What's the difference between a Bistro and a Bistro?

As you are reading this I have probably just gotten off the plane from India or just walking through my front door. That being the case, I decided to share a colleagues' wonderful blog on how to navigate all the fabulous food options Paris has to offer. Thank you to Autumn Stettheimer WelbornJet Lag Please, whose favorite city is Paris for this enlightening and humorous lesson on French restaurants.

Clients ask Autumn “I know Paris has all this great food, but it’s like there are too many choices! Can you break it down to something a little easier?”

Of course, I can. Now, if you are one of my clients, then you know I always offer to supply my best dining suggestions based on the itinerary I’ve designed (and make any reservations for you). But some of you are determined to “fly by the seat of your pants”— in which case you will most certainly need to know (first and foremost) the difference between the different types of restaurants and food sellers. So, this may feel like you’re back in school, but my glossary has saved many a day in Paris!

Café: These little things are for coffee and don’t offer a ton of food options. Think of them as a good stop for breakfast (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t go to a boulangerie and get some fresh bread or pâtisserie for pastries). Cafés are easily confused with bistros if they contain a few tables, though the bistro is your better option for a cooked meal. My suggestion: stop by the neighborhood bakery (the one with the longest line) and pick out your breakfast. Then, walk to a neighborhood café with street tables, order up your preferred caffeinated beverage “to stay,” and take a seat at a table for some people watching.

Bistro: Ah, the Parisian bistro. Unfortunately, so many restaurateurs have confused and ruined the name and worth of a bistro. A true bistro is your best friend when looking for a great meal in Paris. These are the places that the neighborhood locals frequent. You’ll know you’re at a bistro because you’ll see one of these little beauties out front: 

LOOK TO THE CHALKBOARD TO FIND YOUR LUNCH. That bad boy right there is called the “plat du jour”—the daily special. You know you’re at a not-made-for-tourists spot when:

  • At least 15 of the 20 or so tables are full
  • Those tables appear to be pretty jammed together
  • There is a plat du jour on a chalkboard outside
  • People are speaking in French

When you find that place, eat there. Order the plat du jour. It’s there for a reason! And that reason is because the chef found all of its ingredients at the market that morning.

SIDEBAR: Bistros serve alcohol, BTW; cafés do not.

Now, let me explain an important distinction among bistros. There are these little cozy sidewalk bistros like I just described. You pop in there for lunch. But there are also bistros. These bistros are actually restaurants dressed up as bistros because they serve traditional French bistro food.

The difference??

You’re there for dinner, people look nice, and you probably should have made a reservation two days ago. This kind of bistro you should definitely eat at. It won’t be cheap, per se, but it will be divine. Take, for {an inflated} example, Benoît (in le Marais district). This little gem serves up Classic French fare as designed by THE Alain Ducasse. You’ll probably spend 60+ Euros per person on dinner here. I know, right. But it is quite different than a “restaurant” because, at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, you’ll spend upwards of 200 Euros per person. This is the case at his phenomenal Eiffel Tower restaurant, Le Jules Verne—worth every penny for the experience alone and double for the food. But at his flagship restaurant at the Plaza Athénée, get ready to spend 500 Euros! Per person! At lunch!!!! Suddenly fulfilling your Parisian foodie fantasies at Benoît is sounding pretty good, huh?

Brasserie: This one is much easier to describe. Generally (though exceptions abound), a brasserie is a bar—a nice one that serves good food all day long with quicker service and good prices. If you want to be all American about fast eating on your schedule, go here. They also offer a plat du jour and a good carte. Let me be clear. This is not Hooters. They are fancier than you expect, though you aren’t expected to come in dress clothes (but then again, Parisians always look nice, so don’t go in your yoga pants). Brasseries serve traditional French and Alsatian (like, from Alsace) food—but they do it in a more typical to Americans way. Think of a really fancy gastropub. Got it? The best of these usually have choucroute and saucissons. If they do, order that. One of my favorite authentic Alsatian brasseries is Chez Jenny, also in the Marais (there’s seriously so much good food in the Marais).

Okay, now we are all salivating from Autumn's descriptions. When are you going to taste these delights for real?!

Want to go to Paris? Call me. Let's talk.