Café’s counter is the nation’s parliament. Le comptoir d’un café est le parlement du peuple.
Honoré De Balzac.
Bistros, the quintessential French eatery, originated in Paris in the early 1600s with the earliest known bistro, Cafe Procope. Bistros are not to be confused with brasseries which are larger, noisier eateries that originated in the Alsatian region. Brasseries primarily serve a seafood based menu, accompanied by beer fresh form the attached brewery for which they are named.
Much like the Alsatian brasseries, bistros were originally established to provide an affordable alternative to the more elaborate, expensive dishes offered in restaurants. The term “bistro” was a slang term co-opted from Russian during the 1814 Paris occupation, and referred to a small cafe or wine shop.
Unlike its modern incarnation, with its decidedly more expensive price tag, bistro’s of old made excellent food available to many, not just a wealthy few. It could even be argued that the increasing accessibility bistro’s offered contributed to the centrality and importance of cuisine in modern French culture. In addition to serving local wines and regional specialties, bistros offered hearty, simple and satisfying fare. Classic menu items included salads, pâtés and terrines, eggs, steak frites, roasted poultry, pigs feet, sweetbreads, pot-au-feu, hachis parmentier, ratatouille, lentils, etc.
With an atmosphere decidedly more intimate than that of their noisier cousins, the brasseries, bistros came to occupy a uniquely important place in French society, one which brought together many diverse peoples and ideas. Both historically and continuing into the modern era, bistros have long nurtured and encouraged the ideals of free exchange, dialogue and debate on everything from poetry and art, to politics and revolution.
In the United States, bistros are likely to serve not only French food, but also dishes inspired from other cuisines. Often owned by influential restaurant groups, American bistros don’t hesitate to invest a lot on decor and fou-fou, inevitably leaving the consumer with a more expensive price tag.
Along the Californian coast in particular, a new trend is emerging for what is known as a café-bistro-bakery. This reconfigured coffee shop slash bistro offers not just classic boulangerie baked goods, but also crêpes, bistro classics and other grab-and-go options. While a certain Parisian ambiance and flare is unmistakable amongst the high end decor, and their shelves crowded with fine épicerie merchandises from France, the quality of the food does not always match that of its Parisian counterparts.
Bistronomy is a relatively new invention, one which characterizes the culinary goals of many of the modern Parisian bistros. The concept, which combines “bistro’’ and “gastronomy’’, refers to bistro dishes that are cooked with haute cuisine methods. In France, many talented and awarded chefs have embraced bistronomy, particularly as it is known to be less demanding professionally compared to the traditionally long and fastidious route towards Michelin stardom.
So, what does it take to be an excellent cook?
Even top chefs once had to learn the basics of cookery, the foundation of which begins with carefully selected, high quality ingredients and an acknowledgement of the influence of each season. Bistros provide a diverse array of menu options from which to form the foundation of your own culinary journey towards excellence. With my help, and my carefully curated menu of bistro specialities, you too will soon progress from a mastery of the basics and beyond, able to call yourself an excellent chef!.
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