Bistro Seduction

This is why I love the bistro-style restaurant, and why I love the French for giving it to the world: because I walked off a dark New York sidewalk the other night, and into a warm room I’d simply happened across, and entered a kind of timeless human gaiety. It’s curious, if you think about it: No other restaurant form is so faithfully reproduced, right down to the lettering on the menu and the décor and the waiter uniforms. (Do I overstate the case? Is the basic Chinese restaurant or burrito joint or sushi joint equally beloved and copied? I’m not sure.)

We Americans, in particular, have become so good at reproducing bistros that the best of them could serve as period-piece movie sets. A great example of this is Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which stands as a genuine monument of devotion to the form—a kind of high temple, in the deeply unlikely setting of Yountville, California. It’s almost as if a piece of France had been bought lock, stock, and barrel and shipped ’round the Horn.

Other examples are Balthazar and Pastis, in New York; and yet another is Artisanal, the midtown-Manhattan bistro I entered alone, hungry and thirsty and far from home on a late night.

Every table was taken in the huge, boisterous room—a Friday night the weekend before Thanksgiving, life basically good—but I found a free one by the bar and ordered a plate of grilled octopus with new potatoes and smoked paprika (a true bistro dish? I’m not certain; perhaps). To drink, I asked for a glass of Ridge Zinfandel, hoping it would pick up the earthy notes of the grill and offer enough spice to match the paprika. Young women sat beside me—no more than 25, in the city from somewhere nearby, but outside. Laden with shopping bags, they looked thrilled to be ordering dinner and wine like grown-ups.

The waiter promised me that the bouillabaisse was “the real thing,” not at all an excuse to unload yesterday’s fish, and he promised to ask the sommelier for just the right wine. And then he delivered on both: a simple and beautiful bowl of fish stew that came wildly alive when I added that dollop of aioli; and an Austrian Pinot Blanc in a tall stem. I was growing a little drunk by that point—I have a ridiculously low tolerance, despite my regular drinking—but I was so carried away by the mood of the room and the people around me and the relief of being able to share in the buoyancy of strangers that I ordered a Cahors next, a blend of Tannat and Malbec, to go with a slice of cheese.

I suppose I wanted to stretch the night out: The bistro spell was working so, so well, reaching so deep into my weariness and wiping it away, that I wanted to perform every part of the old bistro ritual. I wanted also to watch a little longer, as so many smiling, prosperous New York faces chattered and laughed out loud and called to black-vested waiters with white shirt sleeves, and raised glasses and dropped forks and declared some movie wonderful or friend preposterous. I wanted to sip more and more wine and let the tannins fall mute against the fermented milk fat coating my mouth and feel my balance fall apart and my face flush as one handsome, well-heeled couple after another came through the front door and pressed to the bar and ordered Lillet or Beaumes de Venise and eyed my table and every other—life going so ridiculously well for so many people, all things considered.

Because I knew that once I stepped back into the night, the cold would return, and the emptiness, and the distance I felt from my family in San Francisco. These are not tragedies—not even close. But they turn the mind toward all that is sobering. The bistro form does just the opposite, at least when the form is done right and, most important of all, is filled with customers willing to believe.

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