Sometimes it seems there are as many bistros across America as there are Starbucks. Here we celebrate the food, wine and style of the traditional French bistro (steak bordelaise, bottles of Beaujolais, curvy wood chairs) and embrace America's adventurous innovations.
Beaujolais: The Classic Bistro Wine
Drinking Beaujolais, like dining in a bistro, is a casual endeavor. It doesn't demand deep thought or deep pockets. If you consider basic Beaujolais a bit lightweight, look into the crus Beaujolais from the region's top 10 villages. While the grape remains the same—Gamay Noir—the quality is typically several notches above that of a Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. Here are a handful of superb examples to try.
brouilly 2001 Château Thivin ($13). A ruby-colored wine with bright cherry flavor from a much loved winery.
fleurie 2001 Louis Jadot Château de Poncié ($16). As graceful as its name suggests, this wine is soft, almost seductive.
juliénas 2001 Potel-Aviron ($17). Nicolas Potel, the respected Burgundy négociant (blender, ager and seller), recently started making this elegant Beaujolais. Drink it chilled.
morgon 2002 Georges Duboeuf Jean Descombes ($12). Duboeuf, whose Beaujolais Nouveau arrives in a torrent every fall, also bottles crus, including this full-bodied Morgon.
moulin-à-vent 2001 Joseph Drouhin ($16). Though it's entirely Beaujolais, Moulin-à-Vent's strength and depth recall the wines of nearby Burgundy.
American bistros freely borrow from café and brasserie culture. But to the French, a bistro means one thing: a workaday, mom-and-pop place where Monsieur cooks and Madame takes orders. Menus are short, inexpensive and predictable. You will find steak bordelaise, crème caramel and wine by the carafe. You won't find café classics (croque-monsieur) or brasserie staples (oysters).
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Boston Troquet offers wines in 2- or 4-ounce pours and crispy-skinned duck confit (140 Boylston St.; 617-695-9463).
Cambridge, MA Like a small, family-owned French restaurant, Craigie Street Bistrot has a market menu and an all-French wine list (5 Craigie Circle; 617-497-5511).
Chicago At La Tache, Blackbird alum Dale Levitski likes to tweak the classics (1475 W. Balmoral Ave.; 773-334-7168).
Dana Point, CA Mirabeau gives homey veal blanquette haute treatment (17 Monarch Bay Plaza; 949-234-1679).
Montreal Au Pied de Cochon has foie gras 10 different ways—but no tablecloths (536 Rue Duluth E.; 514-281-1114).
Napa, CA Genuine steak bordelaise has made Angèle a winemaker's hangout (540 Main St.; 707-252-8115).
New York City Tournesol's floating island merits a trip to Queens (50-12 Vernon Blvd.; 718-472-4355).
San Francisco At Chez Papa Bistrot, Swede Ola Fendert cooks stellar Provençal seafood (1401 18th St.; 415-824-8210).
Scottsdale, AZ Zinc Bistro has a zinc bar and steamed mussels with fries (15034 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 480-603-0922).
Sonoma, CA At La Poste, co-owner François de Tessan holds court while chef Rob Larman sends out generous plates of sole meunière (599 Broadway; 707-939-3663).
The Essential Bistro Accoutrements
In France, genuine bistros would never win any design awards. If a few establishments still evoke the early 1900s with their tile floors, zinc bars, leatherette banquettes, ceiling fans and mirrored walls, that's probably just because the owners don't have the money to modernize. French bistro style is largely driven by economics: Bistros are inexpensive. So there are no cushions to soften the wood chairs. There's no coat check either; coats are flung on racks. There are no jacquard linens; tables are covered with sheets of white paper or red-and-white-checked cotton tablecloths. Even the lace curtains in the window are mass-produced. Dishes and cutlery are plain and serviceable, no more; an order of steak frites brings a steak knife because a regular one wouldn't slice through the chewy, budget cut of beef. Tumblers, carafes, oil-and-vinegar sets, aluminum bread baskets and espresso cups are all sturdy enough to take rough treatment and come from a restaurant supply house, like E. Dehillerin (www.e-dehillerin.fr). Menus are often handwritten on a mirror, or on a chalkboard that can be carried from table to table, not printed on fancy paper.
One note on American bistro decor: Those wicker chairs and round marble tables you see are strictly café style.