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Posted on March 3, 2020

What’s in a Word: Bistro

When you hear the word “bistro,” images of Paris and coffee, small cafés and decadent pastries float through your mind. But where did the word come from and how did it become such a staple in the Parisian inspired food industry?

Bistro Defined.

According to Merriam-Webster, a bistro is defined as, “a small or unpretentious restaurant,” or “a small bar or tavern.” The word is French, with its earliest definition in English coming to life in 1919. But where did the word come from, you ask? Let’s take a closer look at its etymology. 

The History of Bistros

According to Culinary Lore, the bistro dining establishment originated in Paris and was known for its “small, informal, comfortable restaurant that served straightforward, flavorful home-style food.” And, of course, lots of wine. 

It is believed, though disputed, that bistros were a byproduct of French boarding houses that would also serve the public meals for extra income. Further, prior to being a “bistro”, these establishments were called  “bitro” or “bistrot” which is the name for wine merchants and public housing. 

As for the etymology, there are a few theories.

  • 1814, Russian occupation of France. With Russian soldiers occupying France, these men often would visit bars, demanding service quickly. Yelling “быстро, быстро” which means soon, quickly or hurry, to a nonnative speaker, it would sound like “vee-stra, vee-stra” but with certain syllables not stressed, would also sound like bystrei. However, historians argue the logistics of this narrative as some flaws exist–why are they yelling for fast service all the time?
  • Bistrouille. For those who refute the Russian theory, there is the idea that the word derived from an alcoholic drink. A bistrouille is a drink made from coffee and brandy. The word is broken into two parts–bis meaning twice and touiller meaning to mix.
  • Bistraud. There are those who also think our alcoholic coffee story just doesn’t fit the mold. Derived from Poitou dialect, bistraud is said to mean “a lesser servant” or a wine merchant’s assistant.
  • Bistre. Some also believe that our bistro is a product of the word bistre, which is the shade of brown cast by the bottles behind the bar.

Whatever narrative you believe, one this is for certain, we certainly don’t have a clear history of the word.

But, you may ask since we have a term, how can you call one restaurant versus another a bistro?

Bistro Vs. Café

To have a bistro, you first must have a café. The word café means coffee in French, but in Italy, it is spelled caffe and is a place where a person can find coffee. These establishments are typically limited in menu items and are very intimate.

A bistro is more or less a super café. Menu items are more vast and have a longer shelf life. Similar to a café, a bistro is a more intimate dining establishment that just happens to serve alcohol, too.

A Complicated History of Bistro. But an Uncomplicated Dining Experience at Le Manhattan Bistro.

While the history of the bistro is a rather complicated one, our love of Le Manhattan is very easy to understand: great food, amazing atmosphere, and a wonderful experience.

Book your reservations today to experience all things bistro right in NEPA.

We look forward to serving you outstanding cuisine at all of our fine establishments:                                        

The Beaumont Inn;

The River Street Jazz Cafe;



Cork Bar & Restaurant;

Le Manhattan Bistro;

Fire and Ice