What Makes A Restaurant A Bistro?

In America, the term "restaurant" is a relatively sweeping term. We use it to describe any given eatery, from fast food joints to Michelin-starred establishments. When you think about it, restaurants here are labeled in a variety of terms: cafes, brasseries, taverns, and the ever-so-elegant-sounding bistros. The differences between these places can be challenging to spot, if there even are noticeable differences at all. They all serve food and drink, employ servers, and even come in various cuisines. But in France, where bistros originated, the differences between such places as bistros and restaurants are more defined.

If the words "restaurant" or "bistro" aren't in the name of the eatery or part of the description, there are a few places you can look to for clues — take a look at the menu, the size of the establishment, and the general ambiance of the place. Generally speaking, bistros are smaller and have more of a "where everybody knows your name" vibe.

Food, footage, and feel

The United States is widely known to be a melting pot of cultures, people, and of course food. This is probably why there are eateries like Italian bistros and Asian bistros. But in France, most bistros serve one thing: French food and, more often than not, traditional French dishes. Think onion soup, steak tartare, and coq au vin. If you find yourself at a place for dinner that serves another type of cuisine, you're probably in a restaurant. Similarly, the fancy, French, five-star cuisine that France is well known for will be found in restaurants as well.

Size-wise, bistros are usually smaller than restaurants, which is part of their charm. They tend to be cozy, friendly neighborhood spots that draw regular diners while restaurants will often (but not always) be more spacious. Finally, take note of the overall "feel" of the restaurant. If it's casual rather than fancy, warm, and inviting with a simple menu, you've probably walked into a bistro.

The ideal French eatery

It's not entirely certain when and where the first bistro originated but the word itself was first recorded in 1884. One popular belief is that the word came about from Russians when they occupied Paris in the early 1800s. They would shout the word, "bystry!" to waiters at cafes which means "hurry" and the name stuck and morphed into "bistro." But many historians believe this is just a theory and that it's more aligned with French slang, similar to the word "bistraud" which means "wine seller's assistant."

Regardless of the origin, bistros have become synonymous with people's romantic view of France, one in which you meet your friends for drinks and oysters at a bistro around the corner, only to stay for dinner, cheese, dessert, and a glass of brandy and coffee to end the night. You should always feel welcome at either a bistro or a restaurant, but a bistro has that extra bit of love that makes you want to pull up a chair and stay there for hours.