Lost between the Bistro, Brasserie, Troquet…
Bistro, brasserie, café, troquet, boui-boui, bouchon and even more…so many options where you can eat and/or drink in France that it gets confusing! How to make your choice and what is the difference?
When you think about France, you may think about enjoying great food and drinking a glass of wine on a sunny terrace while observing people passing by as the French people do! The French Art de Vivre of enjoying food and drink and taking the time is deeply rooted in French culture, so as the many places that allow us to enjoy these delights of life!
The bistro: the French bar
The Bistro, also written Bistrot in French, goes back to the beginning of the 19th century.
First, the bistro was only serving alcohol. It was also called un Assomoir (the watering hole), as Emile Zola novel. An establishment where drinkers would forget their worries with cheap wine, spirit or absinthe.
A bit later, natives of the Auvergne region (Auvergnats), started serving hams and cured meat to go with the wine, and they also began to accept women into their bistro!!! It might be why, the popular classic feminist singer, Brassens, dedicated them a song: Chanson pour l’Auvergnat!
There are several theories of the exact origins of the name bistro as explains Luc Bilh-Villette in his essay (in French) « Des tavernes aux bistrots, une histoire des cafés ».
A popular theory is that the word bistro could come from the Russian word bistro which means fast. The Russian soldiers settled in France in 1814 after the battle of Paris that marks the end of Napolean Bonaparte Empire. Russian soldiers were pressing the waiters serving too slowly, according to them, by repeating the term bistro, bistro.
When to go to a bistro?
The bistro usually only serves food during the French eating hours, meaning from 12-14h and 19h-22h and offers a short food menu. It tends to be of a smaller size than restaurants or Brasseries.
Dishes are simple and traditional, such as the Blanquette de Veau. Check out my mum’s recipe of this French famous dish. They are also often seasonal and are changed regularly. The decoration is traditional, and the place quite popular.
However, lately, bistro started to become more fancy and sophisticated in the main cities of France. It now becomes difficult to find the traditional French bistro in the major cities, but they are still very common in the French smaller towns and countryside.
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The French Brasserie
Are they still breweries?
Brasserie means brewery in English.
Nowadays a Brasserie in France can be either a type of restaurant, what we are discussing here, or an establishment brewing beer. Only a small number of establishments still do both, and they are often not in the city centres.
The Alsatian Brasseries
Many brasseries are originally from the region Alsace. Back in 1870, when France lost the territory of Alsace against the Prussian Empire, many rich Alsatian wishing to remain French, moved to France, and mainly Paris, and opened Alsatian breweries in France.
It is, therefore, no secret why most French brasseries serve Choucroute, a very traditional dish with sour cabbage and pork from Alsace, and also Germany or Austria where it is called Sauerkraut.
Some of the Alsatian Brasseries are still very traditional and kept a very authentic feeling. Being from Lyon, I can recommend Brasserie George, a very famous Brasserie that opened in 1836 and kept its splendour! If you go to Lyon or live in Lyon, I strongly recommend you to book a table to discover the place and try the simple, traditional French and Alsatian dishes!
Brasseries offer all-day service in opposition to normal restaurants and bistros. Brasserie also often offer a shell-fish and oyster buffet all year long!
The food is mostly traditional but depending on the brasserie it can also be more gastronomic and fancy.
The menu tends to remain the same all year long and does not adapt to seasons as the bistros would do. This is, of course, not a set rule but a tendency.
So if you fancy a Choucroute and a beer at 3 pm, the traditional brasserie is the place to go!
The French Café
Is it any different?
Is there really such a thing as a French café? Are they any different from the other Southern European countries? To be honest I’m not sure.
However, French people do love to stay and enjoy their coffee for a long time. It is not about drinking the coffee; it is more about spending quality time with friends or even alone! It is totally OK in most cafés to stay 2 hours and order a few 1,50€ coffees. Maybe not in busy touristy Paris, but in other neighbour and definitely most of France!
The traditional French café will not have as many options as it is the case in Anglo-Saxon countries, where coffee becomes an actual recipe, and the coffee menu as long a wine list! So it is not so easy to find a latte macchiato or a mochaccino. When a French person talks about a café, it is usually a short coffee, not as short as the real Italian espresso, but quite strong and often bitter.
What can you eat at a French café?
You will find mainly non-alcoholic drinks and snacks in a French café. There can be a small menu with nibbles, salad or simple food such as croquet-monsieur, quiche and of course desserts.
Cafés usual close earlier than normal restaurants and bar as they don’t serve alcohol and actual dinner food.
Troquet, PMU, Bouchon Lyonnais…
There are many other types of establishments serving food and/or drinks in France that, the Brasserie, Bistro or restaurants. Luc Bilh-Villette book « Des tavernes aux bistrots, une histoire des cafés » gives a list of more than 30 names!
Depending on the regions in France the names may vary.
A troquet can be a café or a bistrot.
A PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) is widely present in France. It is a bar, very popular, where people can bet for horse races. PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) is in fact the company operating the horse races and managing the bets, in specific local bars called PMU.
The Bouchon Lyonnais is the bistro from Lyon, where typical food from Lyon is served. This is a whole type in itself and will deserve a specific post soon!
The best way for you to discover this variety of places spreading the different facette of French Art de Vivre is to explore: Bistro, Brasserie, troquet, boui-boui, paillotte, guinguette, auberge… !
Personally, I love the bistro, and I have my local bistro where I love meeting my friends! What about you? Are you more Brasserie, Bistro or Café?