Cafe vs Bistro vs Brasserie: What’s the Difference? A guide to dining in France

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front of au pied de cochon brasserie in Paris
Do you know the difference between a French café, a French bistro and a French brasserie? Choosing which type of restaurant to dine at in France can be difficult and confusing, especially if you don’t know the differences between the various types of restaurants. Here’s everything you need to know.

What’s the difference between a café, bistro and brasserie in France?

seafood platter au pied de cochon brasserie paris

From coq au vin and French onion soup to steak tartare and steak Frites, France is known for many things but wouldn’t be the same without experiencing simple but classic French dishes.

But you don’t need to go to an expensive French restaurant that serves 5-course meals to experience French cooking in France.

Brasseries, bistros, cafes and even some bars serve up classic French dishes in a casual setting at more affordable prices.

These iconic French restaurants are an integral part of French history and culture. They’re also places where you can experience one aspect of the art of French living.

Historically, bistros, brasseries and cafés have different origins and were very different in terms of atmosphere, service and type of food served, but things have become a bit intertwined over time.

Here’s everything you need to know about these classic French restaurants, including a bit of history, the origins of their names and some example dishes you might find in each type of restaurant, which I pulled directly off of Parisian menus.

What is a Café?

Front view of Parisian Café les deux magots

In France, true cafés, also called “débit de boisson” (drinking establishment) are places where you go mainly to hang out, grab a drink, whether it be a coffee or a glass of wine and maybe eat something light at the bar, in the dining room or on the terrace. The food served in cafés are traditionally very casual, simple dishes like a sandwhich, a croque monsieur or maybe a salad. Cafés are also popular places to meet friends for an aperitif before heading off to dinner.

Café Hours of operation

Cafés are usually open seven days a week as early as 7:30 am, staying open as late as 1:00 am.

Is café a French word?

The French word for coffee (café) is borrowed from the Turkish word “kahve,” which makes sense since coffee houses probably originated in turkey around the 16th century.

The first known coffee houses “Kaveh kanes” appeared in Istanbul in 1554.

A brief history of Coffee houses in France

front of le procope brasserie café restaurant paris

Cafés in France and Europe are a direct result of coffee, the drink which didn’t show up in France until 1644 via Marseille, thanks to a French merchant and traveller named Pierre de la Roque.

It took nearly 30 more years for the first French coffee shop to open at Place Saint-Germain in 1672 by a man named Pasqua or Pascal Rosée.

Pascal’s coffee shop was not a success, but luckily, his apprentice, a Sicilian chef named Procopio Cuto, took over (aka Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli.)

Francesco Procopio Frenchified his name to François Procope and renamed the coffee shop “Le Procope” café in 1686 on Rue des Fosses Saint-Germainin which became a huge success and still is to this day.

By the late 1800s, cafés were a Parisian staple, and places like Les Deux Magots and Café Flores became popular hubs for famous writers, philosophers, chess players, and revolutionaries to gather, debate and exchange ideas while drinking the fashionable and exotic coffee drink.

Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus are some famous people who enjoyed frequenting cafés.

Why eat at a French cafe?

When you want to meet someone someplace very casual for a drink or grab a bite to eat and don’t mind eating something less refined, go to a café.

Many old establishments still open today that started as cafés only to become bistros or brasseries like “Le Procope,” which is still open.

Procopes menu is much more extensive now and is classified as a brasserie, which is how it’s described on their website.

Just remember that café food will usually be very plain, more like snack food and sandwiches.

French inventors

Did you know that the Lumière brothers, French inventors of cinema and movie posters held their first commercial public film screening on December 28, 1895, in the basement of the Grand Café in a room called “Le Salon Indien du Grand Café?” The Grand café where the screening took place at 14 Boulevard des Capucines is long gone. It’s now the location of Hotel Scribe which opened a restaurant called “Café Lumière”, in memory of its rich history.

Did you know a French archbisopinvented the first drip coffee maker called “La Débéloire” or “Le Dubelloire”

Typical things you can order on a café menu

delicious French croque madame on a plate with a fork and knife

The food at a café is usually very simple, not gastronomic and often not even French.

Here are some example dishes you might see at a cafe which I pulled from a few Parisian cafe menus.

Dish Name English Translation
Jambon beurre Ham butter sandwhich
Salade Niçoise Nicoise salad
Croque Monsieur A hot French ham and cheese sandwich
Croque Madame fried or grilled cheese and ham sandwich
topped with a poached or fried egg
Saumon fumé Smoked salmon
Tatin d’endives et fourme d’Ambert Endive Tarte Tatin
Salade de lentilles vertes du Puy aux lardons Puy green lentil salad with bacon
Tomates, Mozzerella di Bufala caprese salad with Mozzerella di Bufala cheese.
Choucroute Alsacienne Saucisse Alsatian sauerkraut and sausage
Poke bowl thon Tuna poke bowl
Fish and chips comme a londres Fish and chips like in London
Assiette de fromage Cheese plate
Burger Aubrac Burger with beef from Aubrac
Moules farcies au beurre persillés Mussels stuffed with parsley butter

Some famous Parisian cafés

Café des 2 Moulins (featured in the cult French film Amélie)
15 Rue Lepic, Paris
Open everyday (7AM–2AM )

Le procope (1686) (actually a brasserie type restaurant now)
13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, Paris
Open everyday (12PM–12AM )

Le Café de Flore (1885)
172 Bd Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris
Open everyday (7:30AM–1:30AM )

Les Deux Magots (1885)
6 Pl. Saint-Germain des Prés, Paris
Open everyday (7:30AM–12AM )

What is a Bistro restaurant?

Interior of Ma Bourgogne bistrot in Paris

Think of a bistro ( “bistrot”) as a casual, unpretentious neighbourhood family restaurant / café / bar where you can have a drink and eat traditional time-tested French recipes at affordable prices. The food served is usually simple, home style or rustic meals like grandma’s cooking (a French grandma.)

Typical Bistrot Hours of operation:

A bistro is usually only open during lunch and dinner, but some are open for breakfast.

Each restaurant is different, but mealtimes in France generally start at noon for lunch and from 7:30 pm for dinner.

Lunch noon to about 14:30
Diner; 19:00 or 19:30 to 23:00

The first Bistros of France

While bistro restaurants take various forms today and can be found all over France, they were initially small, unpretentious Parisian cafés where you could have a quick drink and order some simple and inexpensive food served quickly.

Many of these first bistros were run by people who moved from their impoverished rural lands in France and settled in Paris to open small businesses.

Parisians called these people “les bougnats” from “charbouniat” in the Auvergnat dialect, which meant coal burners (charbonniers in French).

Group of bougnats standing in front of their cafe which sold coffee, wine, coal, and wood.

Bistros run by Bougnat were easily recognizable thanks to their decorations: Zinc bar countertop and tables covered in paper or red and white checkered gingham table cloths called Vichy in French.

Some also sold coal and wood along with food, wine and coffee.

What does bistro mean, and where does the word come from?

The term bistro first showed up in the French language around 1880.

The etymology of the word “bistro” is not known and is widely debated, but there is a lot of speculation.

A popular but improbable theory is that the word bistro is a loan word from the Russian word “bystro,” which means “fast” or “quick.” The hypothesis is that Russian soldiers who occupied Paris around 1814 shouted the Russian words (quick, quick) to get their drinks faster. But this hypothesis doesn’t seem possible since the first written records for the word bistro in French don’t show up until nearly 70 years after the Russian occupation of Paris.

Another more likely theory is that the word “bistro” comes from regional words from dialects spoken throughout France.

Here are a few theories on the origins of the word bistro.

  1. The word bistro could have come from “bistraud,” which in the Poitevin dialect first meant “servant” then a “wine merchant.”
  2. Bistrot may be from the Lyonnais word “bistaud,” which means a young employee,
  3. Bistro could also be a variation of the word “bistouille,” an alcoholic drink popular amongst French infantrymen (le poilus-the hairy one). Bisouille was made with coffee and eau-de-vie, a type of clear brandy.

Whatever its origins, today, the word bistro or Bistrot is part of everyday language in France. More recently, a new type of upscale bistro has emerged, spawning some new vocabulary such as bistronomy and bistronomique.

Bistronomie (Bistronomy) and bistronomique are contractions of the words bistro + gastronomy, which the Larousse dictionary defines as fine dining in a casual atmosphere served on small plates at affordable Bistrot prices.

What type of food can you order at a French bistro?

beef steak tartare with capers and raw quail egg bistrot food

Bistro and brasseries have a lot in common which explains why they’re often confused.

Here are some dishes you might find on a French bistro restaurant menu.

I pulled these dish names from actual bistro menus located throughout Paris.

French Bistro Dish Name English Translation
Steak and fries Steak and fries
Traditionnelle soupe gratinée à l’oignon French onion soup
Œufs durs mayonnaise Hard-boiled eggs mayonnaise
Terrines Terrines
Petites Salade Small salad
Boeuf bourguignon Beef bourguignon
Pot au feu A type of French beef stew
Veal blanquette A type of French veal ragout
Saumon mi-cuit Seared salmon
Magret de canard rôti Roasted duck breast
Saumon gravlax Salmon Gravlax
Rognon de veau Veal kidney
Cassoulet maison Cassoulet: A slow-cooked meat and white casserole
Tartare de boeuf Beef tartare / steak tartare: raw ground beef or horse
meant seasoned, usually topped with a raw egg
Faux-filet de boeuf Beef sirloin
Souris d’agneau Braised or roasted lamb shank
Boudin noir Black pudding
Burger au magret de canard Duck breast burger
Escargots de Bourgogne persillé Burgundy snails with parsley
Cuisse de canard confite Duck leg confit
Andouillette Andouillette:A strong smelling sausage made from strips
pig intestine wrapped in the pig’s colon
Cabillaud sauvage Wild Cod
Poulet fermier rôti Roasted farm chicken
Os à moelle et pain de campagne grillé Marrowbone and toasted country bread
Choucroute Alsacienne Saucisse Alsatian Sauerkraut Sausage
Croustillant de Saint-Marcellin au miel et fruits secs Crispy Saint-Marcellin cheese with honey and dried fruits
Pommes grenaille et champignons Grenaille potatoes and mushrooms
Ile flottante maison Floating island: Dessert of meringue floating on crème anglaise
Tartelette aux fruits Fruit tartlet

Some famous Parisian Bistros

If you’re looking for some Paris bistro suggestions, here are a few notable ones that you may want to try.

Bistrot Batifol
5, place du 8-Mai-1945, 10th

Le Bistrot de la Gare
1 rue de Lyon, Paris 12th
Bistrot de Valois
1 bis place du Palais Royal, Paris 1st

À l’Épi d’Or
25 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris 1st

La Rôtisserie d’Argent (little brother of “La tour d’argent” : the restaurant that inspired the film Ratatouille)
19 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005 Paris, 5th.

Ma Borgogne
19 Pl. des Vosges, 75004 Paris

What is a Brasserie?/ What does Brasserie mean?

Etymology of Brasserie:Brasserie” is the French word for “Brewerie,” which comes from the French verb ” brasser”, to brew. The ending suffix “erie” designates an art, type of job or type of business. Similar French words with the “erie” suffix that designate a place of business include, boulangerie, Confisserie, Chocoloterie,épicerie,poisonnerie, etc.

Paris bouillon / Brasserie interior at Le Bouillon Chartier

As the name suggests, a brasserie was initially a place where beer was brewed. The dishes served reflected the local cuisine of Alsacian immigrants who were some of the first to open up brasseries and brought their beer brewing customs and local cuisine such as Choucroute (sauerkraut). Some brasseries have kept up the tradition of beer brewing, but these days the focus is on wine. The food link between Alsace is also less evident.

 

Like a French bistro, modern brasseries specialize in classic French favourites but brasseries are much larger with a set menu rather than a seasonal one. Many of the more well known Parisian brasseries are very old historical sites with much of the decor maintained from the belle epoque. Prices tend to be more expensive than a bistro but the service is usually very fast. Food is often hit or miss. Some brasseries have sub par food but remain popular thanks to their art deco decor.

Typical Brasserie Hours of operation:

Brasseries are typically open seven days a week and serve food all day from either 8 am to midnight or noon to midnight. A select few are open 24 hours a day.

Sample plates you might find at a brasserie

Souris d’agneau sauerkraut

These are some examples of food you might find in a French bistro. I pulled them from actual menus of some famous Parisian brasserie restaurants. 

French Bistro Dish Name English Translation
Poissons et fruits de mer Fish and seafood
Escargot de Bourgogne Burgundy snails
Soupe à l’oignon gratinée French onion soup
Potage de légumes Vegetable soup
Œuf dur mayonnaise Hard boiled eggs and mayonnaise
Flammekueche Alsacienne An Alsacienne style pizza with creme fraiche and bacon lardons
Spaghetti bolognaise Bolognese Spaghettie
Tête de veau sauce Gribiche Veak head with a cold egg sauce
Crevettes roses mayonnaise Prawns with mayonnaise
Poulet fermier rôti, frites fraîches Roasted free range chicen and fries
Confit de canard pommes grenailles Duck confit stew with grenailles potatoes
Steack haché sauce poivre vert Minced beef with green peppercorn sauce
Andouillette grillée, sauce moutarde Grilled Andouillette (pig intestine sausage) with mustard sauce
Sauté de veau Marengo Sauteed veal with a (garlic tomato) Marengo sauce
Pâté en croûte maison Homemade paté wrapped in pastry dough
Saucisse de Francfort frites Frankfurter sausage fries
Tripous de la maison Savy sheep tripe, usually stuffed with seasoned sheep’s feet, sweetbreads

Well known brasseries in Paris

Among the thousands of restaurants in Paris, a handful of brasseries have a special place in the hearts of the French. Here are some of the more famous ones you may want to check out.

Au pied de cochon (1946)
6 rue Coquillère, Paris 1st
Open every day, 24/24 (the first Parisian restaurant to stay open 365 days a year)

Bofinger (1864)
5-7 Rue de la Bastille, Paris
Open every day from (noon to 3 pm) + (6:30 pm to midnight)

Bouillon Chartier (1896)
7 Faubourg Montmartre Paris 9th
Open every day from 11:30 to midnight

Bouillon Julien (1906)
16 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, Paris
Open every day from 12:45 to midnight

Brasserie Lipp(1880)
151, boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 6th
Open every day from 9 am to 12:45 am.

Brasserie La Lorraine (1919)
2 Pl. des Ternes, 75008 Paris
Open every day from 8 am to 11:30 pm

La Coupole (1927)
102 Bd du Montparnasse, Paris,
Open every day from 8 am to 11 pm

Bonne dégustation

Today, brasseries, bistros and cafés have established themselves in France and French culture, each with its unique characteristics, atmosphere and type of food, which is why it’s important to understand the differences before you decide where to eat.

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

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