Lee Tulloch revisits some of her favourite bistros in Paris, reflecting on what makes the classic French style of cooking and hospitality so magical.
Sep 14, 2022 11:00am
I have a well-thumbed and stained copy of Patricia Wells’ classic cookbook, Bistro Cooking, which is packed with recipes the American writer collected over many years from France’s most famous bistros.
The recipes Wells gleaned from legendary Paris establishments include mussel soup from Benoit, smoked haddock with cabbage from Chez La Vieille, roast chicken from L’Ami Louis and an almond tarte from Le Petit Marguery.
The book was published in the 1980s, but those bistros still exist, as do countless small traditional restaurants tucked away in almost every block of the French capital and its regional cities, a testament to the enduring popularity of hearty, home-style cooking, despite serious challenges from culinary movements such as nouvelle cuisine. “Bistro cuisine is French home cooking at its best, a style of cooking that demands a minimal of technical skills,” writes Wells. “Ingredients aren’t exotic; they come straight from the local market. And it’s a way of cooking that grew out of a need to maximise every morsel in the market basket, so it’s easy on the pocketbook.”
The word “bistro” conjures up thoughts of quaint neighbourhood restaurants with lace curtains, checked tablecloths, steamy aromas wafting from the kitchen, white-aproned waiters, carafes of house wine and daily lunch or dinner specials on blackboards. A bistro might be family run, or it might be helmed by a chef trained in one of the culinary institutions, but the expectation when you step through the door is warm hospitality and hearty comfort food, much of it created from what the chef finds at the market that day.
A brasserie, on the other hand, tends to be larger and noisier, serving the same menu all day until late at night, which might include a long list of dishes from oysters to steak frites. The meaning comes from the French word for “brewery” and beer on tap is a feature. La Coupole and Bofingner are brasseries; Julia Child’s favourite Paris eatery, Chez Georges, is a bistro. The terms are a bit interchangeable, though.
I lived in Paris in the 1990s and I can map the history of my time there through meals I enjoyed in bistros (and sometimes those I didn’t, when the service was churlish, the food badly cooked or overpriced.) Bistros were where I’d meet friends and colleagues for lunch, choosing the daily formule, the set-price menu with limited choices, which is the great bargain of French eating out. They were cosy – in the days of smoking, you’d sit so close to the next table your neighbour might accidentally drop their ash in your meal.
Sometimes I’d just have a hankering for a dish, such as a sticky cassoulet or an intense soupe a l’oignon, which no amount of time spent over the stove at home could replicate. French bistros do transformational things with simple ingredients such as eggs, cabbage and root vegetables that are quite beyond my culinary skills, or imagination.
Other times friends would visit from overseas, always keen to dine somewhere typical and atmospheric. I liked Chez Paul on the rue de Charonne in the Bastille neighbourhood, Ma Bourgogne on the Place des Vosges, with a terrace on the 17th century vaulted arcade, Le Grand Colbert near the Palais Royale and À La Petite Chaise, a lace-curtained bistro tucked away on the rue de Grenelle, which is the oldest restaurant in Paris (1680) and still serving a tender magret de canard rôti the last time I visited. Finding something charming was never a problem, but all too many Parisian bistros were rich in atmosphere and poor in cuisine. I remember there was much lamentation during my time in Paris that the French had lost the art of cooking, as exemplified by the indifferent food and service in some bistros. Stringy duck, soggy gratins, tasteless fish. Choosing a bistro on looks alone was always a risk.
And then there was the brusque service. If you weren’t a regular or your French wasn’t perfect, often you’d hover in the doorway for many minutes, being ignored, until the maître’d grumpily fobbed you off on the worst table in the room.
The somewhat repetitive menus and heavy food meant that bistros fell out of fashion for a while. And then, when the recession of the ’90s came along, an affordable dining renaissance bloomed in response to the stratospheric prices and formality of gastronomic restaurants. Led by chef Yves Camdeborde, of La Régalade, bistronomie was a hybrid bistro-gastro movement which paid honour to the traditions of bistro cooking, its locally sourced ingredients and hospitality, combining this with techniques learnt in starred restaurants, while keeping prices reasonable.
These days, Camdeborde has an entire empire in Saint-Germain, with the wildly popular neo-bistro Le Comptoir (comptoir refers to the long counter typical of many bistros) on the Carrefour d l’Odéon sprouting siblings Avant Comptoir (serving small plates with drinks), Avant Comptoir de la Mer (seafood and freshly shucked oysters) and Avant Comptoir du Marché, in the nearby market. Gregory Marchand (Frenchie) and Daniel Rose (Spring) were also at the vanguard, along with starred chefs such as Jöel Robuchon and Guy Savoy who opened their own less expensive bistro offshoots.
Bistronomy might have heralded a new golden era of the bistro in Paris had it not been for the terrorist attacks of 2015, the gilet jaunes strikes of 2018-19 and the pandemic of 2020, all of which have created a crisis for small restaurants, which depend on tourism. It’s estimated that 300 bistros closed between 2014 and 2018. Omicron sent a chill through the European winter that saw restaurants again teetering on the brink of failure.
On a recent trip to Paris, I stopped for lunch at Au Pied de Fouet, a 160-year-old bistro on rue Saint-Benoit in Saint-Germain, around the corner from Les Deux Magots. It’s a tiny, dark, two-level space, with red-checked tablecloths and limited daily selections at very low prices for a high-traffic tourist area. When I sat, a complimentary Kir cocktail and a basket of bread was plonked on the table. The cuisse de canard (duck thigh cooked in its own fat) was served on a bed of mashed potatoes, a bargain at 13 euros, the tarte Tatin with crème fraîche was 5 euros. My noisette coffee was accompanied by an old-fashioned Carambar caramel.
The food wasn’t anything special (the tart was soggy) but the service was warm and you could see why locals dropped in. The waiter explained that the place wasn’t as busy as usual as tourists were scarce and Parisians were staying home, afraid of Omicron. This was close to the last straw for the restaurateur, who saw many colleagues close their businesses in the past year.
My old favourite, Le Grand Colbert, was almost empty when I arrived early for lunch one day. It gradually filled but gone were the days when you had to work a lot of charm to get a table. I was seated in the front section opposite another solo diner, a very chic, slender woman, who worked her way through three large courses plus a carafe of wine.
The formule was two courses for 22 euros. Patrons might be scarcer these days, but standards are being upheld. The poulet fermier in a delicious jus of stock, carrots, onions and parsley was sublime, all the more for being completely homely. It was served with crisp, salty frites. The île flottante was superb, a delicious dome of egg white in a creamy custard moat with slightly burnt caramel swirled on top. The meal wasn’t going to win any culinary gongs but it was deeply satisfying.
A discerning Paris local tells me she always suggests the bistro Chez Georges on rue du Mail. While it tends to be equally as full of non-Europeans as Parisians due to its christening by Julia Child, its beautiful but slightly faded décor and handwritten menu of classics such as sole meunière and céleri rémoulade means the experience never disappoints, she says. It has been on my list for some time but it’s terribly popular. Still, with a slump in restaurant bookings, I was confident I’d nab a table if I turned up early one lunchtime. This was Covid times and they’d be happy to see me, right?
The maître-d’ was formal but pleasant. He asked me the name of my reservation. I said I had none. He looked at me with blistering pity. I felt like a fool.
Plus ça change.