“What is a bistro?”. Like many others, you’ve probably asked the same question. With so many novelty restaurants popping by the minute, it’s hard to keep up with the terminology. What makes a bistro a bistro? How is it any different from a full-fledged restaurant?
But not to worry because we’ve got you covered for everything you need to know about a bistro in this simple guide. We’ll also offer actionable tips on opening your very own bistro, restaurant management, and many more. Let’s dive in.
1. What Is A Bistro?
“Bistro” refers to a small and casual eatery which serves hearty and delicious food, typically alongside wine.
Modern-day bistros often line up New York’s sidewalks, but their humble origins lead back to the City of Love, Paris.
Bistros are popular for serving meals, and a lot cheaper than you’d find in an upscale setting. Low prices are deliberately set to make delicious and filling meals accessible to the general public.
Bistros tend to be simple in appearance. There aren’t flashy signages or ornaments adorning building faces. Also, interior furniture and other fixtures aren’t expensive.
Guests will walk inside a bistro and enjoy a meal served quickly with alcohol. They’re popular hangout spots for adults looking to have a casual and relaxing break from the everyday hustle and bustle.
2. Why Is A Bistro Called A Bistro?
While “bistro” is a French restaurant which originated in France, the term is actually of Russian origin (though this remains hotly contested).
It was said that “bistro” was the term Russian troops and officials would use when ordering food. They would say “bistro bistro” or “hurry hurry” so their meals would be served quickly.
This legend popularised the idea that customers wanted their meals served fresh and quick, as many would go to a bistro restaurant for a quick bite.
However, there are several contradictions to this origin story. Many believe that “bistro” branched from the French word bistraud meaning “the wine seller’s assistant”.
There are also hints pointing to “bistro” coming from the French terms bistingo and bistrouille. Bistingo means an accommodation where gipsies spend time, and bistrouille refers to bottom-shelf or low-quality liquor.
Another interesting origin story involves a soup salesman named Monsieur Boulanger. He opened the doors of the first modern bistro restaurant some 250 years ago to the public.
However, this theory has several contradictions that would be too time-consuming to discuss. Instead, we’ll discuss how the term “restaurant” also came to be.
In the 1700s in France, only a few select city inhabitants could afford personal kitchens at home.
Eating was considered a communal act, and the people would share simple meals like soups and oysters at inns. If they could afford to, they would also visit traiteurs or cook caterers who specialised in a particular trade — bakeries and roast houses are some examples.
According to the Larousse Gastronomique, which is basically France’s culinary bible, all of these changed when Monsieur Boulanger opened the first bistro.
It had signage in front, which allegedly read “Boulanger debite des restaurant divins”. “Restaurant” here referred to soups or broths, which they claimed, could “restore” vitality when consumed.
This story appeared to be hearsay. Nothing in the history books could substantiate the claim that Boulanger opened the first modern French restaurant, let alone that he existed.
Not all of it was done in vain, however. We may not have clear answers as to the true beginnings of the modern bistro, but we can credit the forefathers. Whoever they may be, they paved the way for restauranteurs worldwide to open up bistros of their own.
3. What Differentiates A Bistro From A Restaurant?
Though we have mentioned “bistro restaurant” quite a few times, there are some key differences.
But before delving into these, let’s understand what makes a bistro similar to a restaurant. First, both refer to establishments that people visit to have a meal. Both places also prepare meals, not necessarily French food.
But the most striking difference between a bistro and a restaurant can be found in their definitions. A bistro is a place serving inexpensive food and alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile, a restaurant is defined as a place where people eat food in exchange for compensation.
Type Of Service
Another difference has to do with the style of service. Whereas serving food in a restaurant involves someone waiting tables and getting each customer’s order, bistros serve food through customers walking up to the main counter and selecting their order.
Another difference is the type of food prepared in these places. Bistros tend to serve simple food without the thrills and frills.
Meanwhile, modern restaurants tend to be experimental. Some notable examples include “Dick’s Last Resort” and the “Heart Attack Grill” in the United States.
“Simple food” in bistros typically refers to French cuisine meals, which include French home style cooking. Popular bistro food includes French onion soup, steak frites, or sandwiches.
Though, there are certain variations in the type of dishes offered in bistros. For example, an American bistro can offer pizzas, burgers, and finger-food appetisers.
As for restaurants, well, they can serve any cuisine imaginable. The sky’s the limit when it comes to restaurant food.
Pricing is another significant factor between bistros and restaurants. As we’ve established, bistro meals are inexpensive and designed to be accessible to everyone.
Restaurant food has varying price points. Some affordable restaurants serve delicious meals at low prices, while other fine-dining restaurants feature five-course meals. They could either be budget-friendly or too steep for the average person.
Lastly is the ambience. Bistros often have casual settings. People don’t necessarily have to don occasion-specific clothing and accessories.
Restaurant ambience can be casual too, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all. For example, if you’re eating at a fine dining restaurant, you’re expected to dress appropriately for the occasion.
Wearing casual clothing could subject you to judgement from sneering onlookers. Simply put, you don’t want to bring a knife to a gunfight.
4. How To Start A Bistro
For all their differences, bistros and restaurants similarly require extensive planning. If you’re considering opening a bistro, you must also expect to fail just as you have ambitions to succeed.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Have Clear Intentions – It’s important to figure out which path you want to take from the get-go. If you get it right, there’s a lot of money to be made in opening a bistro. Food must be your passion, and a bistro shouldn’t just be a money-making machine to sustain your lifestyle.
- Define Your Business Plan – Here’s where you’ll need to do a restaurant SWOT analysis. Another important factor before starting a bistro is its feasibility. Is there a market for the type of restaurant or cuisine you want to serve? What are other competitors doing? All these questions and more should be answered during your analysis.
- Choose An Appropriate Location – Restaurant location is everything. Choosing a profitable area that draws in large crowds would be best. This is where you’ll need to decide whether renting or buying a space is better.
- Create A Winning Menu – To create a successful menu, you must be open to receiving constructive feedback. The food is ultimately what will make (or break) your bistro. Remember that other people’s opinions of your dishes matter way more than your own.
- Get Funding – Aim for low initial startup costs when planning your bistro. Consider one-time and recurring expenses. Ultimately you wouldn’t want to open a bistro that costs way more than it makes in a month.
- Find Help – Get all the help you need and compensate your employees fairly. You may be a one-person show in the beginning, serving as a restaurant manager, waiter, and cashier all-in-one. However, this setup isn’t sustainable. You’ll eventually have to invest in human resources and upskill them, so your bistro becomes a well-oiled machine.
The history of the modern-day bistro is certainly colourful. You’ve got stories of Russian soldiers coining the term, while a certain (and possibly fictional) Monsieur Boulanger on the other side of the world is credited with building the first bistro of its kind.
Whatever story seems more plausible, the bistro has undoubtedly shaped the food and beverage landscape. And if you want to start one of your own, it’s best to keep the above mentioned tips in mind.
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Frequently Asked Questions About
“What Is A Bistro?”
Do Bistros Have Desserts?
Yes. You’ll typically find these sweet treats in an American bistro:
- Apple pies
- Creme brulee
What Does Bistro-Style Mean?
A bistro-style restaurant is any restaurant serving Parisian-style food which is made with simple ingredients and often consumed with wine.
What Is The Difference Between A Bistro And Cafe?
Cafes tend to offer snack food which can be consumed on the go. Think sandwiches, baked goods, and of course, coffee. Meanwhile, bistros serve food in large quantities and are preferably eaten in the bistro itself.
What Is The Difference Between A Bar And A Bistro?
Both offer liquor and alcoholic drinks. However, bistros serve full meals, while bars can opt not to serve food at all or have limited food options. Bars are primarily for drinking and socialising.
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