Restaurants and brasseries and bistros, oh my!
When we first moved into our Parisian apartment in 2003, we wandered the neighborhoods trying new dining venues. One of our first discoveries was that although in the United States, “restaurant” is a generic term that describes any place that serves meals, in France there are restaurants, bistros and brasseries, each of which has unique characteristics that are worth knowing.
The French word restaurant comes from restauration, or the restoring of strength. Originally, consommé or beef bouillon was sold on the street as a restorative for weary laborers or sick people. The common folk did not have kitchens of their own. Roasters and sellers of meat were regulated by the city. Before the French Revolution, there were no sit-down restaurants with chefs as we know them today. The only way to get a meal, and not a very good one, in a public place would have been as a guest of an inn.
But we owe the existence of restaurants to the sybaritic lifestyle of the royalty, when nothing was too exquisite to serve at Versailles and in the salons of Parisian aristocrats. (Remember “Let them eat cake”?) There were guilds and apprenticeships that assured a steady supply of masters of the kitchen. Although many of the royals were executed during the revolution of 1789, the cadres of royal chefs and their staff were spared. Out of work, they began hosting fancy dinners on a commercial basis to those who could afford them.
Despite the migration of chefs to the private sector, something was still lacking in the development of a restaurant culture. At Versailles, cost was not a factor, and chefs were not running businesses. Hundreds of dishes, appetizers, main courses of every kind of fish and meat, desserts and pastries had been prepared each day and set out for the royals to choose from at their leisure. There was no order to the meal. Kitchens didn’t need to be very organized or efficient. This costly and wasteful banquet model didn’t work well as a private enterprise.
A new system was needed, and a man named Marie-Antoine Carême developed it. Trained as a baker, he impressed Napoléon, who had him design a year’s worth of nonrepeating menus for the state dining rooms using seasonal ingredients. Carême classified sauces and, most importantly, introduced the serving of individual courses in order instead of buffet style. Later, Auguste Escoffier continued the regimentation by developing today’s modern kitchen “brigade,” a hierarchy with chefs, sous chefs, sauciers, rôtisseurs and even plongeurs (dishwashers). Although he and Carême have each been called “the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings,” Escoffier is the better known of the two. He became an international celebrity, opening a cooking school in Paris and publishing the first French culinary guide. A great example of the postrevolutionary style dining rooms is Le Grand Véfour in a corner of the Palais-Royal. The decor is neoclassical, the food is textbook French, and the service is impeccable. The focus of attention is on you as an honored guest. The banquettes feature brass plaques honoring Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Joséphine Bonaparte and other former regulars.
Le Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris.
Generally, a restaurant in France will serve only lunch, usually from noon until 2:00 p.m., and dinner, starting around 8:30 p.m. It will not have a bar. There will be a daily menu, a selection of dishes that changes with the seasons. It will include an entrée (always the first course in France), a plat principal, or main dish, and a dessert, all at a prix fixe. A cheese course may be ordered before or instead of dessert. Even at the grandest restaurants, the fixed price menus are usually the best value. On the other hand, one may order à la carte from a selection that may not change daily or seasonally. The more local and the better the restaurant, the later it starts serving and the more important to reserve in advance. The French consider cuisine to be part of their national patrimony and go to great lengths to protect it. Places of origin of cheeses, sausages, chickens, cuts of meat and just about everything on the dinner table are registered and tightly regulated. Legislation has even been proposed to restrict the use of the name “restaurant” to establishments that cook everything from raw materials on the premises.
The French word brasserie means brewery. Brasseries originated in Alsace, a region of France that borders the Rhine River. Alsace has been annexed by Germany several times in history but was won back after the Franco-Prussian War and after each of the World Wars. The half- timbered houses, Riesling wines, local beers, renowned choucroute garnie (a French version of sauerkraut) and a fair amount of Teutonic kitsch give Alsace a decidedly German feel. But be careful about saying so when visiting because the locals are quite prickly about even the slightest hint of comparison to Germans. Alsatians are extremely patriotic and are quick to point out that the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” was written in Alsace.
In Paris, brasseries are legacies of migration from Alsace in the 1860s, but beer is no longer brewed in any of them. A genuine brasserie serves Alsatian food, wine and draft beer. The dish they all have in common is choucroute garnie. Essentially, it’s sauerkraut that has all the sourness rinsed out of it, cooked in Riesling wine and served on a heaping platter with potatoes, smoked pork chops, sausages and pig’s knuckles. It is big food! It’s also fairly inexpensive considering the quantity and quality. Parisians love it. Bofinger, (pronounced Bo-fan-zhay), just off the place de la Bastille, is the ultimate brasserie. Built in 1864, it’s full of Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau decor and has a magnificent domed skylight. But beware! Today, many places that put the word “brasserie” on their signs do not serve Alsatian food at all. It just means they have draft beer.
From left: Bofinger exterior, Bofinger interior, choucroute garnie.
In the folklore of food, there are several versions of the origin of the bistro (sometimes spelled bistrot but pronounced the same). My favorite one has to do with taxi drivers. Whichever country is currently riding the wave of immigration in a city can usually be determined by the nationality of the taxi drivers. In Paris in 1917, it was the Russians fleeing the revolution. No one knows better than taxi drivers that time is money, and when they took a lunch or dinner break, the Russians would shout, “Bistro, bistro!” (“Quickly, quickly!” in Russian) to the waiter. Therefore, a place that served a low-cost plat du jour, prepared in the morning and served all day without delay, became known as a bistro.
Today, some neighborhood places still fit that mold. Classic, genuine bistros that evoke old Paris are very popular, but most are no longer fast or cheap. Allard and Paul Bert come to mind. Their food is classically simple: lamb stews, coq au vin, roasted chicken. Think garlic! Several bistros have been acquired by celebrity chefs who try a little too hard to be unpretentious and genuine, but bistro food seems to have migrated worldwide from Paris.
Charleston is fortunate to have several good examples of the classic Parisian bistro — welcoming, reliable and continually tasty with prompt service and affordable wine by the bottle and by the glass.
Perig Goulet had the idea of creating a place where locals could mingle in a setting reflective of Charleston’s bright, colorful charm. The result is Goulette at 98 Cannon Street. He calls it a rotisserie and grill, but it also has all the warmth and ambience of a classic French bistro. Rotisserie chicken, hangar steak and pulled pork are accompanied by the most authentic French “frites” in town.
We discovered Bistro Toulouse shortly after they opened in 2014. On our first visit, I ordered the roast chicken, and my wife had the mussels. When I first tasted the chicken, I closed my eyes and thought I was in Paris. I asked our server if the chef was French. He said not, but that he had worked under French chefs. Toulouse fits the model of an authentic French bistro, from the classic onion soup to the gougeres (cheese puffs) served at brunch on weekends.
In 2017, Master Chef Nico Romo began offering a fresh taste on seafood in Shem Creek. In October of 2020, he opened the most genuine French bistro in Charleston, combining the words “bistro” and “gastronomy” into Bistronomy, by Nico, on Spring Street. The menus and wine lists rival the upscale grand bistros of Paris. We aim to become regulars once dining restrictions are relaxed.
Do you have a favorite French-style dining place in the Charleston area? Please let us know!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris ; he may be reached at email@example.com.