Paris is a scary place. With its class and air, the city can make you feel like a stupid tourist that has no understanding of art, literature, food and life in general. It’s why I studied in Rennes in Bretagne, where I fell in love with the friendlier Guingamp, Saint-Malo and, of course, salted butter. But as I got older, I realised that Paris is not the island that many people think it is. In fact, many great things in Paris were built by non-Parisian hands. Take the bistro, created by Yves Camdeborde, who’s originally from Pau in the south of France. He revolutionised the Parisian culinary scene and introduced the world to many of his childhood dishes that aren’t Parisian at all. Sounds less scary already! At the same time, there are some rules to take into account when walking into a Parisian bistro. I did some “field research” and wrote down the most important ones.
A history lesson on bistronomy
In France, there used to be only gastronomy (Michelin star level) and pub food. Because of this distinction, the rich and poor were separated too, causing the culinary scene to be dull and somewhat predictable. But then came Yves Camdeborde, a free spirit from the south that didn’t want to go to college and decided to get into cooking instead. A good bet, as his culinary upbringing and passion for life led him to the kitchens of the famous Tour d’Argent, le Crillon and le Ritz. In 1992, Yves opened his first restaurant and started doing things completely differently. He wanted to make gastronomy more accessible and progressive, and started working with simple yet high-quality local products to create a menu that was all about (yes) simplicity and quality. Although his bistronomy movement came as kind of a shock to the gastronomic scene, it worked. Better yet, the bistro is now one of the things that make Paris such a magical place.
Sidenote: bistros are not the same thing as brasseries, which are typically noisy places with long menus. Bistros are all about intimacy, quality, great wine, and, as we’d soon find out, very French waiters.
Le Comptoir du Relais
On the weekend before Christmas, we drove to Paris for a quick getaway. My boyfriend had told me about the famous Yves Camdeborde and his renowned restaurant Le Comptoir du Relais in the sixth arrondissement (so south of the river, close to le Jardin du Luxembourg). By magic, we got a table right away, and we sat down next to a friendly German couple. The man was ready to order, and the waiter took out his pencil.
“Oui, vous avez choisi?” “Yes, we would like to…” ”Only in French, sir.”
”Right. Then I’m afraid it’s going to take longer.” ”I’ll come back later.”
Then, the waiter turned to us. “Madame, monsieur, vous avez choisi?” My boyfriend took a deep breath and said in fluent French: “Oui, nous voudrions deux coupes de champagnes, elle prend le plat du jour, donc les cocquilles Saint Jacques, et moi je prend le veau. Et avez- vous une grande bouteille de l’eau gazeuse s’il vous plaît?”
He then turned to me and whispered: “And that’s how it’s done.” The waiter looked pleased and left to pass on our order. Ten minutes later, we got our food, along with a smile and some extra bread. I wrote down: “In Parisian bistros, speak French.”
What if you don’t know words like rôti and panais?
Although I manage pretty well in French, I still struggle with French restaurant menus. There are simply too many ingredients and methods of preparation that I don’t know the name of, so even I have to look things up on my phone. If you have the same problem, do what I do: take your time and order a glass of wine! I often have a glass of champagne before dinner, which I can definitely recommend as it gets you in a party mood in no time. When in Paris, please don’t order prosecco. No, better yet: don’t go to places where they serve prosecco. If you prefer prosecco over champagne, go to Rome.
Anyway, take your time. You can try to translate the entire menu, but if you have no clue what you’re looking at, I recommend sticking with les plats du jour (dishes of the day). Often, bistros serve two, either with meat or fish (often, there’s a vegetarian option too). I love le plat du jour, as it’s farm-fresh and narrows down my choice (menus tend to make me cry). Be careful to avoid dishes with intestines if your stomach can’t handle them. If this applies to you, simply avoid dishes that contain tripeau, andouillette, andouille, cerveaux, gésiers and ris.
By the way: rôti means roast and panais means parsnip.
Is there an order you should stick with?
The great thing about bistronomy is that it was invented for you, not to celebrate the chef. So go and order anything you like (except for prosecco, that’s just rude). Skip the starter, take two mains and share dessert with your lover; bistronomy was invented to make you happy. I do have one rule when it comes to desserts, though: I always take tarte aux pommes (apple pie) when it’s on the menu. Gâteau moelleux au chocolat can be dry or heavy; ice cream can be too runny, but I have yet to come across the first bistro version of apple pie that isn’t divine. Le Comptoir du Relais has a great one too, which looks like it’s way too much, but then turns out to be quite light.
How do I choose a bistro?
Yves Camdeborde may have revolutionised bistro food; not every bistro will get you the experience you’re looking for. So what makes a good bistro? Although this is a tough question to answer, great bistros do have a couple of things in common. For starters, their menus are simple and short: there are between five and eight main dishes that are described in one or too short sentences. Everything is in French, and there’s no English menu available, nor do waiters switch to English without a fight. The menu is based on local and seasonal ingredients, and the dishes are typically French (think entrecôte, coq au vin, foie gras, confit de canard). Dishes of the day are often written on a chalkboard that either hangs on the wall or is carried from table to table. As opposed to the food menu, the wine menu is elaborate (wine before food!), and the wines are carefully selected by the sommelier or the chef.
What should I wear?
Anything you like, from a fancy blazer to a hipster dungaree. Wear a suit, or don’t. Wear a bra, or don’t. Your choice.
In short, bistros are meant to make you happy. So next time you walk into a Parisian bistro, keep your head up high and know that you’re entitled to this form of happiness. Pick a true bistro, don’t order intestines, start off in French, and you’ll be fine.
Your cheat sheet:
- Yves Camdeborde is a hero for revolutionising bistro food
- When in a bistro, you shall speak French or at least try to
- The shorter the menu, the better (this doesn’t apply to the wine list)
- In case of panic, simply choose the plat du jour (but stay away from intestines)
- When there’s tarte aux pommes, you must order it
And that’s that! Good luck next time you’re in Paris. Oh and take the train; the French love great food, but they also love to strike. We found out the hard way.