Vive le Bistro

For two centuries, bistros have provided Parisians with a place to eat, drink and discuss the news of the day. Now these cherished institutions are in danger of dying out unless Alain Fontaine gets his way

WORDS Boyd Farrow
December 2018

Photography by Laura Stevens

In a city brimming with cultural treasures, Le Bistrot Verdeau would not seem to be very high in the pecking order. A modest eatery in Passage Verdeau, a 19th-century glass-ceilinged arcade in the Grands Boulevards district of Paris, it is sparsely decorated, with simple white carnations on the tables. Outside, customers sit on wicker chairs, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes or picking languidly at the remains of their lunch.

Inside, owner Francois Cresper is wiping the bartop and chatting with a regular, a young artist named Theophile. Le Bistrot Verdeau is approaching its 50th year in business, Cresper says, and in that time the decor and menu have barely changed. Each lunchtime, he serves around 60 plates of very French, resolutely heavy meals like confit de canard and andouillette, a coarse sausage made with offal. “My customers wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.

“That’s true,” says Theophile, sliding his espresso cup to one side. “My father has been coming here for the boeuf provençale for 30 years. He has friends who have been coming for much longer.”

A former tech salesman from Brittany, Cresper does not consider himself to be a born restaurateur. “I was in Paris in 2005 and I stopped here for a drink,” he recalls of his first encounter with the bistro. “Ten years later, I happened to come here again and that time the owner said he was thinking of retiring. After a bottle of wine, I made him an offer.”

Now, Cresper lives above the bistro with his wife and children and their cat, Napoleon. “It is hard work and long hours,” he says, “but I really enjoy it.” There is a wistful tone to his voice as he says this, as if he is speaking about something that has passed.

The team at Le Bistrot Verdeau

The French are known for being protective of their heritage, often to a fault, but with the city’s bistros the hand-wringing might be warranted. Thirty years ago, these small, inexpensive eateries—as much a part of local life as the London pub or the New York deli—accounted for half the city’s restaurants. Today, according to Alain Fontaine, whose historic bistro, Le Mesturet, is a 10-minute stroll from Passage Verdeau, that figure stands at around 15 percent. A combination of spiraling rents, heightened competition and changing tastes have put Paris’ bistros on the endangered list (although the 2008 smoking ban shouldn’t be overlooked as a cause). “It is a cultural catastrophe,” says Fontaine. “A bistro isn’t just somewhere to eat or drink. It is the home of the Parisian art de vivre.”

In an effort to turn the tide, Fontaine is spearheading a campaign for UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, to grant bistros “intangible cultural heritage” status, recognizing “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” Since 2008, UNESCO has honored 470 such traditions, 15 in France, including a lace-making technique in Normandy and folk dances in Brittany. Such status would, Fontaine says, both promote and protect bistros. “It is a vital step in securing survival before it is too late.”

Alain Fontaine

Fontaine’s association of bistro owners hopes to see its application examined next year, and if successful, businesses could be enjoying a UNESCO bounce by 2020. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo supports the initiative and—Fontaine confides—President Macron does, too. “He has not said anything in public, though.” The president’s silence may be due to the fact that bistros are jockeying for recognition alongside open-air booksellers along the Seine and workers who install the distinctive gray roofs on the capital’s buildings—favoritism isn’t an attractive trait in a national leader.

It’s certainly hard to think of a more Parisian scenario than the lunch rush at Le Mesturet. In his dazzling chef’s jacket, Fontaine exudes Gallic conviviality, swirling around shaking hands and slapping backs. His bistro is all about comfort—banquettes to flump onto, culinary bric-a-brac, a chandelier fashioned from wine bottles. Its most popular dishes include old-school staples like terrine de volaille fermière du Gers, a country wall of a chicken terrine with tarragon and white wine jelly, and blanquette de veau, a creamy veal stew.

There has been a bistro on Le Mesturet’s site since 1883, a history that can be traced in the sepia photos lining the uneven stairs to Fontaine’s basement office. He bought the property in 2003, partly “out of love” for its heritage, and partly because its location—between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre—intersects with his own history. “My family moved here from Brussels in 1784, before the French Revolution. I am the ninth generation living in this neighborhood,” he says.

“The bistro is my life, but I believe they are the life and soul of Paris, too.”

Fontaine continues, warming to the subject. “They have always been the one place people of every background and social class can go to, from morning to night, to drink, get an affordable meal and discuss the issues of the day.” He points to the bistro’s cultural heritage: Hemingway and Fitzgerald scribbling at Café du Dôme; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir squabbling at Les Deux Magots. “Think of every movie ever set in this city,” he says. “Like the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame, the bistro is Paris.”

While some fight to preserve bistros for sentimental reasons, the people who rely on them for easy companionship and cheap food have more pressing concerns. Complicating matters further is the so-called bistronomie movement, which has seen many of Paris’ top chefs adding casual spots to their roster of Michelin-star-laden establishments. Today, two decades after the movement started, restaurateurs across Paris are offering cozier dining rooms, shorter menus and relatively simple dishes using high-quality local produce. In other words: nouveaux bistros.

Le Bistrot Verdeau

Alain Ducasse, holder of 21 Michelin stars and owner of more than 30 restaurants worldwide, has gone a slightly different route, painstakingly restoring three of Paris’ most famous bistros: Aux Lyonnais, which originally opened in 1890; the glass-paneled Benoit, which Ducasse has cloned in New York and Tokyo; and Allard, founded in 1932 by “mother cook” Marthe Allard, whose signature dishes—Challans duck, shoulder of Limousin lamb—are still among its most popular.   

While these picture-postcard eateries offer gourmet versions of classic bistro fare, they do not provide the egalitarian, all-day experience of the bistro itself—the purists might be happy, but what about the old guy who just wants to get out of the house with his dog?

Ducasse understands the value of this tradition, but he is also a realist. “For years, bistros have been part of the neighborhood, where all ages, professions and genders can meet and share a moment,” he says. “Is it going to change? Yes. The entire food scene is changing simply because Parisians’ pace of life and expectations are changing. Bistros are evolving just like the rest of French cuisine.”

This view is echoed by Sébastien Demorand, one of France’s leading food writers. “Over the past 15 years or so, we have seen more gourmet bistros catering to more contemporary tastes,” he says. “But this is making high-quality dining accessible to more people, while preserving the heritage of classic bistro dishes.”

Demorand, along with a business partner, opened his own culinary venture, Le Bel Ordinaire, a hybrid of bar, restaurant, wine shop and gourmet grocer in the 10th Arrondissement. It’s telling, perhaps, that one of his most popular items is the standard bistro appetizer: hard-boiled eggs with mayo. “We make the mayonnaise twice a day and boil the eggs for exactly seven minutes and 30 seconds,” Demorand says. “We even have ketchup, but we make it ourselves.”

Benoît Duval-Arnould of Le Bon Georges

Among the more notable neo-bistros is Le Bon Georges, close to the Paris Opéra, which was opened in 2013 by Benoît Duval-Arnould, who prefers to see himself as reviving a tradition rather than reinventing it. He is evangelical about the provenance of his ingredients. His beef comes from cattle raised in Lorraine, while most of his vegetables come from fields just outside Paris. Menus, scrawled on large blackboards, change almost daily.

“Today we have seared tuna steaks because I managed to get an exceptional 72-kilo fish from one of my regular suppliers,” he says. “Tomorrow I am getting three lambs from an organic farm on Île d’Yeu, an island off the Vendée coast.” After a pause, he deadpans: “I can probably find out the lambs’ names.”

The 48-seat bistro, with its creaky furnishings and tiled floor, is full most lunchtimes and evenings, and is sometimes booked up weeks in advance. “For me, a bistro is all about making people feel comfortable and serving plats canailles, dishes that make them feel happy and nostalgic,” Duval-Arnould says. “People’s approach to cuisine has changed in the last five years. They’re tired of TV chefs putting chocolate on the fish.”

As with many bistro owners, Duval-Arnould says the long hours, tough physical work and a strong sense of community make his a vocation rather than a job. “I understand why fewer young people want to enter this industry,” he says. “In many ways, you do need to be crazy.”

And yet, while Le Bon Georges has the look and feel of a traditional bistro, there are some aspects that distinguish it from its predecessors, such as the 1,200-bottle wine cellar, whose prices top out at around €3,000. For the proprietor, though, even this somewhat lofty addition has its roots in the spirit of the neighborhood joints of old. As he puts it: “The days of the long lunch are not yet over.”


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