General Interest

The Bistro Conundrum

This article appeared in the March 2002 issue of the East Bay Monthly.

Will the real bistro please stand up? This confounding term sends one diner into a search for clarification and coq au vin.

By Eve Kushner

My favorite spot for reading the Sunday paper recently closed. It was a mellow place, cooly dark with mottled, sea-green tabletops and syncopated music playing all day. Whenever my husband and I settled down with coffee and an armful of Sunday papers, the other regulars would glance up from their reading and nod to us. As years passed, the folks behind the counter also seemed comfortingly familiar, especially after we started swinging by each night for take-out cappuccinos.

Loyal customers though we were, the owner scolded us that we never ordered the food. The business wasn’t doing well precisely for this reason, he said one night, motioning to the mostly empty tables. “Not enough people come for dinner.”

“Well, we think of it as a café,” I explained. “But it’s not,” he insisted with his strong European accent. “It’s a bistro.” Apparently, lots of customers had made the same mistake as we, using the tables to read rather than to dine.

I pretended to understand, so as not to seem like the quintessential unsophisticated American. But actually I had no idea what a bistro was. Was I supposed to act differently now that I’d heard the proper nomenclature?

After our exchange, I began noticing the word everywhere. “Bistro” pops up in the names of several eateries (especially in the burgundy awnings of Bistro Liaison, where the word appears five times), but it’s difficult to generalize from what I’ve seen. P. F. Chang, the upscale Chinese chain, calls itself a bistro. Same with the now-closed Stella’s Bistro, the minuscule spot perched on Cedar at Shattuck. What in the world could such venues have in common?

Frito-Lay has created a pricey Bistro Gourmet potato chip, and Dansk is pushing its Bistro porcelain and glassware. I’ve observed an even stranger application of the word in the Media Bistro Web site, which lists publishing jobs, suggesting that the creators have confused bistro with smorgasbord or buffet. Maybe I haven’t been the only American struggling to make sense of this verbal import.

The more I look into the matter, the more I feel I’m in good company. Lots of acquaintances seem fuzzy when asked for a definition. I find that, almost invariably, food reviewers assessing American bistros feel compelled to explain the concept to readers. In an Internet chat room, a heated argument evolved about a Tucson, Arizona, bistro compelling one opinionated participant to write: “Once again the egregious Dave steps forward with comments rooted in bile and ignorance. . . . Have you ever been to France, Dave? Have you ever eaten in a ‘bistro’? Do you even know what the term means?”

Before I know it, I’ve jumped headlong into research to resolve this nagging matter. I find reviews of bistros on the Net. I read about bistros and their cousins, brasseries, in Bon Appétit and in Patricia Wells’ handy guide, Bistro Cooking. I consult chefs and restaurant owners around town, all of whom are gracious, knowledgeable, and passionate about the subject. By this time I should be ready to open my own bistro. But, no, uncultured or dense American that I must be, I still can’t grasp what makes a bistro a bistro—and what distinguishes one from a café.

Webster’s 14th glosses a bistro as a small or unpretentious restaurant, a small bar or tavern, or a nightclub. The only eye-opener here is that bistro has an adjectival form, bistroic, pronounced rather like heroic. I’ve never seen or heard bistroic in a sentence, but I hope to someday.

Bistros sprang out of a particular culture and context that don’t exist here. The French are obviously socialized to know a bistro when they see one. A bistro to them is a home away from home, even called Chez Something-or-Other. When Parisian apartments were too small to include a kitchen, people treated bistros as an extension of their dining rooms and took all their meals there. In France the bistro still serves an essential function as a neighborhood gathering spot where regulars get to know each other and the bistro staff over the years. The bar in Cheers comes to mind—a place where “everybody knows your name.” Homeyness pervades a bistro, from the heaping portions of comfort food to the intimacy of the space to the informal, possibly rustic decor. A bistro is bustling, loud, and above all casual. You can saunter in wearing a T-shirt and shorts without facing any decline in service, and in a three-piece suit you should be equally comfortable (emotionally if not physically).

Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, CA
Credit: Treve Johnson
Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, CA.

The menu features unpretentious home-style cooking, with dishes from our grandmothers’ culinary repertoires (if our grandmothers hailed from, say, the United States or France and made a habit of cooking). At the same time—and here’s where the concept confounds American expectations—the food leans toward the gourmet side. Bistro fare may be simple, but it is executed superbly. Menus tend to include hearty, classic French items such as coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne, duck confit, and potato gratin, as well as lighter offerings like omelettes, croque-monsieur, and Niçoise salad. Then, too, the casualness allows for more creativity from the chef, who might fill half the menu with fanciful, California-cuisine concoctions like the roast-duck-and-mushroom strudel in a huckleberry sauce that Bistro Liaison has served.

Bistro menus (often nearly-illegible photocopies encased in plastic) are usually brief and rarely change, save for daily specials. When one imagines diners frequenting a place and ordering the same dishes over and over (owing to the limited options), it seems clear that a bistro becomes part of a sweet, quotidian ritual for them and that their attachment to the place grows over time.

Many (but not all) bistros provide copious portions, reminding customers in yet another way that they’re practically in someone’s home. To be more precise, they’re in a charmingly rustic house where the cook serves up generous cuts of meat and large chunks of homegrown vegetables, as opposed to dainty strands of lettuce or fastidiously julienned carrots. This homey, relaxed execution distinguishes bistros from restaurants and brasseries, which offer “classical presentations.” Or so says Dorothée Mitrani-Bell, chef-proprietor of La Note. However, there isn’t any consensus on this issue. Britt-Marie’s chef, Tom Beatty, associates bistro fare with the series of small dishes served in the Mediterranean meze or tapas style of dining. And Todd Kniess, chef-owner of Bistro Liaison, thinks the size of dishes doesn’t figure into the bistro definition at all. Although he offers several “petit plats,” they turn out to be entrée-sized simply because, according to him, he has a healthy appetite.

Bistros are urban creations, so their menus reflect the spirit of an individual neighborhood, whereas brasseries (or “breweries” in French) originated in the mountainous region of Alsace, featuring traditional countryside menus to accompany the beer. At least that’s what some of my sources say, although two claim the opposite. Adding to the muddle, Michel Adams, LaRue’s former chef-owner, calls the place “a brasserie by day and a bistro by night.”

Alcohol stars alongside food in bistros, which serve high-quality wine and beer, usually at nominal prices. Wine can even take center stage to such a degree that bistros may be indistinguishable from wine bars, as with Britt-Marie’s and Solano Cellars.

In contrast to elegant restaurants, bistros pride themselves on speedy service. In fact, “bistro” means “fast” in Russian. Legend has it that after Russian soldiers defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, they felt such hunger pangs that they flocked to Parisian eateries and shouted, “Bistro! Bistro!” in hopes of a quick meal. But the word didn’t enter the French language until 1884, so the term may actually be a bastardization of bistrouille or bistouille, which are drinks served at bistros in northern France.

Legend has it that after Russian soldiers defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, they felt such hunger pangs that they flocked to Parisian eateries and shouted, “Bistro! Bistro!” in hopes of a quick meal.

Whatever the etymological origins, bistros served the earliest fast food in France (before the infamous McDonald’s invasion), catering to workers who stood at the bar, eating and drinking on their lunch breaks. How fast is a fast lunch in a country that places premium importance on the midday meal? Not too fast by our standards. Whereas a lunch lasts two to four hours at an upscale restaurant in France, a bistro can have you out in 90 minutes. In American bistros, one should allow 45 to 60 minutes for lunch, while dinner will last considerably longer as people nurse bottles of wine.

Theoretically, bistro prices are moderate, part and parcel of the casual atmosphere and laid-back service. Britt-Marie’s has taken value to a new level, having raised prices only about $1 since opening 22 years ago. I took some skeptical friends there, and they marveled at the high quality of appetizers for less than $5.

Some self-proclaimed bistros, however, feature dishes in the $20 range. Indeed, savvy business types have cashed in on the bistro trend, working the fashionable buzzword into the names of their costly restaurants so as to “attract clientele hoping to find lower prices and a casual attitude,” says Beatty of Britt-Marie’s. Beatty calls it “false advertising” when the place turns out to be “high-falutin’ and pricey.” This hoax has indeed made the name bistro ubiquitous—I wasn’t just imagining it after the word first came to my attention.

Occasional fraudulence aside, true bistros are also proliferating, according to local bistro owners. Kniess of Bistro Liaison asserts, “Bistros are here to stay. They’re not going away,” and he considers this a reaction to “overly experimental” fusion cuisine (or “confusion cuisine,” as he quips). Mitrani-Bell of La Note attributes the bistro trend to a “backlash” against the profusion of “high-end, classical restaurants.” Diners long for basic and substantial but well-prepared food, so a bistro works perfectly. Elaborating on that idea, Michel Adams formerly of LaRue contributes this baffling comment: “A bistro is casual fine dining, but it’s not casual dining and it’s not fine dining.” Holy moly.

Kensington Bistro in Kensington, CA.
Credit: Treve Johnson
Kensington Bistro in Kensington, CA.

Just when I think I’ve grasped the bistro concept, I realize that I still harbor misconceptions. I run into trouble whenever my brain searches for an American analogue, because there simply isn’t one. Hearty, all-American food like roast turkey, stuffing, and gravy comes from Denny’s (via the old-fashioned American roadhouse and diner), not a hip neighborhood watering hole. Maybe a bar-and-grill comes closer, but such a place still won’t have the intimacy, charm, or neighborhood feel of a bistro.

Are pubs the English equivalent of bistros? After all, pubs serve neighborhood folks comforting food like lamb chops and mashed potatoes along with lager and ale. No, when I compare Kensington Circus Pub and Kensington Bistro (which are, providentially enough, the only two restaurants on Colusa Circle), I see that they’re as different as, well, England and France. Pubs are decidedly old-fashioned and traditional in everything from the dark woods and Ye Old Pubbe signs to the fish-and-chips fare that Brits have eaten for centuries (God help them). By contrast, bistros tend to be hip and now, the menus faddish and the decor more contemporary.

Dizzy from all this culinary theorizing (and not enough actual eating), I almost overlook the obvious solution—trying them out. I pay one visit after another to Bistro Liaison, Kensington Bistro, Nizza La Bella, Jojo, and LaRue, as well as old favorites like La Note and Britt-Marie’s. And what do I learn? As Adams tells me, “A bistro is a state of mind.” He seems to speak in riddles, but this actually starts making sense to me.

Despite seemingly narrow culinary parameters, the bistros offer a surprising variety of dishes: snails, pizzas topped with fried eggs, smoked trout, fried calamari, mini quiches, eggy concoctions, juicy steaks, heaping portions of shoestring fries, and the ever-present Niçoise salad. Sometimes I’m disappointed with what I receive, and other times I feel inspired by the possibilities, both for an individual place and for bistros as a whole.

Visiting all these thriving bistros, I finally grasp the meaning and come to realize that my old hangout was ultimately set up too much like a café, confusing customers. No one would think to walk into other bistros and settle down with a book and a cup of coffee. And it’s not as if most bistro owners have browbeaten customers into ordering food. People just do that naturally when the concept is clearly presented.

Since our favorite spot closed, we’ve had to explore other places, and this has turned out to be a positive adventure. My husband and I now frequent a café where the staff has already memorized our order. And all my bistro hopping has led me to become a Britt-Marie’s regular, where I always receive a warm welcome and a comforting look of recognition.

I now realize that I need both a café and a bistro in my life. Although a café creates some sense of community, it can’t compare to what a bistro can achieve. With hearty, soothing food to comfort the soul, alcohol to take off the edge, and familiar faces to see week after week, a bistro is the perfect way to fill everything that’s empty inside.

Eve Kushner has reviewed 20 restaurants for The East Bay Express and CitySearch.