If you are reading this article, you are either in Paris or are very hungry! Well sit back, and let me tell you the story of the bistro in Paris, followed by a selection of the best five classic French bistros in the capital today. You know what I mean: that quintessential Parisian cafe serving up large portions of steaming French food, steak frites, boeuf bourguignon, truffle gnocchi (how do the French stay so thin?). Paris is full of bistros, but what is a French bistro, where do they come from, and what is all the fuss about? Let's cover the basics and then look at some of the best bistros in Paris. If you’re famished and just need a recommendation for a great bistro, skip on to the end. I’ll share some top picks in Paris for authentic places that fit the traditional bistro bill.
*Warning: this will make you hungry. So make sure you are near a fridge, or if you are lucky enough to be in Paris itself, read this in one of the bistros featured here!
Firstly though, what does Bistro mean?
“Bistro”, a classic French word, right up there with baguette, merci and “sacre bleu”. Wrong - bistro is actually Russian! Legend has it (or etymology states) that the origins of the word bistro came during the Russian Cossacks' invasion of France between 1814 and 1820. Perhaps they also brought over some potatoes from Moscow, leaving behind the “pates dauphinoise” (classic French dish - potatoes in a creamy sauce. YUM).
The story goes, during the Napoleonic occupation, Russian soldiers would rush into French restaurants and shout: “bystro”! Bystro which is быстро, written in Cyrillic meaning “quickly” or “hurry”. This led to the French “bistro” cafe, where moderate food was served at mid-range prices.
What is so special about a French Bistro?
Bistros are integral to the cultural history of France. Historically, French mothers and wives would cook up big portions using family recipes to feed workers and labourers of the city. Later, the bistro was popularized by literary greats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simon de Beauvoir,
and Ernest Hemmingway,
who sat in friendly French cafes pouring their souls onto paper (and wine down their gullets). It was around the same time as the surge of jazz in Paris
. Traditionally, the menus, prices, and venues are modest, but they have great character.
In an age of social disconnect, there is a growing movement to preserve and protect the dying bistro culture. Once upon a time, the bistro was a “people's parliament” where a CEO and his blue-collar employee could jostle for elbow room as they tucked into their favorite childhood meals.
Not too long ago, nearly half of all the restaurants in Paris were considered bistros. Now, these bistros of the traditional type are down to 14 percent, as more brasseries put their signs up around the city.
Bistro or Brasserie, what’s the difference anyway?
Today, bistro can be used to describe everything from your roadside cafe to restaurants serving up “food creations” that look like works of art. In recent years Parisian kitchens have been stormed by revolutionaries sprinkling pepper onto chocolate mousse and throwing coffee beans into the soup. There was a wave of “neo-bistros” that swept over the French capital. During this time, portions became smaller, and innovative recipes and fusions appeared in seductive, intimate venues. Like a brasserie you ask? Yes: brasseries are more upmarket restaurants with white linen and fixed menus.
Christian Constant and chef Yves Camdeborde were some of the emblematic culinary masters leading this revolution in “Bistronomy”. Now some of the best restaurants in Paris are modern “bistros” that are minimalist, serve organic food and have their own unique atmosphere. They have Michelin stars on their menus and celebrity stars as their clientele. Food connoisseurs flock to the big names such as Josephine Chez Dumont, Paul Bert or Bistrot Sommelier Paris. They are widely considered the best bistros in Paris but technically; they are “brasseries”.
Wait...what happened to the classic Bistro?
What if you just want a simple steak-frites or blanquette de veau (veal ragout)? Is it even possible to find one of those original bistros, all minimum fuss, and maximum flavour? A traditional French joint, where the ratio of price to portion appeals to everyone and brings in a mixed clientele. Also, the bar is noisy and the food is fantastic. It isn't easy, but they are still around!
Multinational fast-food chains are appearing around the city. Sharing economy startups like Ubereats, and other food delivery services, mean more people are eating at home. Moreover, sky-high rent in the French capital is pushing traditional bistros to the outskirts of the city. That old-fashioned French bistro of yesteryear, where French mothers and wives served up huge portions of home-cooking from family kitchens, then from small cafes, is under threat.
Our classic Paris bistro is standing its ground however; there are some plucky institutions firmly planted in arrondissements (districts) around the capital. If you’re currently in the City of Lights, it’s now time to work up your appetite for those bistro meals! Here’s a Paris bucket list
to get you moving the city.
Best Bistros in Paris
If you like big portions and you don’t care about the decor, check out these traditional French bistros. Close your eyes, and you may even be able to hear the Russian soldiers shouting!
What's the big deal about these bistros? I’ll let you decide once you read about them! There’s plenty to praise about these next few best bistros in Paris. They all are affordable, delicious and with a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
Le Bistrot du Peintre
116 Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 11th arrondissement
Food just like Maman made it! There is certainly a female touch in the kitchen, as the head chef Géraldine Rumeau whips out steaming plates of childhood favourites such as onion soup and meaty cheeseburgers. This place is a family-friendly and good value joint by Place de la Bastille. There is also more contemporary French food on the menu. Generally, however, at the classic Bistrot du Peintre, the emphasis is on hearty and home cooking.
For decades, this institution of the 11th arrondissement has been providing its loyal clientele more than simply food (which is delicious). The furniture is part wood, part people: many regulars return daily for their midday meal, wine, and company. Dishes are served with love, and the salt and pepper rest untouched on the table.
What is missing? How strange...there are no mobile phones on the table, and none of the diners are looking at screens!
77 Rue de Richelieu, 2nd arrondissement
In the famous opening lines of the French classic “In Remembrance of Things Past”, Marcel Proust describes biting into a petit madeleine bun and being transported down memory lane. The dining area of Le Mesturet in Paris is a veritable memory motorway as customers tuck into the traditional meals their grandma used to cook for them and reminisce on things past.
Battling the onslaught of neo-bistros and French fusion cuisine, this traditional bistro has been fighting its corner by the Paris Opera since 2003. It stays true to the key ingredients of a classic bistro: home-style cooking, late hours and moderate prices.
Le Petit Vendôme
8 Rue des Capucines, 2nd arrondissement
If you are deep in the heart of the 2nd arrondissement and looking for a meal, prices will make your eyes pop out of their sockets! With the exception of Le Petit Vendôme. This little bistro is a refuge for anyone, French or foreign, who want more bang for their buck. It may not be on lists of the best bistros in Paris, but it certainly ticks the traditional bistro box! Is the decor flawless, service impeccable and wine list organic? Probably not. What is guaranteed however is a large portion of some delicious French cooking, served quickly and without any fuss.
5 Rue de la Manutention, 16th arrondissement
Whatever you do while you are in Paris, avoid the tourist trap restaurants around the Eiffel Tower! Here are some Paris off the beaten path
ideas for exploring the city. To those who ignore this warning, I hope for your sake that you stumble upon Les Marches. Red-checkered tablecloths, outdoor seats for daydreamers, and a steak tartare that fills you up without emptying your wallet.
Like all the best bistros in Paris, the bar vibrates with chatter, waiters and waitresses give friendly “bisoux” to their regular customers, and pretension is left at the door.
If you're going to check out the Versailles Palace and Louvre Museum, at least book ahead to skip the queue!
Skip the Line: Eiffel Tower Tour and Summit Access
A la Biches au Bois
45 Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 11th arrondissement
Last but certainly not least, let's not forget the Biche au Bois. This is a boisterous and friendly cafe in the historical Bastille neighbourhood. It serves up bistro classics such as “oeufs durs mayonnaise” (isn’t mayonnaise already made with eggs? The more the better!) and a hearty coq au vin. They may not have Michelin starred chefs but this is certainly one of the best restaurants in Paris. Why?
The real reason that the Biche au Bois is always packed with impatient French locals and savvy foreigners, rattling their forks, is for their famous frites. Said to be the best chips (fries) in Paris, they are thin, crispy and delicious. Putting the French back in fries and fries back in the French!
Enough of all this bistro babble. Time to go and see what all the fuss is about for yourself - Bon Appétit