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Story of the Parisian Bistro

Story of the Parisian Bistro

Paris is dotted with thousands of bistros spread across streets, corners, tourist hotsports and just about everywhere. It is no surprise because it was in Paris that the 'Bistro Culture' of the world originated.

There are several stories around the origin of the word 'Bistro' as also around the starting of the 'Bistro Culture'.


'Au Bistro' by Jean Béraud (1849-1935)



There are several stories around the origin of the word 'Bistro' as also around the starting of the 'Bistro Culture'.


The most plausible explanation comes from the turn of XIXth Century. After the Napoleonic wars, Paris was occupied by the Russians in 1815. Paris Restaurateurs prided themselves (and still do) on serving the food graciously (read 'slowly' for the Russian standards of that time). The latter would often ask the native civilians to 'bystro' (hurry up) while serving them. Because of this 'pressing' demand might have born Bistro- to accomodate the less patient Cossacks by serving them quickly at tables put outside with simple, inexpensive fare.


Bistro might even have originated from the word 'Bistraud' which, in slang, meant 'petty domestic help'. This could have evolved to signify an inexpensive, run-of-the-mill fare served in a simple place as opposed to a restaurant that tries to live up to its name with fancy airs!


The word 'bistrouille' may also have to do with Bistros. It is a colloquial term from Northern France that meant a cheap mixture of Brandy and Coffee, typically the kind of stuff one could expect in a 'Bistro'.


Another possible etymology might come from Parisian landlords, à l'époque, making an extra buck out of their kitchens by offering room and board to their tenants. Later, the kitchen would accomodate paying public as well, seated in cramped spaces in their basement kitchen- dining area.The food that was served was simple, 'homely', could be prepared in large quantities and cost less.


Today the Parisian 'Bistro' has come to mean a place to enjoy traditional and inexpensive French cuisine in a casual and non intimidating atmosphere. The 'classic' French fare served in a bistro is a plat principal (main dish) of meat or beef braised in a wine or cheese sauce, accompanied by french fries or green beans eg. Boeuf Bourguignon. Apart from food that is usually served for lunch or dinner, one can enjoy wine and coffee throughout the day. A typical bistro menu, including a starter, a main dish and a dessert or coffee, would cost less than €20.


The choices for vegetarians, in Parisian Bistros, are limited as I have experienced ever so often. However, a vegetarian does not to be afamished either. The usually hospitable staff will accommodate if you are explicit enough in what you want (or rather, what you do not want). I have not ventured far other than asking for omelettes; custom-made salads with greens, some tomatoes and chevre (goat-cheese) served with bread. An enterprising chef once sent me grilled baguette topped with cheese and fresh herbs as an accompaniment to salad. Now, that's what I call attention to detail !


Long live the Parisian Bistros !


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