photography by John Rizzo
“A bistro must be cozy. More than 100 seats and it isn’t a bistro.”
With Gallic certainty, Gerald Hirigoyen, chef-owner of Fringale and Pastis, two San Francisco bistros, asserts his definition of the French restaurant tradition.
Of course, not all American chefs agree with his observations.
Take Tampa’s Mise en Place, for instance. “We use American bistro as a tagline even though we have 200 seats and an American fusion menu — not French,” says Scott Carnes, Mise en Place’s manager. “But the atmosphere is warm, the food is great and the check average is relatively low — about $35 at dinner.
Housed in a spacious former bank building of high ceilings, marble walls and carved cornices, Mise en Place’s setting couldn’t be less like the wood-floored, smoke-filled, low-ceilinged bistros that dot Paris. But those attributes give the space a posh allure that Carnes says is hard to find in Florida restaurants, revealing a willingness to recreate the meaning of a contemporary American bistro.
With a genius for adapting international culinary styles to American tastes, operators have seized the bistro as the latest dining trend. Based on the best of savory French comfort foods mixed with a range of settings and designs, the new bistro is as variable as its locations from San Francisco, CA, to Springfield, MO.
Today’s bistros are defined mostly by the foods their chefs serve. “Typically, a bistro offers slow-cooked foods like braised meats,” Hirigoyen says. “We don’t know where the word bistro comes from, but it probably derives from the word for fast service. The service is fast but the preparation is long.”
(According to Larousse Gastronomique, bistro is widely reputed to have entered the French language sometime after the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815, when Cossacks seeking rapid service would bellow the Russian word for quick, bistro. Larousse, however, suggests it is more likely that bistro is an abbreviation of bistrouille, a northern French term for brandy mixed with coffee.)
“I don’t know what I would be doing if I’d stayed in France,” Hirigoyen says, “but I’ve been in this country 20 years, and I know by now what Americans like and how to give it to them. Our concept is to offer small appetizers, nice entrees and desserts–portion sizes so you don’t feel stuffed–at reasonable prices.”
While steak and fries–in Hirigoyen’s case, certified Black Angus steak with red wine, butter & pommes frites ($15)–have traditionally set the definition for bistro fare, operations can not live on beef alone. So the Fringale dinner menu offers such appetizers as warm sweetbread salad with apple & celery ($8), sea scallops with braised Belgian endive ($8) and sautéed prawns in pastis with fresh herbs ($9).
Entrees includes several of the long-cooked dishes that help define the bistro: duck leg confit with warm green lentils ($11) and beef short ribs in red wine sauce with roasted beets ($15), as well as lighter items such as steamed mussels with fried garlic vinaigrette ($11), salmon with braised leeks & fried onion ($12) and couscous with root vegetables ($11).
For restaurants with only 50 seats or so, Fringale and Pastis have surprisingly long menus and a wine list of three full pages.
“We have an extensive wine list that emphasizes California wines. Our customers are sophisticated diners who know what they like. And, again, we feature wines that help keep the price down. Our by-the-glass selections change frequently,” Hirigoyen says.
California whites sail out of the Fringale cellars. Twenty California chardonnays–from Fringale, North Coast ’94 ($20) to Kistler, Sonoma Coast ’96 ($62)–indicate that chardonnays still rule. Sauvignon blancs and sparkling wines, both domestic and imported, round out the whites.
Another page of California reds includes eight pinot noir, five zinfandel, eight merlot and 18 cabernet sauvignon. Beers, which are in less demand than wine, include Anchor Steam, standard domestic favorites, and imports from France, Germany and Canada.
Another City By Another Bay
Tampa is about as far from San Francisco as you can go on the continent and Mise en Place, owned by Chef Marty Blitzer and Maryanne Blitzer, operates as a self-defined bistro quite different from Hirigoyen’s operations, not only because of its size and setting.
“Even though we have white tablecloths and a maitre d’, we maintain a casualness,” says manager Carnes. “In fact, we insist on not going to fine dining. In the seven years we’ve been in this location, we’ve evolved but we do not want to cross that fine dining line.”
The menu here changes every day, and entrees, priced $13.95 to $20.95, are focused on regional American dishes, especially those from south Florida’s Floribbean cookery or influenced by Asian cuisine.
“Floribbean is big here,” Carnes says, “and unless you go to Miami, it’s hard to find it done as well as Marty does it. It involves a lot of tropical fruits in sauces, such as mango brown sauce on grouper, which is one reason that cabernet is our biggest wine seller.”
Except for champagnes and ports, Mise en Place stocks only domestic wines. “We carry highly allocated, hard-to-get California wines, and many of our customers get very excited by the sophistication of our wine list. They know that $30 to $40 a bottle is very reasonable for what they’re getting.”
A Tavern Built on Bourbon
Making the most of wood-burning ovens, grills and rotisserie, chef Rob Pando has developed a bistro-style menu featuring Northwest ingredients and recipes at the Red Star Tavern and Roast House in Portland, OR.
A special bar menu of favorite American-style snacks and finger foods include house-made flatbreads topped with local cheeses and meats, wood-fired burgers, rib-eye steaks, pork sandwiches from the rotisserie and poultry from the rotisserie and grill. Red Star desserts feature local produce, as well–honey hazelnut torte and apple-bourbon cake, for example.
General manager Karin Santamaria says that for the past year, Red Star has concentrated on developing the tavern portion of the business by developing the largest selection of single barrel and small batch bourbons in town, a list that includes 40 bourbons and other American whiskies, including Baker’s 7 yr. ($7.50), Gentleman Jack ($4.75), Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey 30 day ($3.75) and Booker’s ($8.50).
Santamaria has even asked some Tennessee distillers to help in the search for an old still that would be suitable as a display piece in Red Star, much the way some bistros kept wine presses visible, to remind customers that they made their own wine.
Bistros Spring Up All Over
Even in such smaller cities as Springfield, MO, (population 120,000), new bistros are being greeted with joy. Chef Peter Tinson, co-owner of Springfield’s Gallery Bistro, is very happy with the response so far. “We’ve gotten so much great press and so many people who say this is exactly what the city needed,” Tinson says.
Tinson says that his food style in the 56-seat restaurant is heavily influenced by American heartland dishes and Asian fusion cuisine. But dishes also include those influenced by Italy (gorgonzola stuffed portabella with basil-dressed field greens, priced at $3.95), and the Middle East (toasted sesame humus with grilled foccacia and olives at $2.95). Entrees include hearty American (pork loin medallions served with an apple-onion compote at $11.95, and a 12-oz. center cut Kansas City strip steak finished with mushroom sauce for $14.95), and Asian (ginger duck served with red coconut curry at $10.95). Garlic mashed potatoes and onion fritters are among the favorite sides.
Gallery Bistro’s check average at lunch is only about $8, but at dinner when more customers order wine and beer, the average goes up to $25. Wine represents 70% of beverage sales, Tinson says, with about 20% going to beer and 10% to spirits.
“We carry California, French and Italian wines, and we’re looking at Chilean,” Tinson says. “We like to carry the casual, unpretentious dining theme to the beverage list, too, so we look to value. We love all the Caymus wines, and Fox Hollow Merlot is our best selling red.”
Bistro or Not Bistro
While by some definitions, New York’s Gramercy Tavern may be the model of a contemporary up-scale new American bistro, general manager Nick Mautone says that’s not the case. “I wouldn’t consider Gramercy a bistro,” he says, “but it’s true that the tavern does have some of the aspects of a bistro.”
“Our goals for the tavern include offering customers a place where they can just drop in without reservations and find a casual, refined, comfortable place to dine and relax,” Mautone says. And with a check average of $25 for lunch and $35 at dinner, the price–for New York–is right, too.
Gramercy Tavern is divided into three distinct areas: the front “tavern,” with its long bar and seats for 40 at small, uncovered tables; the white tablecloth dining room, which has 140 seats; and a private dining room that seats 20.
Among the favorite entrees are an 8-oz. filet mignon served with balsamic caramelized onions and mashed potatoes and a wood-grilled salmon filet. The runaway favorite appetizer, large enough for a small meal, is grilled house-made chicken and pork sausage served with celery root slaw.
“We’re aggressive about promoting our beverage list,” says Mautone. “Our wine-by-the-glass list is extensive, with about 20 wines and eight champagnes to choose from. We have 16 specialty cocktails and coffee drinks that we’ve developed in-house and the drinks list describes those. Six tap beers are mostly from micro breweries and our most popular non-alcohol option is Boylan’s Birch Beer on tap.”
New Bistro On Newbury
Boston’s most popular bistro these days appears to be Stephanie’s on Newbury. Chef-owner Stephanie Sidell says she designed the place to have a homey, quaint ambiance with big chairs, green marble tabletops and a decor rich with shades of deep green, mustard and red.
“The food is homestyle, yet updated,” she says. “We have chicken pot pie, but it’s made with a reduction, not the gluey stuff that you usually find inside. And meatloaf is big lately. We make it with cheese in the center so it comes out like a cheeseburger.”
Sidell says the menu is very “price sensitive.” Lunch averages $10 to $15 and dinner $15 to $35. While she can occasionally menu a special rack of lamb at $28, most of her customers look at the prices first.
The average price for a bottle of wine is $28. “We cluster the prices right around that figure,” Sidell reports, and chardonnay and merlot by the glass or the bottle are number one sellers.
In the cold months, the bistro seats 65, and when the outdoor cafe opens in spring, another 30 seats are available. “We serve about 4,500 people a week during the summer,” Sidell says.
Bistro-style operations, whether authentic or reinvented with American permutations, have shown how to fill a niche between fine dining and burger bars. The best of them provide customers with small, neighborhood spots where they can find great food and beverages at reasonable prices.
Stephanie’s and other New American Bistros are helping to bridge the gap between burger bars and white tablecloth operations. And as their patrons absorb another dining trend, the smart operator is discovering that new flavors mean another opportunity for beverage pairings and profits.