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What Is a Bistro?

Bistro is a type of restaurant that offers simple and moderately-priced food and beverages in a cozy atmosphere. But the concept of bistro is still confusing to many people since its definition has changed over the years.

Understanding the concept and essence of a bistro is helpful for those looking to run one. In this post, we’ll explore what a bistro is, how it’s different from other types of food service establishments, and how you can prepare to open one.

What is a bistro?

A bistro is a small, casual eating establishment offering a simple and affordable menu.

As the concept of bistro originated in France, bistros are often associated with French cuisine. But as it evolved and spread to other countries, not all bistros serve French food.

A bistro menu typically includes hearty, comforting, and simple dishes, often inspired by French cuisine. Some common menu items include:

  • Steak frites: grilled steak served with crispy fries.
  • Croque-monsieur: a hot sandwich made with ham and cheese, typically served on crusty bread.
  • Onion soup: a rich, hearty soup made with caramelized onions and a crouton topped with melted cheese.
  • Coq au vin: a chicken dish braised with wine, lardons, and mushrooms.
  • Ratatouille: a vegetable stew made with eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions.
ratatouille - a common dish served in bistros
Traditional Ratatouille

Bistros typically serve a variety of drinks including wine, beer, cocktails, coffee, and tea. Wine may include red, white, and sparkling options. Beer selection may range from local craft beers to classic European imports.

Cocktails can include classic French drinks such as Kir or French 75, as well as more contemporary options. Coffee and tea are also commonly offered, sometimes accompanied by a small dessert or pastry.

Where does the word come from?

The origin of the term “bistro” remains uncertain.

Some linguists and etymologists suggest that Russian soldiers first used the term in France. These soldiers used a similar-sounding Russian word pronounced “bystry”, meaning “fast” or “hurry”, to request their food be served promptly. As a result, restaurants that served simple, quick meals became known as bistros.

However, this theory is disputed as the word “bistro” did not appear in print until the late 19th century. So another possibility is that the term is a combination of various French words, including bistrot, bistingo, bistraud, bistouille, and bistroulile, which have since become obsolete.

The history of bistro

The concept of a bistro originated in the early 19th century, even if the term “bistro” wasn’t yet in use. Initially, landlords served meals in the basement of their inn or apartment as a way to earn extra income. They welcomed guests, renters, and the public with simple meals made with ingredients that could be easily stored.

The bistro today

The bistro nowadays serves traditional French food or locally inspired dishes in modest portions. The food is reasonably priced to remain accessible to a broad range of customers.

Most bistros have limited space, so they often accommodate smaller groups, typically not exceeding 4-6 people. The atmosphere is informal and relaxed, with simple decor meant to make diners feel at ease and comfortable.

what is a bistro? bistro image

What is a bistro versus other restaurants?

The term “restaurant” encompasses subtypes such as fine dining, cafe, casual dining, pub, fast casual, diner, ghost restaurant, brasserie, and many others.

So, what distinguishes a bistro from other types of restaurants? Let’s explore.

Bistro vs. fast food

Bistros and fast food restaurants differ in several ways, including atmosphere, menu options, and target audience.

Bistros typically have a warm and cozy atmosphere, serve classic or simple cuisine, and cater to a more intimate, mature, sit-down dining experience.

Fast food restaurants often have a more casual and upbeat atmosphere, serving quick and affordable meals to a younger, on-the-go audience. Customers place their orders at a counter and the food is promptly served either at the counter or through a drive-thru.

Bistro vs. cafe

Bistros and cafes both offer simple, moderately priced food and drinks. But while bistros typically provide full meals to diners who sit at tables, cafes generally serve snacks and desserts that can be quickly consumed or taken to go.

Unlike bistros, cafes often have customers order and serve themselves at a counter, requiring a smaller staff of servers.

In terms of usage, bistros function like traditional restaurants with diners eating and leaving, while cafes offer a more relaxed atmosphere for customers to spend time eating, socializing, or working.

bistro vs cafe

Bistro vs. fine dining

Fine dining restaurants occupy the highest position on the scale of dining experiences based on menu style, preparation method, pricing, seating options, and means of serving food.

These establishments offer a sophisticated meal experience typically consisting of multiple courses, all within an elegant and exclusive atmosphere.

On the other hand, bistros, positioned a few steps down from fine dining, offer a more casual atmosphere, and may have less elaborate decor and fewer courses, making them accessible and more relaxed for diners.

Dining attire is also less formal in bistros, allowing for a more relaxed ambiance.

bistro vs fine dining restaurant

Bistro vs. brasserie

A bistro is less formal compared to a brasserie and is more casual in nature. Brasseries tend to have a more upscale atmosphere, often with elements like table linens, printed menus, and professional table service including a sommelier.

On the other hand, some bistros may also have these features, but they still create a less formal environment compared to a brasserie and fine-dining establishment.

bistro vs brasserie

Bistro vs. pub

A pub, short for “public house,” is a gathering spot for people to have drinks and food, play games, and socialize.

The cuisine at pubs is frequently based on home-style cooking, and the environment is typically relaxed and informal, with comfortable seating and games like billiards and darts.

While a bistro prioritizes the dining experience and serving full meals to guests, a pub offers not only meals and drinks, but also a place to relax and linger.

bistro vs pub

Bistro vs gastropub

A gastropub is a blend of a bar, restaurant, and pub that serves drinks and food with quality comparable to a restaurant. It aims to provide a more elevated and refined experience compared to traditional pubs.

Unlike a bistro that primarily focuses on meals, a gastropub offers both meals and a diverse selection of drinks. The cuisine served at a gastropub is often more upscale, sophisticated, and costly.

Bistro vs bar

Bistros and bars both offer alcoholic drinks, but bistros provide full meals while bars either don’t serve food or offer limited options such as snacks and finger foods. The purpose of bistros is for sit-down dining, whereas bars are primarily for drinking and socializing.

bistro vs bar

Run your bistro with ease using Camelo

Running a bistro can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Understanding the unique characteristics of a bistro, such as its casual atmosphere and meal-centric experience, is crucial for success in this industry.

By focusing on offering high-quality cuisine and providing a welcoming environment for diners, you can create a thriving business.

Using tools like Camelo to streamline scheduling and time tracking can help you manage your workforce more effectively. You can have more time to improve other aspects of your bistro instead of getting caught up on tedious admin tasks.

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