The History of Bistro

Until the time of Napoleon, and continuing still some time later, the world view appears to have been that a great country proves its value and greatness by invading and conquering less powerful nations. In this way, great nations grew even larger and greater. The Roman Empire included most of Europe at one time, and later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire included not only the Germany of today, but most of Poland, and many countries to the south such as Hungary, etc.

Russia too, a huge country, had begun to flex its muscles, but Napoleon, being a very clever general, decided to invade Russia first. This would be known as the War of 1812. This was, at the time, considered very normal and was to be expected. Unfortunately, Napoleon, as Hitler would later do, fell victim not so much to the fierce Russian fighters, but to the brutal Russian winters.

As Napoleon retreated, his army was followed by the Russian forces and by the spring of 1814, Paris, the City of Light, found itself under siege.

Paris was arguably the first city in the world to establish what we call restaurants. Originally, small shops had been set up to prepare and sell soup to the inhabitants, many of whom were frequently ill from the conditions of the time. As these became more elaborate, offshoots such as small basement cafés were born. These originally catered to the inhabitants of the building, but instantly became popular with the public.

When the Russian army of occupation arrived in Paris, the soldiers immediately enjoyed the pleasures to be found in these small and easily accessible cafés where they could have a bite to eat and plenty to drink. Although seldom thought of as such, these might well have been the forerunner of the fast food establishments that are to be found on street corners all over the world today.

Legend has it that the Russian soldiers, after a few drinks, would order food and call out: “Bistro!” This loose spelling and pronunciation in Russian means, “quick”, “fast”, etc.

Not all linguists agree however, and some believe the name derives from a sort of liquor-coffee that was popular at the time, called “bistrouille”. It is believed as well that this word indicated the drinker would stand at the bar (or the zinc as it was often called). Even today, in bistros and other cafés, a beverage costs less for patrons standing at the “zinc” than it does for patrons who prefer to be served while seated at a table.

Up on the hill at the Place du Tertre (a hangout for artists as well as for tourists), a plaque mounted on the wall at Number 6 reads: “The 30th of March 1814 at this place the Cossacks threw out for the first time their quite famous “bistro”. And here on this butte and on this 180th anniversary was born the worthy ancestor of our bistros.”

While the linguistic version may be true, most people prefer the Russian legend and it looks as if it’s going to stay.