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What is a Bistro?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bistro is a small, casual eating establishment known for serving hearty, simple fare along with wine. Bistros originated in France and the United States has adapted the idea. An American bistro is likely to have not only French food, but basic filling foods inspired from other cuisines such as Asian and Italian.

The origin of the word to mean a certain style of restaurant is debated but is widely thought to date back to when Russian soldiers fought with the French in France during World War I. They would demand food quickly, and bistro means "fast" in Russian. But, bistro food is home cooking rather than typical American fast food or fancy, fussy fare. In Europe, this type of cooking was developed as a way of using up foods, such as making fresh vegetables and leftover meats into hearty stews. It may also be as basic as baguette, or French bread, served with pate and a glass of wine.

French onion soup and mussels a la mariniere are typical examples of French bistro food. Coq au vin, which is chicken in wine, is a classic dish. American bistros may also serve roast pork, Italian dishes made with portobello mushrooms and Asian duck. Although the food is served quickly in most bistros, the preparation time can be very long for the cooks as many dishes need marinating and/or long, slow cooking times. The savory blending of flavors is often a big hit with patrons, however.

Other foods that may be found in American bistros are salmon and steak served with garlic mashed potatoes. Vegetarian options may also be available. Beer and cocktails may be offered in addition to wine. The bistro option is appealing to many Americans as it is a move away from burgers and fries, yet is usually much more affordable and less time-consuming that going to an upscale restaurant.

The decor in a bistro is traditionally very simple, just like the food. Diners won't find starched fancy napkins, and some don't even have menus. Many feature basic furniture with a few framed prints on the walls. Classically, the outside may have a striped awning.

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Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Feb 23, 2013

@lighth0se33 – I agree that most bistros keep things simple. However, sometimes the food is outstanding and worthy of being called gourmet.

I ate at a sushi bistro once that far surpassed any other fancy sushi restaurant in quality and flavor. The place was small and simple, but I gave the food five stars!

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 23, 2013

I think of a bistro as a cozy restaurant that likes to keep things simple. The décor will be neat but minimal, and the staff will be helpful without being overly attentive.

I picture a place with small and simple tables and chairs spilling over onto the sidewalk. Customers have the option of either dining indoors or outdoors.

Nothing on the menu would be too heavy. A bistro would be more of an ideal place to have lunch than to have dinner.

By cloudel — On Feb 22, 2013

There is a coffee shop on the town square that calls itself a bistro. I think they have named themselves erroneously, because they only serve coffee and pastries. I've never even seen soup or sandwiches on the menu.

They were probably just trying to keep with the elitist theme of the town. A lot of rich folks live and shop around here, and “bistro” sounds like something that would appeal to them.

By chrisinbama — On Aug 14, 2010

@momothree: Salad composse actually means a salad made from different varieties of cooked and fresh veggies. Cold meat can be added as well. This is how I make it:

Choose your raw veggies. Lettuce is not normally used but it can if you choose. I use tomatoes, spinach and watercress.

Choose the veggies that you are going to cook. I use broccoli, asparagus, carrots, and cauliflower.

Wash the veggies well and steam them (the ones you want to cook) in salted water until done. Rinse the veggies and set on a towel to dry. Cut them to whatever size you want.

Add all of the vegetables to a bowl and add a little lemon juice or even vinegar. Add about 1 Tbsp. of mustard and stir very well. You can add whatever spices you like. Stir again.

By momothree — On Aug 14, 2010

@chrisinbama: What exactly is Salad Composee?

By CellMania — On Aug 14, 2010

@wesley91: I would serve some crepes with your meal. That is always a nice touch. A great appetizer would be pate and bread.

Red wine can be served with the appetizer. A dessert would be a good thing to end the meal. Espresso or cappuccino is great for after your meal.

By chrisinbama — On Aug 14, 2010

@wesley91: That sounds like a fabulous idea! My aunt used to own a bistro in Chicago so I got a few tips from her.

Set your tables in a simple manner but use your nicest dishes. I would even use wine glasses and dessert spoons. A nice floral arrangement would be a good centerpiece.

Your menu should be typical of something you could find at a bistro. You could make a Salad Composee instead of tossed salad. You can also take a small plate and place pears on it. Add some caramelized nuts around it.

As far as the actual meal, there are so many options. There are many websites that offer ideas for a good meal plan.

By wesley91 — On Aug 14, 2010

We have some friends that we “dinner swap” with. We take turns having dinner at each other’s home and we implement different themes. The last one that I had at my home was French. Our turn is coming up again soon and my husband wants to turn our patio into a makeshift bistro and serve that type of food. I am completely at a loss and wouldn’t even know where to start. What would I serve for a bistro lunch? Does anyone have any ideas?

By christym — On Aug 14, 2010

Interesting article? I always thought of a Bistro as a place to get a sandwich!

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