Get Stuffed 

Will you bistro or brasserie?

The ins and outs of restaurant concepts

Don’t know about you, but every time I go to France and our pension owner recommends bistro this or café that for dinner, I pretty much lump them together in my mind unless they’re awfully grand or expensive. If we’ve bothered to ask it usually means we’re at the end of a long day and our respective ropes, and we’ve tried everything in the neighbourhood that looks good or we’re too weary to cross town and search out some recommended eatery.

So when Martine or Phillip suggests his favourite, we dutifully trot out and enjoy same, not really distinguishing a brasserie from a restaurant. Not until I read Martin Dorf’s Restaurants That Work , that is. There, by way of introducing prospective restaurant owners to some good working designs, he also gives we diners who are historically- and terminologically-challenged (that’s a challenge just to say!) an overview of the many restaurant styles.

Of course, these have hybridized and morphed over time, with some restaurants downplaying formality and cafés outgrowing their roots as places that serve coffee. Still, as we saw last week with the Four Seasons’ focus on the idea of bistro for their new restaurant, these are archetypal concepts that define sense of place and customer experience.

Simple cafes and high society

To undo some of the mystique, let’s start with cafés. These comfy haunts predate restaurants; they also give us an idea of how important stimulants have been in greasing the wheels of society and commerce.

Here in Canuckland, a café has come to mean a casual place, often with ma ’n’ pa or retro overtones, where we can get anything from burger and fries to a tofu stir-fry. But they began as places that served coffee and only coffee. Eventually they added brandy and sweetened wines and liquors to their menus and, later, food.

Early coffee houses opened in Venice in the 15 th century, as Venetians learned about coffee from their Muslim enemies of the time. But the first true café in the world opened in Constantinople in 1550.

In France, the evolution of the café went something like this, according to Larousse Gastronomique . After the departure of Suleiman Aga, who brought coffee in large quantities to France, an Armenian named Pascal opened a coffee shop at the Saint-Germain fair in Pairs in 1672. It was wildly successful.

As the French twigged onto the social delights of drinking coffee in public places, more cafes opened. Paris’s venerable Le Procope, which promotes itself, albeit questionably, as Paris’s first café, opened in 1686. It’s still in its original location, on Rue de l’Ancienne-Comedie, serving coffee to more tourists than philosophers and statesmen these days. But it has seen the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Diderot and Voltaire grace its tables. (Voltaire supposedly drank 40 cups of his favourite coffee/chocolate beverage there every day.)

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