable guy,” he says from behind his dark-rimmed glasses. “I’m fairly traditional in my approach.” This, for him, means a menu of long-simmered dishes that are cooked rather than assembled. “I flee the modern,” he says. “Our traditions, our memories, regression—it’s good. It’s anchoring.”
There is a firm understanding among his 30-some-odd employees that a good bistro is just as much about the kitchen as it is about the dining room. Seven days a week, staff cultivate a bustling, convivial space in which diners feel at home.
Some elements of Le Bon Georges nevertheless surf on the former bistronomy wave. Prices are higher than one might expect of a working-class restaurant, but Duval-Arnould is unapologetic.
“If you go to the corner brasserie, who’s taking who for an idiot?” he says. “Because generally, they take ingredients that aren’t expensive at all, that you don’t know anything about. A slice of tomato in the middle of winter on every plate. Sure, why not?”
For Duval-Arnould, the key element of the bistro—aside from excellent food—is a sincere conviviality, and this is what he seeks to maintain. “We’re not just cooking to fill your stomach,” he says. “We’re cooking to feed people. And to feed them, you have to love them. That’s our job.”
Bistros like Duval-Arnould’s are part of a new wave returning to the French capital. In a similar fashion, the brasserie—perhaps best framed as the Alsatian answer to the bistro, complete with beer on tap—suffered the same fate as its cousin until recently when Brasserie Bellanger and Brasserie Rosie joined the scene. The bouillon—a 19th-century staple founded on a similar premise of hearty food at low prices, albeit by butchers looking to find ways to use up lesser cuts of meat and thus peddling broths or bouillons—has recently been resuscitated by Bouillon Pigalle, Bouillon République and Le Petit Bouillon Vavin. These new establishments feel like they walked right out of history with their Art Nouveau décor and criminally low prices. Traditional French food is coming back into fashion.
“This is basically how I view all of life—pendulum swings,” says Chef Edward Delling-Williams, owner of Le Grand Bain. “And I think that especially with the homogenization of Instagram, everybody’s looking for the next thing that separates them from the pack.”
For Delling-Williams, this means, “French dining is primed for a resurgence.”
“We really want something that reminds us of our memories,” agrees Gouzy. “That kind of restaurant, where we wanted everything to be so pure and simple, which was so in fashion 10 years ago, five years ago, I think it’s starting to reach the end of its élan.”
But unlike the bouillon or the brasserie, the bistro doesn’t appear to always be returning in its historical form. Rather, it is regaining a part of its original meaning: its association with migration.
Rose hails from this migration—an American who has mastered the local cuisine. And he’s not the only one. From Japanese Daisuke Kikuchi of Café des Musées to Cambodian Tomy Gousset of Hugo & Co., to Argentine Raquel Carena of Le Baratin and to the British Dan Wren of Buffet, the idea of the bistro is perhaps more exciting and enticing to those for whom the myth lives on as something that still boasts a touch of curiosity and romanticism.
Some stick to tradition. “It’s hard to compete with the satisfaction of eating an excellent steak-frites,” says Rose. “And in some ways, people who visit Paris have the same reaction to a steak-frites as they do to a very elaborate meal. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.”
But others fuse these classic dishes with a new spin. At Café des Musées, alongside a truly excellent beef bourguignon, you’ll find a Japanese twist on a classic duck breast served with a simple broth. At Buffet, the dish of the day could be a simple pan-cooked mushroom skillet, but it could also pair local asparagus with black tahini. Le Fooding showed this evolution in its selection of the best new bistros of 2019, highlighting not just the classic menus of spots like Le Maquis, but also the Asian-influenced Double Dragon and Cheval d’Or.
“Bistro is not a series of recipes; it is a process,” asserts Rose in defense of this evolution. “A phenomenon.” And through time, whether it was mass migration from the regions, migration out of fancy restaurants, or a new wave of migration from all over the world, this essential movement is part of what keeps a bistro from going stale.
It’s hard to get anyone to settle on the perfect definition of a bistro. Is it a style of food? A price point? More than anything, it seems to be a feeling.
“I don’t think there is any one definition. Some people will tell you a bistro is a restaurant that’s open all day, or where you can eat at the counter. Others will say it’s about certain very traditional dishes,” says Duval-Arnould. “But what I would call a bistro is above all, today, a state of mind. It’s this conviviality. A certain simplicity. Wanting to have a direct relation with clients; this sort of fraternity. That’s it.”