Eateries Explored: What is a Bistro?

In this post, you’ll learn the characteristics of a bistro restaurant, along with the type of food they serve, the atmosphere and decor, and origin of the word bistro.

Black and white line drawing of a bistro with two people sitting at a table outdoors.

Overview: What is a bistro?

A bistro is a small restaurant with an intimate atmosphere, carefully curated and often seasonal menu, and quality but reasonably-priced food. If you have a favorite trendy neighborhood spot, it’s likely a bistro or cafe.

These charming and cozy eateries create an intimate and welcoming atmosphere, the perfect backdrop for enjoying a quality meal with a glass of wine. With their limited seating and small staff, these culinary gems offer a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of larger restaurants.

Bistros thrive as neighborhood restaurants with a loyal customer base, but may also attract visitors seeking a casual but upscale dining experience.

Bistros are typically open for lunch and dinner, often closing between meals to prepare for evening service. They may also close for a day or two each week, allowing their staff to rest and recharge. These pauses ensure that when they do open their doors, they can provide exceptional service and a delightful dining experience.

Whether you’re stopping by for a leisurely lunch or a romantic dinner, bistros provide a charming ambiance and quality meal that will leave you satisfied.

Atmosphere and Food: Bistro Characteristics

Bistros are typically small and intimate restaurants with a casual atmosphere and simple decor. This gives them a more relaxed atmosphere than fine dining restaurants, although they have a more refined style than a cafe.

  • Formality: Casual but refined, between a cafe and a restaurant. Not a place you need to dress up for, although dressing nicely for dinner wouldn’t be out of place.
  • Price: Moderate and accessible.
  • Food: Simple food with an elevated or modern twist. French or local cuisine. Food will be served with a thoughtful but unpretentious presentation.
  • Drinks: Wine is the primary alcoholic beverage served at a bistro. Bistros usually serve coffee as well, but do not have an extensive coffee-based beverage menu. They may also serve limited cocktails.

Are bistros French?

Bistros originated in France and typically serve casual French food, even (often but not always) in the United States. However, colloquially speaking, “bistro” describes a style of restaurant that is small, casual, and intimate. serving local fare or even Italian food (although the Italian equivalent to a French bistro would technically be a trattoria).

What is on a typical bistro menu?

A bistro menu will typically have limited options of elevated classics. The menu will be presented on a single sheet of paper or even a chalkboard. The menu may have regular items along with daily or seasonal specials, or the whole menu may change seasonally. 

While a bistro is historically casual and French in nature, a modern bistro may lean more upscale and can serve food from anywhere.

French Bistro Food

Since bistros originated in France, it’s essential to talk about what’s on a typical French bistro menu. They will serve casual but traditional French cuisine including soups, salads, breads, and upscale versions of home-cooked meals (think hearty stews or roasted meats).

Some typical menu items include:

  • French onion soup
  • Mussels
  • Steak tartare
  • Nicoise salad
  • Steak frites (steak and fries) or moule frites (mussels and fries)
  • Ratatouille
  • Duck confit
  • Coq au vin
  • Bouillabaise

American Bistro Food

American bistros have evolved from the bistro’s Parisian origins, and do not always serve French cuisine. Instead, bistros in the United States may offer modern and creative interpretations of European-inspired dishes, or classic regional items based on the locale of the restaurant.

American bistros typically serve soups, salads, sandwiches, and regional specials in elevated home-cooking style.

Some items you may see on a bistro menu in the United States may include:

For more examples of bistro-style food, check out my bistro recipes collection.

Bistro style

Besides the food, atmosphere is a big part of what makes a bistro a bistro.

  • Color scheme: Neutrals, black and white, and maybe a pop of color (blue for classic French bistro style!)
  • Furniture: Casual tables and chairs. Two-top tables and four-top tables are common. Tables may be bare-topped or have table linens.
  • Indoor style: Cozy but slightly upscale atmosphere
  • Outdoor style: Patio with planters and string lights, fresh garden style. May have planters with flowers or fresh herbs that are picked and used by the kitchen.

Origins of the word bistro

The etymology of the word bistro is hotly debated and has a few theories. 

The word may be linked to one of these French words:

  • bistraud, the French word for a wine seller’s assistant
  • bistrouille, a French drink made from coffee and brandy
  • bistro/bistrot, a French innkeeper

One theory posits the word originated during the Russian occupation of Paris, after the fall of Paris in 1814. Russian soldiers would dine out or go out for coffee, shouting “Bystrobystro!” (Russian for “Quickly, quickly!”) to the French waitstaff to ensure they got a quick meal.

While this is a popular story, experts say it’s probably not the word’s origin, since the word “bistro” to describe a restaurant was not seen in print until the late 19th century.

Bistros vs. Cafes

Bistros and cafes are fairly similar, with more overlap occurring in modern times. This table gives a general idea of the difference between bistros and cafes, but be aware that not every establishment will follow these trends exactly.

HoursUsually open one or two meals a day (lunch and dinner, sometimes closing between meals). Bistros may close for 1-2 days a week.Usually open for breakfast and lunch, but may be open for all three meals. Cafes may close for 1-2 days a week.
ServiceProfessional table serviceMay have counter service or table service
Dining ExperienceMeal-centric experience: a place to go for quality food with a glass of wine and relatively quick service. Great for dates.Beverage and community-centric experience: a place to go to linger over a latte while catching up with an old friend or reading a book solo.
Type of FoodFull meals with modest portions: Quality over quantity. Soups, salads, sandwiches, rustic fare.Lighter fare than bistros: Soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries, grab-and-go items.
Type of beveragesPrimarily wine, simple coffee, sometimes cocktails or beers.Coffee and coffee-based beverages, teas. Sometimes alcohol like beer or wine.

In modern times you’ll see many more bistro hybrids, such as a bistro cafe (open for three meals, on the more casual side) or a bistro restaurant (leaning toward the more upscale or formal side).

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