Nowadays you can call any restaurant a Bistro, if you so choose, and you just like the French connection, or you want to set a mood, etc. In fact, using the word bistro to describe a restaurant or as part of the name of a restaurant, has become so widespread and is used in so many different ways, it is in danger of becoming meaningless, if it has not done so already. There are debates on what kind of food can rightly be called bistro food and what cannot, but about the most you can pin down about the American version is that it is casual, but sometimes not even that. However, originally, the bistro came about in Paris France, and was a small, informal, comfortable restaurant that served straightforward, flavorful home-style food, with generous portions and quick service. And lots of wine. It was Paris.
The typical story has it that these restaurants derived from French boarding houses that opened their kitchen to the public to bring in some extra money. It is often also added that these restaurants served wine, and indeed, the definition of bitro or bistrot is sometimes given as wine merchant and public house, with wine being the main item sold in these establishments. Of course, coffee was also served. As for the origins of the word “bistro” itself, etymologists are not certain, and a couple of different versions are passed around.
A popular origin tale places the words beginnings during the Russian occupation of Paris from 1814 to 1820, when Emperor Alexander I of Russia lead during the Napoleonic Wars. Russian soldiers would come into these restaurants wanting quick service; so they would shout “bystro!” Bystro which is быстро in Cyrillic, means “quickly” or “hurry.” This would have sounded more like “Vee-stra, vee-stra” to our ears but Anatoly Liberman explains that the stress would have fallen on the last syllable, not the first as in bistro. He gives the approximation of the word as bystrei.
The French supposedly heard this word and adopted it as bistro (bistrot) for the name of any small, informal restaurant. There are many, many problems with this tale. One problem is that the story details change too often. Sometimes it’s regular Russian troops; other times it’s Cossacks. As well, sometimes it’s said that only wine was ordered by the troops, not full meals, which is a bit strange, since what regular Russian troops would have wanted wine? Perhaps they were out of vodka or, as will be discussed below, they had no alcohol and just ordered what was available. It is possible that Russian officers who were highfalutin and into the whole French thing might have ordered wine, but it is almost certain they would have spoken French and wouldn’t have shouted bystro in Russian.
At times, the restaurants along Elysian Fields Avenue are specifically mentioned and other times this is left out. A particular commander, Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov, is often said to the leader of these particular troops who shouted bystro, but Surorov was dead before the Russians ever occupied Paris. There are other problems with this story that could be discussed as well. One thing that if often left unexplored is just why the Russian troops would have come into these cozy little places and rudely shouted “hurry up” in a foreign language. They would really have no reason to behave like this. Despite the fact they were an occupying force, they were not “barbarians.” Some writers have supplied the detail, therefore, that the troops were unhappy with the off-hand treatment they received at the hands of some of the restaurant keepers. Another explanation is that it was the Cossacks, and they were not allowed to drink alcohol, so they were in a hurry so as not to get caught out by their officers. There has never been any reason given why Cossacks are specifically singled out as the soldiers responsible in some versions of the story. I, furthermore, do not know whether there was an alcohol prohibition in place for Russian troops and such extended research is beyond the scope of this post, as it would do little to prove or disprove the story.
In his book The Authentic Bistros of Paris, François Thomazeau tells a story about the legendary “tournee des grand ducs,” when the Russian czar and his posse, hosted by the French president Sadi Carnot, went on a wild bar-hop or “pub crawl,” in a night of drunken debauchery, going from bar to bar, presumably demanding quick service. Although this may have happened, it probably got pinned onto the bistro origin legend later on and, unless he drunkenness is an excuse, the czar and his entourage would have almost certainly spoken fluent French. Regardless of all this, this would have been recognizably rude behavior from an occupying force, so why in the world would it be adopted as the general name for these little joints?
Perhaps the most telling reason that the story is unlikely is that the earliest use of the word bistrothat has been found in the French language is in 1884, a full 64 years after the Russian occupation. The word does not appear in English, by the way, until the 1920’s (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1922). For Italian, it’s 1931. It is not like bistro was a dirty slang word so there is no good reason for it to have taken so long for it to appear in print, if it truly derived from the Russians. It is almost certain that this origin of the word is incorrect. For a more detailed discussion of the Russian story, with many excellent counter-arguments, see David L. Gold’s Studies in Etymology and Etiology. 1
Among many questions he brings up about the story, an excellent one is, if these establishments came to be called bistros after the Russian occupation, but obviously existed before that, what were they called prior to the Russians? They had to have been called something, but no other name has ever been recorded. The most likely explanation? They did not exist during that period and were instead a development of the second half of the century, which is when we see evidence for the word emerging.
Although this story has been repeated over and over by the Parisian’s themselves, which explains the many different versions, We can dismiss the Russian story, and move on to the proposed etymological origins. One possible origin of the term is that it is short for bistrouille, the name of a French drink made from coffee and brandy. Bistrouille derives from bis, meaning twice, and touiller, meaning to mix. This referred to the fact that the coffee was first mixed with milk and then with brandy, so “twice mixed.” Said the long way this is café mélangé avec de l’eau-de-vie which means coffee mixed with eau-de-vie. This is the kind of thing you might order in a bistro or cafe, but it must have been pretty popular to have become the name of the restaurants. Another interpretation of the word bistouille is that it is slang for “bad alcohol” meaning a cheap wine mixed with an even cheaper alcohol (probably a nasty neutral spirit of some kind). I’m not sure what kind of sense that is supposed to make as the origin of bistro. As far as I can tell, bistrouille and bitouille are two versions of the same word, both referring to the coffee laced with brandy drink, but I could be wrong. The mixed alcohol and wine drink could have gotten the same name since the origins of the word have the same sense of mixing.
Another possibility sometimes given is the word bistraud from the Poitou dialect, which is said to mean “a lesser servant” but sometimes also said to mean “young cowherd” or “little shepherd.” On top of that, is also said to refer to a wine merchant’s assistant or even a place that served wine. Sounds like somebody is stretching things a bit.
Yet another is the French word bistre, supposedly describing the brown shade cast by the bottles behind the bar on the zinc counters that were traditional. All of this sounds far-fetched, to me, and the real story of the origins of bistro is that we don’t know the real story.
- Gold, David L., Antonio Lillo Buades, and Félix Rodríquez González. Studies in Etymology and Etiology: With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance and Slavic Languages. Alicante: Universidad De Alicante, 2009, 19-47.