Paris Travel Tip: Cafes vs Bistros vs Brasseries


The more time I’ve spent in Paris, the more I’ve come to realize the importance of café life in French culture. Cafés are seats of sociability and discussion as well as windows on a constantly changing view. Cafés are the perfect spot for a morning coffee and croissant, a mid-afternoon sit-down, and a glass of wine, a salad or a sandwich, and people-watching all day long.

Bistros are a notch above cafés when it comes to food selection, and lunch and dinner are served at set times. Traditional bistros are small, unpretentious, and family run, offering good quality classic French fare, such as foie gras, steak frites, confit, cassoulet. Le Fontaine de Mars and Le Petit Troquet are two wonderful examples.

Neo-bistros are hot right now. They can be tiny (fewer than 20 seats) and are run by young, classically trained chefs pursuing their own vision of affordable, market-driven cuisine. Original food, reasonable prices, and limited seating means reservations are essential.

Brasseries are generally larger, more brightly lit and more animated than bistros. Food is served from early morning until late at night, not just at meal times. Ambiance sets brasseries apart—expect high ceilings, large windows, mirrored walls, and ornate, turn-of-the-century decor. Brasseries are great places for special occasions, group gatherings, and authentic, regional cuisine. Many are open daily. Brasserie Flo is one of my faves.

Attention: an entrée in France is a starter; the main course is referred to as the plat.

Do you have a favorite Paris cafe? bistro? brasserie? We’d love to hear about it!

Côté Place

When the smiling server at Ma Bourgogne, under the arcades at Place des Vosges, didn’t have room for our group of 6, he sent us across the side street to Côté Place, adding that it was the “continuation” of their restaurant.

I wondered, looking at the simple wooden exterior and small red awning, if this was really the case. But I needn’t have worried. On a sunny day, the terrace at Ma Bourgogne is hard to beat. But for a thoroughly enjoyable meal indoors, Côté Place is perfect.

You can see the Place des Vosges from the window of Côté Place, but otherwise, you would swear you were far from Paris, in a Burgundy bistro. Dark leather banquettes, small wooden tables, etched glass, and Art Nouveau lamps gives the restaurant a cozy, elegant feel.

Specialties include snails, saucisson from Beaujolais, and steak tartare – traditional fare, served in copious amounts. Our server suggested excellent, affordable wines, and his friendly manner made us feel at home.

2, rue des Francs Bourgeois 75003, tel 01 42 71 27 40

Les Côtelettes

Value seekers and wine enthusiasts will love Les Côtelettes – a family-owned bistro where desserts are homemade, herbs come from the chef’s potager, and meat and wine come from small-scale French producers.

At lunch, the 15 euro formule offers a limited selection, but lots of winners: rillette, free range chicken, wonderful dorade (sea bream), wholesome desserts featuring fruit and soft cheeses.

A la carte, products come from all over the map – Brittany mussels, Charolais beef, cheese from a small town in western France, to name just a few.

The menu changes regularly, as does the 50 bottle wine list.  Service is polished and friendly, and while the location is central, it’s off the beaten path, on an impasse, or dead-end street, near the Bastille.

Memorable, affordable, and delicious!