The Essential Bistro

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Being something of a Frenchie wannabe, I tend to don my rose-tinted lunettes when I consider the classic bistro. I mean that quite literally. As I type this with one hand, I’m packing with the other for a surprise romantic getaway—destination unknown to me–orchestrated by my dear E. Atop my passport sit my trendy, rosy new shades from Anthro, and through their lenses I can’t help but imagine a single scenario over and over and over again. Me, my shades, and E sitting at a bistro in Paris. Sipping. Conversing. Laughing. Lingering. Smooching.

Bistros are the stuff of reveries. Iconic, legendary establishments, they exude a certain charm, cast a spell of sorts. I’m not alone in thinking this. But I also think perhaps the rosiness and romance envelope the moment not just because I regard the decor and the wine, the passersby, even, perhaps, a slightly disappointing steak a little less critically than usual. Perhaps a large part of my mooniness draws from the fact that I see myself, too, in a less mundane manner. Each time I catch observe myself in a moment of fanciful thinking, I see a happier, classier, sassier version of me sitting at that table. France tends to have that effect on people. I’ve spent my share of time there. I know. And I return every so often for just that. It’s essential.

I’d never considered the whys behind this bistro effect, but rather just sort of accepted it as fact. Until I flipped through French Bistro, in which Bertrand Auboyneau, owner of the renowned Paul Bert in Paris and founder of the bistronomy movement, shares his insights into the essential components of a proper bistro. You’ll find a soupçon of his thoughts and philosophy below. But fear not, fellow right-brainers. Deconstructing the essential bistro as he does won’t tarnish the rose tint. If anything, it makes it even rosier.–Renee Schettler Rossi

~~~

The bistro is one of the last remaining venues of live theater in our cities. Clients take their positions without prompting, talk to strangers at the bar, ask their neighbors to pass the salt, scrounge a smoke outside, and maybe even leave with a phone number. The bistro is the setting against which minor dramas and romances are played out. It is a social sanctuary, somewhere to reflect, watch passersby, shrug at calories, and mop up the sauce on our plates with good bread. Let the outside world march on in suits, slaves to their watches. This calm revolt, this rebellion that runs on salted butter, continues to be a success because of its genuine respect for both its food and diners. You will feel it as you enter and taste it in the crunch of the bread.

What defines a bistro? A counter, an owner, and a chef? Limiting the definition to this trio would be too simplistic to describe an entire universe. A bistro comprises much more.

What would a bistro be without its bar? The combined weight of its lead, zinc, and heavy wood anchor it solidly to the floor. It seems to have been there long enough to have grown roots, drawing strength and serenity from its grounded solidity. The bar is subjected to thumps, knocks, and wipes. It is impervious to parting words, endless chatter, bygones being bygones, and slates being wiped clean. It listens with a kindly ear to human suffering and passing fortune. The bar is a benevolent entity, a latter-day confessional. When the time comes and you are ready, you can leave the safety of the bar for the comfort of your table.

Here’s another French paradox. If the food is good, the décor seems spectacular. If the food is disappointing, the décor is filed away as iffy and the service spotty. The bench covered in worn leatherette will seem redolent of the romance of past eras rather than simply shabby. Bistro décor is like traveling back in time to a golden age. There will be exposed brick walls, vintage posters, enamel signage, old tiling, molded ceilings, worn wooden tables, and ancient chairs. They all transmit the same timeless message, like a quaint dialect, somewhat out of date, that reassures us and sets our bellies rumbling.

The bistro chair is nifty and nimble, punctuating the dining space. It takes just a flick of the wrist to spin it. It is multipurpose: it can be straddled and stacked,; it can be sent flying; and it can even crack skulls. The original bistro chair was designed in 1859 in Michael Thonet’s workshop. This ingenious inventor devised a process for bending solid wood into curved shape, and it was the Thonet prototype number 14 that shot to success. The whole world then made knock-offs of his deign, producing chairs that would support the world’ most illustrious posteriors.

French Bistro

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The strength of bistro cooking owes much to its flexibility. The chalkboard menu attests to its adaptability. Far more than a rustic decorative feature, the chalkboard reflects the economic preoccupations of a cuisine based on market availability and fluctuating commodity prices. Should a certain fish suddenly become plentiful, the chef and the owner will immediately modify the day’s menu. If a dish’s ingredients are exhausted, it’s erased immediately. The bistro is lucky enough to be able to seize opportunities as they arise, though it must be faithful to its fundamental principles. You go because you’re sure to find your usual steak with mustard, sole meuniere, or favorite dried sausage. The affability is tangible in the down-to-earth dishes, the ones that everyone likes. Upscale restaurants have taken to revisiting bistro recipes, gussying up old standbys. That’s fine. Bistro cooking can take the competition.

France has a dazzling array of bad characters. Just stand at the bar of any bistro. You’re bound to spot one or more clients, unpredictable beings, looking downhearted, sullen, morose, or annoyed. Some of them manage to display the whole range of gloomy emotions from bleakness to wretchedness. Those who enter laughing and jolly are few and far between, and their demeanor raises the suspicion that they have been enjoying their predinner drinks. The success of an evening at a bistro can often hinge on a single client. Just one cantankerous person who loses his or her patience or explodes can quickly ruin the ambience. And this is why bistro owners are so attentive to the diners, keeping them under constant, close surveillance. French clients are unique creatures, and it is in this spirit that they must be welcomed.

The ambience of a bistro is original and inimitable. Myriad conversations, the clinking of cutlery, waiters overacting their roles, barked-out orders, spoons tinkling against coffee cups, a cork popping out of a bottle all come together in a life-affirming babble. A general state of well-being resonates.

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

About Bertrand Auboyneau

Bertrand Auboyneau is the owner of the acclaimed Paris bistro, Paul Bert. He is a disciple of the late Michel Picquart, the founder of the modern bistronomy movement.

Comments
Comments
  1. David Leite says:

    What Renee didn’t know when she wrote the introduction to this charming excerpt by the owner of bistro Paul Bert was that her husband, E, was whisking her away last night to Paris for her birthday. All she knew was “prepare for points unknown.” So right now, I’m sure she and E are sitting ad canoodling at some terribly romantic bistro, its banquettes, tables, and zinc bar burnished by generations of lovers before them.

    To Renee, I wish you a marvelous birthday. To E, I applaud your romantic streak.

    And not to be left out of this francophilic frolic, The One and I will be dining at Paul Bert as we celebrate my birthday next week. (No, the marvelousness of it all isn’t wasted on me. I’m blessed in so many ways.)

  2. Susan says:

    Beautiful portrayal of a bistro; it feeds my imagination. I’ve never been to one, (never been to Paris!) but this describes what I’d expect to see and feel from the experience. I wahnuh go ta Paris!

  3. Sofia says:

    Even though I do not recall my experience in Paris due to having gone last time still at a very young age, I was fortunate to have lived in many European cities and traveled through various parts of France and therefore bistros were always part of my life. Love the written essay above and how well it depicts the true essence of a bistro being so very often a locals favorite as a touristy place even if just to grab “un petit café”. The perfect scenario to enjoy a great talk over local, fresh food, watch nearby pedestrians or catch up on some pages of that book you have been meaning to finish.

    Lastly a GREAT bisou to Renee for her special day while she is enjoying the most romantic and amazing adventure with her beloved E.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Sofia, bisous back to you for your lovely wish. Thank you. It was, indeed, romantic and amazing. I am a very, very lucky lady to have E…

  4. Maria says:

    Happy birthday to both you and Renee. I know you will both have an amazing time.

    • David Leite says:

      Maria, I thank you and I think I can safely say Renee thanks you, too. If all goes well with Verizon, watch my Twitter and Instagram feeds….

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Maria, many, many thanks to you for your thoughtful & lovely sentiment. It was, indeed, amazing. We just returned home, and I am still pinching myself…

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