The Baffling BISTRO Barrage

 Before another 350 seat “bistro”, that sells everything from enchiladas to Chinese chicken salad, opens I have to stand up and say, “ENOUGH!” Have we forgotten what a bistro is? Did we ever really know? Or do we love to throw French words around so much and try to capitalize on them by diluting the concept to the point of it being unrecognizable?



 I must back up my rant by defining what a bistro actually is. In the modern term in France a bistro is an unpretentious moderately priced restaurant offering, wine by the glass, local dishes, sandwiches, etc…a small eatery such as where friends can casually meet and enjoy themselves.


 Where does the term “bistro” (or sometimes bistrot) come from? Patricia Wells in her book Bistro Cooking comments on how it may have had a Russian origin. The Russian word быстро (bystro) means quick. According to an urban legend, it entered the French language during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815. Cossacks who wanted to be served quickly would shout “bistro.” This may be suspect as the word was not used until decades later to describe this type of establishment.

 Another version is that it is an abbreviation of bistrouille, a French term for brandy mixed with coffee or a very cheap brandy, the sort that may be found in a traditional bistro.

 Regardless, I believe the point is clear that the true spirit of bistro may be reflective in any culture, whether the Italian trattoria or the mom N’ pop American diner. When I watch the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives I believe this is what I would define the American version of bistro at grass roots levels to be. When you walk the streets of Paris, New York, San Francisco you can find what can be defined as a bistro, French or otherwise, if it is small, modest, good simple fare that is local and locally owned. Now if your corporate office is in a NYC high rise and you’ve just opened your 47th “bistro” I must give a hearty hoorah for your business success but you have not opened a bistro, you’ve expanded a restaurant chain, but ‘restaurant chain’ is not as inviting as ‘bistro’ now is it?   


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