Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city wants UNESCO to list the cafe-restaurant hybrids as world heritage sites. Can that save them from decline?
The Parisian way of life is under threat. The latest frontline on which it is being attacked is the city’s café terraces and cheap, traditional restaurants. So says a campaign launched Monday that seeks UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Status for Paris’s bistros—a campaign already endorsed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Less formal than restaurants but with more full meals than a café, these bistros are indeed a classic component of the archetypal Parisian scene. Cosy, convivial, and often busy all day long, the Parisian bistro’s classic look of wood and wicker chairs, zinc counters, and walls brightened with mirrors has been admired and copied all over the world, even if the spirit of these places has proved harder to emulate and transplant. Now, bistro defenders say, this institution is under threat, pressed under the boot of high rents and changing social habits. It’s easy to understand the concern, but will acknowledging bistros’ special place in Parisian culture actually do much to save them when the culture itself is changing?
Before answering that question, it’s worth clarifying what a bistro is—and what it isn’t. A hybrid between the café and restaurant, these establishments sprung up in the 19th century, often founded by migrants from France’s mountainous, coal-producing central Auvergne region. Their origins were humble, developed from the habit of Auvergnat coal merchants selling wine from kiosks. That’s why the world Charbon (coal) appears in many bistro and café names.
Typically more informal than restaurants, they often offer some food throughout the day. This food, usually ordered from a chalkboard, will be cooked by a proper chef and typically be heartier and less snacky than what you’d find a straight café. Staple choices might be duck confit or old-fashioned dishes like Blanquette de Veau, with maybe chocolate mousse to follow. This food can be put together with some care and seriousness, and doesn’t automatically derive from any particular region. Indeed, like Parisians themselves, bistro food is increasingly likely to have multi-cultural roots.
A classic bistro still has some air of modesty to it. It doesn’t attempt the show and sparkle of its close relative, the Brasserie—another café/restaurant hybrid that shares the drop-in informality of a bistro, but does so with more formal service, printed menus, and crisp tablecloths. Indeed, it’s partly this unfussy approach (including direct, basic service) that gives bistros their character as places where, according to a bistro owner quoted in newspaper Journal du Dimanche “the garbage man drinks his morning coffee next to top-level people.”
The bistro as a concept is still far from dead. France certainly hasn’t escaped the recent Western trend for reworking the workaday basics of yore as highly self-conscious products aimed at the luxury market. Since the late 1990s, there’s been some talk of Bistronomie—bistro gastronomy, meaning classic bistro food given a modern gastro makeover, sometimes by the well-known chefs of high-end restaurants dipping into a slightly cheaper market. The ordinary run-of-the-mill Parisian bistro is still facing a struggle. Out of 14,000 restaurants in Paris, only around 800 have the décor, service-style and modest price range to qualify as traditional bistros. Some bistros that used to function as gastronomic and cultural landmarks, meanwhile, have been forced to close.
Why? Partly because high rents are pressuring business owners to squeeze more profit out of every square meter. Parisians themselves, meanwhile, are voting with their feet. They increasingly don’t take the long lunches they used to, when everyone in a place of work might decamp to the corner bistro for at least two courses and coffee. While they still take more time to eat than most North American urbanites, French office workers are increasingly likely to order take out, and not leave their workplace for coffee. That change in habits hasn’t dried up the bistros’ clientele entirely, but it has bitten a chunk out of their customer base.
Classifying bistros as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage won’t stop them from closing. It would, however, give them a promotional platform and allow establishments that qualify as authentic bistros to advertise themselves as such, a useful crowd-puller in a city that takes its own urban heritage very seriously. Recognizing bistros as internationally valuable can also affect planning or municipal change of use decisions. The classic zinc roofs of Parisian buildings (zinc, it seems, is a big deal in Parisian heritage) have already received UNESCO intangible heritage status. The booksellers (“Bouquinistes”) that line the banks of the Seine are also under consideration. As a result, both are considered essential components of the street scene when buildings or roads are remodeled.
Such recognitions might admittedly deepen Paris’s reputation as a museum city, a place whose perfectly preserved boulevards already seem like ramparts of honey-colored stone and wrought iron raised against any uncomfortable reminder of modernity. But if you’re serious about preservation, you have to go further than bricks and mortar, whose removal is highly visible and easier to monitor.
Heritage expresses itself not only through buildings and works or art, but also through distinctively local habits and the sites where those habits are conducted. Paris would do well to look after the living rooms that have long been—and could continue to be—so central to its culture.