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Fat Guy

Bistro v. Brasserie

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What's the present-day, working distinction between a bistro and a brasserie? How about between bistro and brasserie cuisine? It seems to me that outside of France the terms are used somewhat interchangeably. How about inside of France?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I associate brassieries with brew pubs, bistros with a more typically French menu, but nothing is really defineable.

I don't know of any place that doesn't serve bot beer and wine, although the style of food there might lean more towards one than the other.

What about boite and cafe?

In a sense, the words "brasserie" and "boite" are less overworked. There is a feeling of freshness about them, now.

BB


Food is all about history and geography.

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Brasserie I've always associated with a big, bustling place, with a big bar, that serves beers (the word is French for brewery) on tap (as well as wine), focuses on Alsatian food and stays open late. Bistro I've always taken to mean a smallish mom-and-pop type restaurant, with a rather limited selection of "traditional" home-style foods. Probably a blackboard menu type place -whatever the proprietors bought at market that morning was going on the menu that night.

In the states, I think the first great American brasserie-style restaurant was probably Stars, in San Francisco and I believe McNally loved Stars, and modeled the "classic" NYC brasserie, Balthazar, in its image.


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Those seem to me to be the classical definitions, Mitch, but what I'm wondering about is the assumptions (if any) underlying current usage. For example, if you go to the Balthazar website it doesn't call itself a brasserie. In point of fact, the home page says "Balthazar serves traditional bistro meals from breakfast through late-night supper."

I've also seen many, many other references to Balthazar that call it a bistro, for example this one from the Independent, a UK newspaper:

Parisian-style bistro Balthazar, 80 Spring Street, New York (001 212 965 1414; balthazarny.com), is best known for its celebrity clientele. And it also draws big crowds for its brunch, which might include sour cream hazelnut waffles with warm berries.

Also, from the New York Times:

The general manager of a Wall Street restaurant was arrested yesterday after trying to dupe an investor out of $1.5 million by masquerading as a silent co-owner of Balthazar, the popular SoHo bistro, prosecutors said. The man told the investor the money would be used to open a Miami branch of Balthazar.

Other data points: Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro, the Bistro Laurent Tourondel (BLT) restaurants, db bistro moderne . . . .


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven, I'm sure you're right that there is little distinction, if any, commonly made between a bistro and a brasserie in the United States (and you could throw in cafe while you're at it). One could say similar things about the traditional Italian distinctions.


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And Bistro Benoit...

I have a feeling that the present-day usage, especially here in the states, has nothing to do with the original definitions of the words...they've more likely become kind of bastardized and all-encompassing for restaurants that serve anything that might remotely be considered "French food."

Balthazar is pretty far from a traditional bistro, in the truest sense of the word, yet it's a word that many people probably feel comfortable with, hence the use of bistro when describing Balthazar.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I'm also wondering about Paris. I haven't been in a few years, but last time I was there I got a strong sense of convergence as well. In particular, there was a lot of apparent menu convergence: the actual food being served at bistros and brasseries overlapped so much that there was no clear distinction in genres. I did think, however, that the bigger places were still calling themselves brasseries and the smaller places were still calling themselves bistros.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I can't speak to the French customs, but I have definitely observed some overlap in Italy among the various distinctions. This is perhaps due to the fact that a place that opened up as a relatively humble osteria 70 years ago that grew into something that might more properly be called a trattoria or even ristorante is unlikely to change its name simply because it has evolved into a higher class of restaurant. Once that sort of thing becomes commonplace, restaurants are named any old thing.

Think about just here in NYC: Is Gramercy Tavern really a "tavern"? Is Gotham Bar and Grill really a "bar and grill"?

Just because people are loose with naming conventions, however, doesn't mean that people still don't tend to agree about the meanings of these words. For example, if someone were to ask you to describe or define a "bar and grill" I have to believe you'd describe something far, far removed from Portale's outfit.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I'm also wondering about Paris. I haven't been in a few years, but last time I was there I got a strong sense of convergence as well. In particular, there was a lot of apparent menu convergence: the actual food being served at bistros and brasseries overlapped so much that there was no clear distinction in genres. I did think, however, that the bigger places were still calling themselves brasseries and the smaller places were still calling themselves bistros.

Weinoo is correct that it means "brewery" and features the cuisine of "Alsace". And while nowadays the lines blur, even in Paris, as to what's a bistro and what's a brasserie, I think that the functional difference is the appearance of "Choucroute" on the menu, and even Brasserie Lipp has a section called "LES CHOUCROUTES" and offers "Choucroute "Lipp: Joues de porc salée, lard fumé, saucisson pistaché et Francfort Lipp" (I think still).

If there's no longer Choucroute on the menu, the please disregard this post. But I think that the only distinction left at this point is whether a place still offers this dish.


Edited by markk (log)

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Okay, dumb question: if brasserie cuisine is supposed to be Alsatian, why is the signature item at so many brasseries a massive platter of fruits de mer? I mean, isn't Alsace landlocked? And what about other brasserie standards such as, say, steak frites? Is that in any way Alsatian?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ok, since I had to go educate myself to fully comprehend this topic I'm going to share what I needed to know here. Hopefully it adds to this discussion since Brasseries are supposed to also serve beer. I think its just becoming popular to call one's place that or a Bistro and not necessarily adhere to any accurate definition.

The following was stolen from Wikipedia;

Alsace is also the main beer-producing région of France, thanks primarily to breweries in and near Strasbourg. These include those of Kronenbourg, Fischer, Heineken International, Météor, and Kanterbräu. Hops are grown in Kochersberg and in northern Alsace. Schnapps is also traditionally made in Alsace, but it is in decline because home distillers are becoming less common and the consumption of traditional, strong, alcoholic beverages is decreasing.

Alsatian food is synonymous with conviviality, the dishes are substantial and served in generous portions and it has one of the richest regional kitchens. The gastronomic symbol of the région is undoubtedly Sauerkraut.

The word "Sauerkraut" in Alsatian has the form "Sûrkrût (Saurkraut)", which means "sour cabbage" as its German equivalent. This word was included into the French language as choucroute.


Edited by RAHiggins1 (log)

Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Okay, dumb question: if brasserie cuisine is supposed to be Alsatian, why is the signature item at so many brasseries a massive platter of fruits de mer? I mean, isn't Alsace landlocked? And what about other brasserie standards such as, say, steak frites? Is that in any way Alsatian?

Well, I've spent a lot of time in Alsace (as you probably know), and the brasseries there feature such dishes as Choucroute (with various garnishes); and liver dumplings with boiled potatoes; and tête de veau, and except for "Choucroute" these are always called by both their French and German names, i.e. "Quenelles de Foie"/"Leberknoedel", and "Tête de veau/Presskopf". There are a few more dishes that I can't think of at the moment.

I don't think that "steak frites" is either Alsatian, or a legitimate "brasserie standard".

But oysters are, and at Christmas-time in Alsace, the supermarkets have crates of oysters stacked up outside them by the hundreds the way stores here would have bags of charcoal in summer.

Freshwater fish, in particular "Sandre", aka "Zander Fish" (eat it a lot, have nooo idea what it is), and trout play a very large part in the cuisine of Alsace, but I don't think that they're Brasserie food.

Edited to add this note after reading RAHiggins1's post: the people of Alsace define the word "convivial"! This is one of the reasons we go there so much. The people are effervescent, and is contagious. And many restaurants, though not "brasseries", have two separate menus, one traditional/contemporary French food, and one featuring local Fare. Some restaurants have both menus in the same room, and some have different dining rooms for each menu.

And then you get the "Tarte Flambée" places which require special ovens, and also serve a few other dishes as well, but are neither "brasseries" or "restaurants".

(I don't know if I helped you FG, or added to the confusion.)


Edited by markk (log)

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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When I think of a Brasserie, at least in Paris, I think of big bustling places, which serve late into the night, where one can eat at most times of the day, places like Bofinger, Terminus nord, and la Coupole which serve big platters of shellfish, and dishes like choucroute, sole meuniere, and filet de boeuf. Most brasseries are also open 7 days a week and I don't think they close in August. In contrast, a bistro is a much smaller place, serving traditional cuisine at moderate prices, in a laid back, convivial atomosphere and the dining times are more set. They are likely to close on Sunday and Monday and for a few weeks in August. There are certainly overlaps between the two however and today's bistros in Paris are changing, with more modern takes on the classics. Today, in France you hear the words néo bistro and bistronomique to describe today's bistros as opposed to something more classical.


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"In contrast, a bistro is a much smaller place, serving traditional cuisine at moderate prices, in a laid back, convivial atomosphere and the dining times are more set. They are likely to close on Sunday and Monday"

Works for me !!

I would add that i have always like the origin on the word Bistrot, meaning "quick" to add the element of a fairly speedy service.

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When I think of a Brasserie, at least in Paris, I think of big bustling places, which serve late into the night, where one can eat at most times of the day, places like Bofinger, Terminus nord, and la Coupole which serve big platters of shellfish, and dishes like choucroute, sole meuniere, and filet de boeuf.  Most brasseries are also open 7 days a week and I don't think they close in August.  In contrast, a bistro is a much smaller place, serving traditional cuisine at moderate prices, in a laid back, convivial atomosphere and the dining times are more set. They are likely to close on Sunday and Monday and for a few weeks in August.  There are certainly overlaps between the two however and today's bistros in Paris are changing, with more modern takes on the classics.  Today, in France you hear the words néo bistro and bistronomique to describe today's bistros as opposed to something more classical.

Molly O'Neill, writing in the New York Times in 1996, says something similar regarding the form of the bistro and the brasserie. However, even more than a decade ago, she notes culinary convergence:

These culinary distinctions have blurred in recent years. Today, the brasserie menu has expanded to include many of the slow-cooked specialties once available only at the bistro. Brasseries now also serve the kind of rarefied dishes that once would have been considered embarrassingly fey in such a well-lighted place.

I'm curious, though. Felice, you've given a clear, concise statement of what I'd call the formal distinction. But does that distinction hold up in fact? I'm asking, because I don't know the answer: are there restaurants in Paris calling themselves bistros that are really brasseries, and vice-versa? Or do restaurants in Paris without exception honor the formal distinction?

I would add that i have always like the origin on the word Bistrot, meaning "quick" to add the element of a fairly speedy service.

There does not seem to be agreement on that point.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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So, what would you say defines the difference in the two? Style of restaurant or menu, or both? Does the food and beverage of either have to meet any guidelines to call themselves either name?

If I were to open a diner and call it a Bistro because I put a pat of normandy butter on top of your pancakes would it be ok? I'd say American restaurantiers will do as they will with total disregard to what should be.

I personally would walk in the door of French American Brasserie here in Atlanta and expect brasserie with the possibilty of some bistro style cuisine mixed in with some classic american faire as well.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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I'm curious, though. Felice, you've given a clear, concise statement of what I'd call the formal distinction. But does that distinction hold up in fact? I'm asking, because I don't know the answer: are there restaurants in Paris calling themselves bistros that are really brasseries, and vice-versa? Or do restaurants in Paris without exception honor the formal distinction?

This is just the feeling I get from the Brasseries and Bistros I have been to in Paris, so I am not sure that these are the definitive rules, but it does seem to hold up in most cases. All of the brasseries I have been to (Bofinger,Terminus Nord, Flo, Julien, Lipp, la Coupole, le Gallopin, le Vaudeville) are also historic landmarks so there is something monumental about them, which is quite the opposite with bistros, which are typically more simple. But bistro styles vary widely in Paris, with some being quite modern and others rustic. I suppose there are also examples of modern brasseries, which don't really fit the traditional mold (expect being big, bustling and serving 7 days a week, at all hours) but I just haven't been to many.


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All of the brasseries I have been to (Bofinger,Terminus Nord, Flo, Julien, Lipp, la Coupole, le Gallopin, le Vaudeville) are also historic landmarks so there is something monumental about them, which is quite the opposite with bistros, which are typically more simple. 

One interesting note there is that most of the places mentioned in that list -- at least Bofinger, Julien, Terminus Nord, La Coupole and Brasserie Flo -- are operated by the Groupe Flo. This makes me wonder whether the Parisian concept of the brasserie is something historically derived or something invented by a restaurant group. Of course it could be a little of both.

I'm also wondering about a place like Benoit. It calls itself a bistro but seems borderline. L’Amis Louis too.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hello,

I can't speak about the non-French meanings of Brasserie and Bistro. I can only explain those words in the French context.

I think I have already stated those principles elsewhere; chances are it was in the France forum, so I'll leave Phyllis or John insert a link to that, which I can't locate right now.

First of all the fact that most brasseries in Paris are gathered under the ownership of a few large groups is a recent phenomenon and has nothing to do with the origin of brasseries, who were all independently owned at first. The groups are Flo/Bucher (Alsatian family), the Blanc brothers, and Costes (Rouergue/Massif central family), and probably one or two more.

Second, to sum up the situation (details will be given if asked, this is really a rough summary):

- BISTROT: Parisian phenomenon (which had equivalents in other cities, for instance the Lyon bouchon). Appeared early 20th century. Cultural origin: Massif central (Auvergne, Rouergue, Vivarais). Sociological origin: the "exode rural", a consequence of urbanization and the industrial revolution which emptied the countryside and led much of the French rural population to Paris and the large towns to find their luck. Now according to your region of origin you might work in different fields of activity, i.e. Savoyards would often become chimney-sweepers, Breton women would become cleaning women or nannies, sometimes prostitutes; Auvergnats would often start small businesses of "vins, bois et charbons" (wines, firewood and coal), or bougnats, where wine would be also served as well as simple, country-style food. The main characteristics of the Paris bistrot were already defined by the bougnat. Some old bistrots bear the traces of that, see the Café Charbon in rue Oberkampf to see what a large bougnat used to look like, or a smaller place like Chardenoux in rue Jules-Vallès, or the Bistrot Paul-Bert, etc.

It has to be mentioned that until recently most corner cafés in Paris were run by families of Rouergue or Auvergne origin (more Rouergue and Aveyron than Auvergne). The Costes are one of the families who succeeded the most.

Now the Paris bistrot has a rather complex origin since it also derives from another type of working-class restaurant, the bouillon or crèmerie, where simple food was also served for workers and locals. The combination of the bougnat (rural, Auvergne-Rouergue cuisine — coq au vin, petit salé aux lentilles, cassoulet, haricot de mouton, etc.) and the bouillon-crèmerie and other cheap restaurants (Parisian cuisine bourgeoise) produced the culinary répertoire of the bistrot.

- BRASSERIE: Parisian phenomenon (but existed also in other cities). Appeared late 19th century. Cultural origin: Alsace and Lorraine. Sociological origin: the "exode rural", same as above. Unlike bougnats and bistrots, the brasseries were since their origin large, brightly-lit places, where Alsatian-Lorraine food and beer were served. Often located in busy places, on large squares and at important street corners, brasseries also had a festive dimension since their origin. Hence the choucroute and pression, pied de cochon, but also oysters, as well as other "brasserie" dishes which also have their origin in French cuisine bourgeoise.

Now the similarities between bistrot and brasserie cooking — sticking to the original répertoire of each one — are simply due to the fact that these always were French urban restaurants, appeared roughly at the same period, based on regional origins and catering to a popular clientele. Hence the strong presence of French cuisine bourgeoise and I should say working-class cuisine bourgeoise (there used to be a time when cuisine bourgeoise was a common heritage, even for the lower classes), beside the more regional dishes proposed by each formula.

The visual similarities between traditional bistrots and brasseries (mirrors, brass, Moleskine seats, sometimes floor mosaics and painted glass, zinc-covered bar counters, etc.) are only caused by their common historical origin, since they appeared during the same period and bear the mark of that period.

As for the prices, well it is generally understood that a bistrot should serve cheap food and brasserie slightly more expensive food, but that is not absolutely true. The disappearance of the true Paris bistrots (during the 1970s) made way to all sorts of pricing but the tradition somewhat remained. However, bistrots like Benoît were always expensive, and there were other examples. It is not considered that a bistrot should necessarily be cheap. The era of the Euro has put a brutal end to any sort of gentle pricing anyway.

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I'm curious, though. Felice, you've given a clear, concise statement of what I'd call the formal distinction. But does that distinction hold up in fact? I'm asking, because I don't know the answer: are there restaurants in Paris calling themselves bistros that are really brasseries, and vice-versa? Or do restaurants in Paris without exception honor the formal distinction?

Though there are discussions in Paris about what is a bistrot, what it is not, what it should be, what it used to be, etc., everyone more or less agrees on what a brasserie is (Felice's description sums it up quite well). The only slight confusion might arise from the question whether a large, bustling café is or not a brasserie. Many large cafés that are not repertoried as classical brasseries the way La Lorraine or Bofinger are do advertise themselves as "brasseries" and as long as they serve beer and some plats du jour they are entitled to the name. On the other hand any such café is sometimes called "un bistrot". I think it is rather useless to figure that out since the terminology is blurry even for Parisians. The term "troquet" is more precise and means any street café.

I have to add that there are large bistrots (many less now than there used to be) and small brasseries, though that is not the general rule. Size does not necessarily define the place, style and origin rather do. Bistrots and brasseries do overlap though, only because they are pretty much on the same historical and sociological level of popular catering.

There does not seem to be agreement on that point.

The origin of the word "bistrot" is a bit hazy but at least the so-called Russian origin ("bistro" meaning "quick") has long been discarded as pure fantasy. The word appeared in the late 1880s, much later than the Russian episode. The most likely origin is the Southern French "bistrot" and "bistroquet", respectively meaning the owner of a bar and his assistant, which would make sense given the fact that the origin of the bistrot is Southern (Auvergne and Rouergue), and the term, in a manner typical of French colloquial language, slipped from the owner ("chez le bistrot") to the place itself ("au bistrot").


Edited by Ptipois (log)

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One interesting note there is that most of the places mentioned in that list -- at least Bofinger, Julien, Terminus Nord, La Coupole and Brasserie Flo -- are operated by the Groupe Flo. This makes me wonder whether the Parisian concept of the brasserie is something historically derived or something invented by a restaurant group. Of course it could be a little of both.

There is a great article in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that is worth reading, about the outrage that takes place when loyal customers learn that Flo is taking over their beloved Brasserie Balzar. It's called "Saving the Balzar," and is found in The New Yorker, August 3, 1998, p. 39.

As Ptipois mentioned, Flo and a few other restaurant groups have bought up many of the historic brasseries, for better or for worse. I suppose it saves them from being turned into fast food places, but doesn't do much for the quality of the food. Not that the food is terrible, it's just not amazing. It doesn’t seem like talented young chefs have decided to take over many brasseries as they have with bistros.

Thank you Ptipois for all of the great historical information.


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One interesting note there is that most of the places mentioned in that list -- at least Bofinger, Julien, Terminus Nord, La Coupole and Brasserie Flo -- are operated by the Groupe Flo. This makes me wonder whether the Parisian concept of the brasserie is something historically derived or something invented by a restaurant group. Of course it could be a little of both.

There is a great article in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that is worth reading, about the outrage that takes place when loyal customers learn that Flo is taking over their beloved Brasserie Balzar. It's called "Saving the Balzar," and is found in The New Yorker, August 3, 1998, p. 39.

As Ptipois mentioned, Flo and a few other restaurant groups have bought up many of the historic brasseries, for better or for worse. I suppose it saves them from being turned into fast food places, but doesn't do much for the quality of the food. Not that the food is terrible, it's just not amazing. It doesn’t seem like talented young chefs have decided to take over many brasseries as they have with bistros.

Thank you Ptipois for all of the great historical information.

Thanks to all for the information.

Didn't find a link to the full text of the piece by Gopnik but here's the abstract: Adam Gopnik, Paris Journal, "Saving the Balzar," The New Yorker


John DePaula
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When asked “What are the secrets of good cooking? Escoffier replied, “There are three: butter, butter and butter.”

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Brasserie I've always associated with a big, bustling place, with a big bar, that serves beers (the word is French for brewery) on tap (as well as wine), focuses on Alsatian food and stays open late. Bistro I've always taken to mean a smallish mom-and-pop type restaurant, with a rather limited selection of "traditional" home-style foods.  Probably a blackboard menu type place -whatever the proprietors bought at market that morning was going on the menu that night.

In the states, I think the first great American brasserie-style restaurant was probably Stars, in San Francisco and I believe McNally loved Stars, and modeled the "classic" NYC brasserie, Balthazar, in its image.

Of course you may be too young to remember it, my young friend, but 'Brasserie' on E.53rd, hard by the Waldorf, most definitely preceded Stars. It opened in 1959.

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I was putting some cookbooks I had out on the counter away when I noticed on the cover of AB's Les Halles Cookbook that it said" Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking." I thought it odd since Les Halles is actually Brasserie Les Halles. So is there no distinction made in regards to Les Halles or is it possibly shoddy publishing?


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