On the Line / Bar & Nightclub / What is a Bistro?

What is a Bistro?

A bistro is a small restaurant, usually serving simple, down-to-earth food and wine. The word “bistro” is French slang for a little cafe or wine shop, so it’s no surprise that many serve European-inspired fare and have a Parisian vibe.

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1. What is a bistro?

A bistro is a small restaurant, usually serving simple, down-to-earth food and wine. The word “bistro” is French slang for a little cafe or wine shop, so it’s no surprise that many serve European-inspired fare and have a Parisian vibe. 

American bistros, however, are typically more upscale than their French counterparts and feature classic cooking techniques and traditional dishes of steak, fish, chicken, and pasta accompanied by vegetable sides. 

Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home in a cozy dining area outfitted with comfortable booths, banquettes, polished dark wood, and warm lighting. Dining rooms often feature a small bar with enough space for a few customers to pull up a stool.

2. What is the history of bistros?

The first bistros operated from the basement kitchens of Parisian apartment buildings that offered room and board to tenants. Landlords supplemented their income by opening up these kitchens to the public, serving simple food, wine, and coffee at modest prices. 

Legend has it that Russian soldiers invading Paris during the 1814 occupation shouted “bistra,” meaning “hurry!” when getting their food. This evolved into the French slang word bistro, and the name stuck. It took a while for American bistros to catch on. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when French cooking was especially in vogue, that the “corner bistro” emerged.

3. What is typically on a bistro menu?

The typical American bistro menu can be defined as classics with a twist. It’s mostly a mix of French and Italian dishes, sometimes with global influences from Asian and Latin cuisines. 

Examples of bistro basics include plates of homemade pasta, aged steaks and heritage pork chops, expertly sauced chicken, sauteed halibut and salmon, caesar salads, and fries. 

Reliable, upscale food at moderate prices is at the heart of the American bistro. Bistros and wine are nearly inseparable, and most have a deep cellar, offering bottles and wines by-the-glass. Bistros without liquor licenses usually allow guests to bring their own bottles with or without a corkage fee.

4. How do you start a bistro?

Neighborhood bistros are small, charming establishments packed with locals, and it’s not uncommon to see regular customers. A business plan will be a vital part of your startup, serving as a guideline throughout the process. 

You’ll want to highlight the specific benefits your bistro will bring to the neighborhood, the type of customer you’re hoping to attract, and how you will inspire loyalty and repeat business. 

Word-of-mouth marketing is often a great way to promote bistros. Investors love to see owners that care about the needs of customers, so outline your concept in as much detail as possible. Coming in with a clear vision and dedication will set your bistro up for success.

5. How much does it cost to start a bistro?

Startup costs for a bistro depend on the location, staffing requirements, food costs, and the business license you choose (beer and wine only or liquor). According to FreshBooks, the median price to open a restaurant is $450 per square foot, including all expenses. 

Since bistros are typically small-to-medium-sized restaurants, overhead costs may fall into this average range, but it depends on many variables such as rents in your area, staffing needs, and utilities. For instance, purchasing a restaurant that’s going out of business will be significantly less than building a bistro from the ground up.

6. Most popular types of bistros

Popular bistros boast friendly neighborhood atmospheres that encourage guests to linger. Bistros that adapt to evolving consumer tastes without changing their core as “the neighborhood spot” are the most popular. 

Inventive menu twists and a localized approach speak to the growing desire for fresh, seasonal cooking. Customers expect elevated comfort food made with high-quality seasonal ingredients. 


The corner bistro is that beloved “third space” (not home, not the workplace) with easy hospitality and gourmet food at moderate prices.

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