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What we want when we say the ‘B’ word

 So picture this: you’re walking down the street in Paris on a cold night, and you’re hungry. All of a sudden something smells so damned good, so rich winey earthy and rutting, that you absolutely have to hunt it down. You work out that this irresistible olfactory lure is emanating from a ramshackle looking little place on the corner. You step inside, and one of the most power sentimental semaphores ever created—the red-and-white checked table cloth, tells you that yes, you’re in the right place, this is a real Paris bistro.

The Paris Bistro

Photo by Bob Peterson

A flood of well-being spreads like a drop of navy-blue dye in a small glass of warm water, but instead of dispersing, it deepens, because this place, this charming friendly little hole in the wall with weird ceramic junk on a nicked zinc service bar, and maybe a philodendron trailing out of pot by the cash register, this sepia setting is whispering slow-down for God’s sake and relax. Stop looking at your freaking iPhone or Blackberry or debating if you should have another drink (you should), or whether or not you’ll go to bed with your date (you should), or worrying that having cheese and dessert will inflate that hateful belly roll you’ve been killing yourself to deflate (you should). For the space of a meal, you let yourself of the hook from all of the normal self-coaching and restraint and make pleasure—lots of it—your priority.

Bistro counter - photo by Meg Zimbeck

Photo by Meg Zimbeck

Then the owner sidles over with glasses of cheap but just fine white wine—vous êtes les bienvenues—and a saucer of radishes with salt to dip them in, and it just gets better. The menu’s a slow-simmered slaughterhouse, the cheese has spilled out from under its flocked white crusts into fabulous pale yellow pools on a woven willow tray, and even if it’s only a question of expedient sensuality, you’re not leaving without dessert. Prunes soaked in wine, or flan, or tart, or something. You probably won’t remember what you ate in a week—bistro desserts are rarely any good—but it’ll taste just fine. But is the owner trying to do a little up sell here? Oh, piss off, that’s not at all what this meal is about. This is a Paris bistro. Or at least it was. Is it still?

The Paris bistro - photo by @Bob Peterson

Photo by Bob Peterson

As an Anglophone feed-bag writer in Paris, the question I’m asked day-in-and-day-out over-and-over again is where to go for a real Paris bistro meal. This is such a hard question to answer, because what I think people are looking for when they pose such a query is something that’s harder and harder to find in Paris every day: the white lace curtains, red-and-white checked table cloths, owners and servers avec du gueule (character). And yet the ongoing and accelerating decimation of the formatted bistro culture that the world fell in love with doesn’t mean that the spirit is gone. If that were true, I would be gone, too.

Bistro cooking - photo by Meg Zimbeck

Photo by Meg Zimbeck

And so I’ve been mulling and musing about what it is that the world wants when it wants a Paris bistro. I know that people crave those long-simmered dishes – coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, and boeuf aux olives. Dishes that convey the message “I care enough about you enough that I’ve taken the trouble to stew this taut old bird or gristly hunk meat into something delicious.” But is there something beyond the plate?

I think I found the missing link over dinner the other night with restaurateur Frederic Hubig-Schall. The owner of Astier in the 11th, one of the most successful surviving traditional Paris bistros, he said to me “Alec-uh (I love how the French pronounce my name), yes, it’s about that caring, but also conviviality—people still talk to each other in bistros, instead of remaining atomized, and generosity. You know, please try a bit this, a bit of that, here’s glass of a new wine I love, oh don’t go yet, you can’t go yet, I just a new eau-de-vie in that I want you to try.”

Bistro hospitality - photo by Meg Zimbeck

Photo by Meg Zimbeck

So what do we want when we want a bistro besides dusty lace, checked tablecloths, lots of meat and wine and artful teasing? Aw, shucks, I guess it’s please show me that you care, spoil me a little bit, and don’t tell anyone that I decided to have a good time come hell what may with butter fat, cholesterol, alcohol and maybe even an ill-advised kiss. So even as those Paris bistros like Polidor that are so beloved of Hollywood location scouts grow rarer, and traditional French bistro cooking becomes part of the Gallic culinary canon of edible nostalgia trotted out for special occasions, the bistro will survive, because everyone loves the light of this little votive candle too much to ever let it burn out.

My five favorite classic Paris bistros:


6 thoughts on “What we want when we say the ‘B’ word”

  1. Frances (Fai) Jackson

    I was in Paris this past May and called Astier for a reservation and was told that it had closed. Is this the case? Or did I misunderstand and the restaurant was closed and not taking reservations at that time. Quel domage either way.






  3. I am delighted that À la Biche au Bois made your list. It’s been our favorite since introduced to us in 1998 by Sandra Gustafson’s book. The owners are remarkably consistent in a very unremarkable way.

  4. You could add “Le Rubis” rue du Marche Saint Honore, another remaining bistro with fine french local wines and exquisite “plats du jour” (no menu, just 4 or 5 plats du jour everyday)

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