bar, wine bar, bistro, bistrot, brasserie... It's all a blur

Here's a hungry cat lurking on a scarf

And these little creatures are confident that
they won't be what's for dinner
so let's think about our dinner:

Once upon a time in Paris, there were extravagant, elegant, formal restaurants. Oops, left out "very expensive." But you knew that.

And there were also these choices:

A bistro - once a comfortable neighborhood place to get a simple meal, good food, nice wine, relaxed atmosphere. The menu would feature French classics: coq au vin, snails in parsley garlic butter, sole meunière, crème caramel... By the way, bistro isn't a French word. It came to Paris with occupying Russian soldiers, following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. I don't think anyone's written anything in praise of the behavior of a Russian occupying force, ever, but these guys came to Paris hungry and were in the habit of charging into any establishment that even smelled of food cooking, and they would holler "Быстро! Быстро!" which means "fast, fast". Finally they left, leaving behind what they said when they entered a place serving food. When it was clear they were gone, the restaurant owners put back the good furniture and the pretty mirrors.

A brasserie - once a large, informal, noisy space featuring a rather elaborate display of beers on tap, often highlighting a relationship with a particular brewery, and a menu rooted in hearty Alsatian classics, sausages, choucroute garni...

A bistrot was a smaller bistro, with a somewhat reduced menu.

A bar was once, well, a bar, featuring "alcohols" and wine, and at midday there could be stacks of sandwiches, ham on long skinny bread...

Then came the wine bar, elaborate wine lists, wine by the glass or by the bottle or by the flight, and food that can range from cheese and cold cuts to rather elaborate cooked specialities.

Over time, the distinctions among the different establishments have been mixed and blurred until -- well, imagine someone who thinks she can speak French trying to design a tee that bears an idiomatic and witty French expression. So the whole thing turned from a list into a mix-and-match multiple choice exercise. All of the above, plus a few places that characterize themselves as "bistro/tapas bar" or "Asian brasserie" or "Japanese bistro" or their food as "French-inflected", sprout and fade in Paris, and in New York, with sad regularity.

And frankly, while this jolly goulash of styles and levels of cooking and service can be confusing, it can also work in your favor. A little preliminary research - like checking the actual menus on your trusty computer - can help with your choice, because the odds are better that the broader the menu, the more likely that  more people will find something they actually like or at least will actually order. I brought a friend to a well-known classic brasserie in Lyon, where he was so entranced by the shiny brass taps and the optics and the jolly glasses of beer, that his French failed him, and he thought he was ordering a classic Choucroute Garnie, which is sauerkraut with a couple kinds of sausage and a pork chop. Unfortunately he ordered the Choucroute Maison, which that day turned out to be Sauerkraut with Fish. The combination was having a moment. As food does. Caveat edax.

Anyway, if you enjoy a mix of cultures and attitudes, you could do a lot worse than to come to New York for food. We have a "range of ranges," meaning everything from fine dining places that have received three - three! - stars from the Michelin people, to retro diners, to places where you want to have someone check the restroom for Michael Corleone's gun, even though the gun was fictional and the restaurant is only 2 or 3 years old. Restaurants that pride themselves on serving authentic Szechuan or Fujianese food, may also boast that gluten-free noodles are available on request. Steakhouses offer vegetarian options.

(grateful appreciation to The New Yorker magazine)
And French, always French at varying levels of sophistication, elegance, cooking. At varying levels, that is to say, of, well, Frenchness. Because the Great Gustatory Blur is also present in Paris, I have to say that the GGB is authentically French. Well, this month it is. Things can move fast in this industry.
Benoit Bistro
Having said all of that, I've enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cherche Midi, at DBGB, at Buvette, at Balthasar, at Benoit. All of these can be crowded and noisy and hectic, and you really need to reserve ahead. I had a delightful evening downtown at Les Philosophes (again, reserve!), which is in a fun neighborhood to walk it off if you overindulge. There are uncaptioned pictures of some 40 French philosophers, and when they first opened they promised to comp anyone who could name all 40. I believe too many people ran to and took notes.

Pre-theater, pre-concert, well, the food options inside the Lincoln Center buildings keep improving, but our choice is Bar Boulud, not inside the complexe but across the street and owned by Daniel Boulud - the closest to a bistrot cum bar à vins that you'll find in that area. Nearby, M. Boulud also has a "southern French" place, Boulud Sud, which I find overpriced and insipid.
Bar Boulud
Cherche Midi

Artisanal was sold recently, prices went up, quality of service went down. Took a friend to lunch, was embarrassed.

"French-inflected" is a word that turns up in a lot of local restaurant reviews. In this loose category, I like Élan, and have gone back several times.

Two newer places that I think have real possibilities but aren't quite ready for prime time are Auguste and Chevalier. Chevalier opened recently in the new Baccarat Hotel, and as you may imagine, the table settings and the crystal are magnificent. The first time we tried it we just loved the food. However, when we went back, things didn't measure up to our first experience, so we decided to wait and let them settle in before deciding whether to return. Actually, this is another example of Blur, the menu is very dressy, and yet all the PR describes it as a brasserie.

Speaking of the Blur, there's a spot called Match 65, which describes itself as a brasserie. A brasserie is the one thing it's definitely not. It's a tiny place, might pass for a bistrot in dim light, if you don't eat the food. Himself gave it a low B minus and would prefer not to go back.

Auguste, newly opened on Lexington Avenue after it lost its lease on Bleeker Street, is close to being a real bistro, and we thought we'd made a great discovery on our first visit. It didn't withstand a second visit, there was chaos in the kitchen (orders got lost, food arrived cold, that kind of chaos), so again we're letting it settle in some more.

Finally, on East 79th Street, there's a place called Quatorze that lots of people, including Himself, love. I'm not a fan, but this place has a lot of very vocal supporters, so I'm including it. But conscience insists that I disclose that one night I ordered calf's liver and it was adequately prepared, but for the accompanying sauce which was exactly the same as that which accompanied Himself's steak. He advises visitors to stick to the cassoulet and the roast chicken.


  1. Love it! The gluten comic is classic. Anyway, maybe because Knoxville is known to be the Chain Restaurant City, we love going to very eclectic restaurants while tripping around other towns. Hubs always wants to peruse the on line menus before we go...if hash is on the menu, we are there! I want to be surprised. Boy was he surprised when his "red" hash ended up being beet hash. Hate beets.

    1. Beets are unavoidable... for a while I was leaving post-its for Himself on the bathroom mirror: "Good Morning. You are not dying. You had beets last night."

  2. WFF, thank you so much for this wonderful list and the etymology of "bistro"! Looking forward to reading and commenting at leisure.

    1. Enjoy! I picked places in a few different parts of town, fun to explore.

  3. Adding these to list for potential feb visit! Thanks!

    1. there's nothing certain but change, as they say - add to your list that Pastis may have re-opened by then.

  4. Love little stories like that. One thing I miss about new york is take out though most of all believe it or not.

    1. and delivery! you can get almost anything delivered in New York!
      as opposed to, say, Portland Oregon, where Himself called some place or other and asked if they delivered. Response: no, why?

  5. Most educational, all these distinctions. Had no idea about the Russian derivation of "bistro"! I've been to Balthazar and DBGB, but not to the others; it's been way too long since I've been to NYC. Must rectify.

    1. Yea, you must!

      Re bistro, bistro - I note without comment that there is no establishment in Paris called a "Bier hier." Nor has there been.

  6. Thanks for the glimpse. I can see that French cuisine is a favorite of yours. V. interesting about "bistro".
    The cartoon is riotous.

  7. I know this is OTT, but on a somewhat related note -- have you tried finding French butter here in NY? I know that plenty of supermarkets like Fairway & Whole Foods carry President and other brands, but the one I'm looking for is 'Payson Breton demi-sel' -- I managed to bring back some frozen bars from a trip last year, but have unsuccessful in finding this brand here. I've tried finding them online, with little success (or high shipping fees.)

    In any case, thanks for all the restaurant reviews, I really enjoyed reading them. I hadn't been to Boulud Sud, (have been to the bar after a recent Lincoln Center) visit so it's good to have your thoughts on both.

    1. I haven't seen it here, but since I learned to cook with sweet butter (you know, back in the Dark Ages), it wouldn't be something that would attract my attention. I think Zabar's might be a possibility, also Eli's Market, because these places mostly do their own buying from purveyors and distributors with which they have direct relationships.

    2. Oh thank you very much for that, I hadn't even thought to look there! Will add to my list. I know there's that new French market (the Eataly equivalent) in the Financial District that I've been meaning to check out as well. (Have you been? I read they carried good cheeses & charcuterie type stuff as well. Mmmm!)

  8. Loved the cartoon about the gluten. I was in Cinque Terre for 2 weeks and surprised to see so many notices about 'gluten free' in restaurants there. Italy, is the only place that I can eat bread, pasta and the like with wild abandon without tummy issues. Miss New York and all the eating choices. Thanks for the post WFF.

  9. Great post. I envy you to have so many restaurant choices. I heard a chef describe my home town as cursed by the expectation of a caesar salad. Dining out is quite boring here save for a few family-run hole-in-the-wall places.


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