Decrypting French Restaurants: Brasseries, Bistros, Table d’Hôtes & More

different types of French restaurants-- a guide to what to expect, including etiquette and prices

With its some 40,000 restaurants and eateries, Paris is, as poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen quipped in a signing of his own lithograph print depicting the capital, “the great mouth culture”. And you could extend his observation to France as a whole, of course.

But newcomers to that sophisticated food culture may find themselves intimidated by its complexity. And it’s not only a question of having to decrypt the menus (often only in French). Sometimes, the simple matter of figuring out what the restaurant in question serves, how and when it serves it, and the sorts of table manners, tipping expectations, dress codes, and other etiquette associated with it can be truly challenging for visitors and tourists in France.

After all, just what are the key differences between a café-brasserie, bistrot, restaurant gastronomique, table d’hôte, and a place offering “restauration rapide”? And how to know (roughly) what to expect in each format of eatery, whether in Paris or elsewhere? How to behave? What can you order– and are there times when certain items are unavailable? Many tourists who’ve been laughed at by a server for requesting coffee at 6 pm, or eggs at 11:30 am, can no doubt relate to the anxiety.

What follows is far from exhaustive (which means that I’ve no doubt left certain niche restaurant formats out). But I do hope to offer an at-a-glance-guide to the types of restaurants you can expect to encounter on your trip to France, and a bit of reassurance and guidance around how to navigate them. For more in-depth tips on table manners and customs, see my full guide on French etiquette.

1. The Café-Brasserie

Typical French brasserie in Paris
“brasserie” by zoetnet is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is probably the sort of restaurant you most associate with Parisian people-watching, sidewalk terrace-loafing, and servers in traditional black-and-white uniforms frantically pacing back and forth with laden platters balanced on one arm. Also sometimes referred to as a bar-brasserie or a café-restaurant, this most typical of semi-formal French eateries are found in the hundreds around Paris, and even the smallest cities and towns will generally boast a few.

They’re popular for their accessible prices, high number of options for eating and drinking, generally extended opening hours, and relatively relaxed format (although with some classic places, the vibe can be quite high-end).

And while it fell a bit out of fashion for a while during the past couple of decades in favor of more intimate and casual venues like bistros, wine bars, and modern brewhouses, the French café-brasserie is probably the format that best resists the fickle, trendy winds of the food and restaurant world.

What does “Brasserie” Mean, Anyway?

Beer brewed by the Paname Brewing Company, Paris

The term brasserie draws on the verb brasser, which refers to the process of brewing beer. This can be a bit confusing, since most present-day brasseries in France no longer brew their own beers. They do, however, typically offer a range of beers on tap– making them similar in some respects to the traditional English pub.

Note: While your average French neighborhood brasserie typically only serves a small range of beers (and generally well-known, mass-produced European brands like Heineken, Leffe, and Pelforth, there’s been something of a brewing revolution at work over the past decade or so. A new crop of microbreweries and “brew pubs”, including the Brasserie La Parisienne and the Paname Brewing Company, have been putting French beer-making back on the map. Stay tuned for a separate feature soon on craft beers and brew pubs in Paris.

The format and the service (at a “typical” cafe-brasserie)

A typical cafe in Paris, France
Image credit: Jacob Botter/Creative commons

While there are a wide variety of brasseries operating today and it’s unadvised to generalize, I’m referring here to the most typical format found in France: a spacious dining room with large windows and ample table seating. These “standard” brasseries, especially in Paris and other big cities, generally serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea.

Opening times: The typical “neighborhood” brasserie in France offers what is known as service continu, meaning food and hot meals are served throughout the day, rather than only during “normal” mealtimes. This makes them a good option for many visitors, who may find it difficult to schedule dining out within the usual timeframes (generally 12-2 pm for lunch and 7-9 or 10 pm for dinner). You might say that brasseries cater well to tourists in this respect. Brasseries are also often open late and on weekends, making them even more convenient.

The menus and pricing: Menus vary widely at brasseries, with some offering excellent deals (such as fixed-price lunch or dinner menus) and others only featuring a la carte options– the latter of which tend to be pricier. Some specialize in particular culinary regions or niches (big shellfish platters, Alsatian sauerkraut, Belgian mussels, organic or market-sourced options etc), while others boast menus that are a bit more eclectic (or bland and predictable, for that matter).

Again, there are few rules, and many more modern brasseries in France are getting creative with their food and drink offerings these days.

If you’d prefer to just have coffee, beer, or a glass of wine, this is usually possible, but be aware that during peak meal times the restaurant may reserve the majority of its tables for patrons eating lunch or dinner. Often, a few tables are set aside for drinks-only customers; these usually have not been dressed with table settings. When in doubt, ask the server.

You can also often drink at the bar– and sometimes, prices for hot and cold drinks are lower when you opt against table service.

The dress code: Brasseries can be casual to semi-formal, so before going it may be worth checking out the website to get a sense of the level of formality and the general vibe. Casual wear is fine in most, but at some of the more upmarket brasseries (such as those mentioned below) business casual to formal dress may be a better choice.

Tipping: If you opt for table service and you find it good, you can feel free to leave around 5 to 10% of the total bill as a tip. However, this is not viewed as obligatory in France.

Subtype: the “Brasserie Traditionnelle”

Brasserie Lipp
Some brasseries, like Lipp in Paris, are historic restaurants that tend to be both more formal and pricier.

I felt a need to mention that there’s a significant subtype to look out for: the “brasserie traditionnelle”. These historic brasseries are often more formal and expensive, and tend to feature stunning dining rooms, often dating to the 19th century or the “Belle Epoque” (turn-of-the-twentieth century).

{Related: Some of the Most Beautiful Restaurants in Paris}

Art-deco and art-nouveau features such as stained glass or glass cupola ceilings, brass bars, enormous mirrors, statues, and white-tableclothed tables are typical features in many of the best traditional Parisian brasseries.

The Beefbar restaurant is another historic Paris brasserie and one of the most beautiful in the capital.

Some, like the Lipp, La Coupole, and the Brasserie Bofinger, are pricier options, while the bouillons (traditional restaurants that were historically aimed at a more working-class clientele) such as the famed Bouillon Chartier, offer excellent value.

The Bouillon Chartier is popular for its budget-friendly menus in a stunning Belle-Epoque setting
The Bouillon Chartier is popular for its budget-friendly menus in a stunning Belle-Epoque setting

Just keep the following points in mind: With these more traditional and historic brasseries, you should try to reserve ahead (as they’re generally in high demand), avoid wearing overly-casual dress, and, with the exception of the more budget-friendly bouillons, expect to pay more.

Also note that these more formal establishments are generally less open to drinks-only orders, and often do not offer service continu (service outside of the usual meal times).

2. The Bistrot

Bistrot Paul Bert, Paris

Next in our (basic) typology of French restaurants is the bistrot (or bistro if you’re an English-speaker): smaller, more intimate restaurants that are typically less formal than their grander brasserie cousins, and have a familial, or even rustic, vibe about them.

Typically offering table service for set lunch and dinner hours (rather than “service continu”, or all-day service), French bistrots generally operate in smaller dining rooms with a limited number of tables (making reservations essential, particularly for the more in-demand establishments).

In Paris, many offer traditional French cuisine with a focus on seasonal ingredients and “market menus”, or creative, or fusion-inspired menus that add Asian or Middle-Eastern elements to typical dishes. Some have full bars serving wine, beer, and spirits, while others offer extensive wine lists or even their own cellars.

Some contemporary tables helmed by rising-star chefs boast an expertise in “la bistronomie“– a play on the French term for gastronomy. This usually signals a gourmet offering in a more relaxed bistrot setting (as opposed to the “gastronomic restaurants” discussed below, which are more formal in style and presentation. And many of these coveted new bistrots, such as the Bistrot Paul Bert (pictured above) have earned accolades by Michelin and other culinary guides.

There are regional variations of this type of restaurant, of course– for example, the Lyon “bouchon” which is a small, generally family-owned restaurant specialized in typical Lyonnais cuisine (think quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings in a creamy sauce) and pink-praline tart, among other regional dishes). And in places like Alsace, you’ll find the winstub, a wine tavern that also serves typical Alsatian cuisine such as sauerkraut and sausages.

And in reality, any small, intimate restaurant offering any variety of cuisine– whether pan-Asian or French, Italian or Spanish or Greek– might legitimately claim the title of bistrot.

In short, it’s just too wide a category to really pin down, these days.

What does “bistrot” mean, anyway?

The etymology of bistrot is somewhat disputed. Legend has it that the word was coined in Paris, possible at a traditional table in Montmartre during the Napoleonic wars, after servers heard Russian troops eating at the restaurant yell “Bistro! Bistro!” (быстро, or “quickly!” in Russian). The lore goes that the restaurant then adopted the term that to signal to customers that they could expect expedient service there, and the name subsequently caught on as a restaurant category.

However, the term was only first recorded in 1884, and many linguists believe the account above is apocryphal (in other words, the stuff of myths).

{Related: The Weird & Disputed History of the French Croissant}

Whatever its origins, today the term bistro suggests warmth, conviviality, and authentic, passionate cooking.

The format and the service

Dishes at Froufrou, a modern bistro in Paris'  9th arrondissement/Instagram
Dishes at Froufrou, a modern bistro in Paris’ 9th arrondissement/Instagram

As mentioned above, it’s not accurate to make generalizations about the format and service at French bistrots, since there are so many varieties and styles operating these days. However, you can usually expect a laid-back, intimate setting, with a small number of tables that may or may not be set with tablecloths.

The most popular format these days is a rustic, sometimes even shambolic one, with heavily decorated interiors , an open bar or even kitchen where you can see the chefs at work. There’s often low light, music playing, vintage artwork on the walls, and the heavy hum of conversation carrying amid sounds of clattering tableware. Dark wood, exposed brick, stone walls, or even underground, cellar dining rooms are all popular these days.

Le Bouchon Bordelais, a bistrot in Bordeaux I highly recommend
Le Bouchon Bordelais, a bistrot in Bordeaux I highly recommend

Menus are often scrawled on blackboards or on the walls, and bistrots typically offer excellent value with set lunch, dinner, and/or tasting menus. Unless the bistrot also advertises itself as a bar, it’s often not accepted for patrons to only order drinks– but sometimes you can get away with drinks and dessert if you’ve already eaten elsewhere.

The dress code is typically casual to semi-formal, depending on the standing of the restaurant. To be safe, avoid dressing too casually or formally– a middle-ground is generally the best at these types of places.

Tipping: As with brasseries and more formal restaurants, if service is good, you can feel to leave between 5 to 10% of the total bill as a tip at bistros.

If you’re looking for a good bistrot in Paris, and particularly a table with creative cooking or “bistronomic” credentials, this guide is especially useful. See this page for suggestions on some of the best traditional (and contemporary) bouchons in Lyon.

3. The “Restaurant Gastronomique”

The Dalí dining room at Le Meurice, Paris

The “restaurant gastronomique” (gastronomic restaurant) is a preferred term when referring to higher-end restaurants in France, whether with or without Michelin stars attached to them. Many, though not all, are associated with luxury hotels, acclaimed chefs, or both (think Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée Hotel in Paris, a three-star Michelin affair) .

While some restaurants that attach the term “gastronomique” to their name offer good value, you can generally expect most to charge quite a bit for their fare, ambience, service and presentation. Any restaurants with Michelin stars will obviously adhere to painstaking standards around how guests are welcomed, served and attended to, and you can expect the presentation of each dish to be thoughtful, if not stunning. And these days, plenty of superb tables in France are “starless”– sometimes even by choice, and the promise of more creative freedom or less anxiety.

Especially in Paris, the bill will easily spill over 100 Euros per person (sometimes much more) at a gastronomic restaurant, especially if you opt for several courses with wine. However, you can often make the experience more affordable by booking a table at lunch, when fixed-price menus are often at their most reasonable. See more on this in my guide to saving money on dining in Paris (and elsewhere in France).

The format and the service

While some restaurants billing themselves as “gastronomique” have a more relaxed setting, they probably fall more appropriately into the category of the high-end bistro or brasserie (see above). Your traditional gastronomic French restaurant is formal and oozes prestige: expect crisp white tablecloths, grand dining rooms with impeccable hygiene and opulent details, and highly-trained, uniformed staff who rarely engage in small talk or joke with patrons.

There’s a deep sense of propriety and tradition operating in these sorts of places. And it can feel a little intimidating, or even cold, for those who prefer a warmer and more casual setting.

Visitors might also find themselves anxious about etiquette: which fork to use for which course? Is it ok to scrape one’s own table of crumbs? And what should I do with the bread if i have no dedicated plate for it? Try to relax, and have a bit of wine. No one cares all that much how you’ve unfolded your napkin. But to feel prepared, see my restaurant etiquette tips.

The menus: Most restaurants in this category offer a range of options, from a la carte to fixed-price, multicourse menus and chef’s “tasting menus”, sometimes complete with wine pairings for each course. While the tasting menus can be the most expensive, they often also offer the most in-depth experience of the restaurant and a given chef’s talents, so can make for an excellent special occasion or gift.

The dress code & tipping: You’ll generally want to dress somewhat formally at one of these restaurants. Don’t dress for an evening at the opera, necessarily, but avoid jeans and t-shirts, certainly. As for tipping, it is customary to add between 5 to 15% of the total bill, offering a tip at the higher end of the range if the service is excellent.

To find a good gastronomic table in France, browse the selection at Michelin, which you can search by type of cuisine, city, number of stars or price range.

4. The “Table d’Hôte”

Less familiar to most non-French speakers is the table d’hôte, a restaurant (often attached to a hotel or inn, but not always) that offers restricted options for dining, typically in the form of one or more fixed-price menus (menu au prix fixe). Very often, there’s only one.

This can be a boon or a bummer, depending on how much you value choice. And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to always verify that the menu includes one or more plant-based options (preferably something more substantial than shredded carrots and beets).

The format and the service

The table d’hôte, which literally means host’s table, is generally a semi-formal to formal dining room that is either attached to a hotel, inn or bed-and-breakfast (more often the latter) or is independent. Some are referred to as “Auberges”. Traditionally, meals are served at a collective table at which all guests from the establishment sit and get to know each other, but these days many inns offer more private dining options.

Prices and ambience very widely depending on the establishment. Some are rustic, charmingly countrified dining rooms attached to tiny, family-owned inns. Others are grandiose dining rooms within stately French homes or chateaux converted into luxury inns.

Since you typically aren’t able to choose your feast, make sure to research the menu/s in advance and tell the owners or managers about any dietary restrictions or allergies. Sometimes they will accommodate these, and sometimes you may be met with a shrug and a “c’est pas possible!”(it’s not possible!)– at which point, you’ll have to find someplace else to dine.

What does 'table d'hote" mean in French?

Breakfast and brunch is increasingly the chief meal served at inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments, but some continue to also offer lunch and/or dinner.

In Paris, supper clubs and pop-up restaurants organized by well-known or up-and-coming chefs are sometimes referred to as tables d’hôtes. They can be difficult to learn about and reserve a spot for, but can offer culturally enriching (and delicious) experiences.

Dress codes and tipping: Dress codes at tables d’hotes can vary widely, depending on the establishment. It’s always best to ask the owner or peek in and see what other guests are wearing before you go. As for tips, these tend not to be expected in these sorts of establishments, but again, feel free to take cues from other diners.

5. The Bar à Vin (Wine Bar)

Flacon wine bar in Bordeaux
Wine and cheese plate at Le Flacon, Bordeaux, France/Image by Courtney Traub

More casual than your average restaurant, but increasingly popular among gastronomes, is the bar à vin (wine bar). Once wholly casual places where locals would sit on barrels to enjoy a simple glass of wine and perhaps a bit of charcuterie or cheese before a main meal, many wine bars in France are now genuine culinary destinations, offering a pleasant combination of laid-back, rustic, warm settings and delicious wines, accompanied by decent-to-superb food.

The format and the service

Wine and cheese from Au Sauvignon, Paris

Wine bars typically offer table service, but often seating is casual, such as on stools with barrels doubling as tables. Others have counter seating. The menus (often scrawled on walls or blackboards) can be quite simple, with food options mostly restricted to cheese and charcuterie plates accompanied by fresh bread, to elaborate and gastronomic.

Contemporary and much-lauded wine bars in the capital, such as Frenchie and Le Verre Volé, regularly appear in Michelin and other guides. Chefs such as Grégory Marchand (of Frenchie) serve sophisticated dishes and small plates alongside more traditional platters.

A dish served at Frenchie Bar à Vin, Rue du Nil, Paris/Courtesy of Frenchie/Official FB page
A dish served at Frenchie Bar à Vin, Rue du Nil, Paris/Courtesy of Frenchie/Official FB page

In terms of dress codes, they’re usually all but absent at wine bars, but in Paris and other big cities you’ll often notice people dressed stylishly for a drink and/or dinner nevertheless. You can feel free to show up in torn jeans and a big t-shirt if you feel like it, though (and may even be mistaken for one of the “fashion people” if the look happens to be trending at the time).

The prices at wine bars can vary widely. They’re typically less expensive (for lunch or dinner) than a traditional bistrot or sit-down restaurant with table service, but the trendier, more recent addresses can put quite a dent in your budget if you’re not careful. Try to order by the glass if you need to save money, and go for large sharing platters over small plates, since the former tend to offer better value.

Finally, in terms of tipping, the same rule applies to wine bars as it does to other sit-down restaurants: feel free to leave 5 or 10% for decent to excellent service.

See our guide to the best wine bars in Bordeaux for an in-depth look at where to taste and lounge in one of France’s vintnering capitals, and this one (at TripSavvy) at some of the best spots in Paris for a glass accompanied by creative small plates.

6. The “Service Rapide” or “Restauration Rapide” Restaurant

A vendor prepares Manouché, or fresh Lebanese pizza, at a restauration rapide (fast-food) stand near the Centre Pompidou. mage credit: @Jasmin Bleu

Finally, it may seem a bit unnecessary or obvious to include this one, but the last major restaurant type you’ll encounter in France is the one offering restauration rapide or service rapide-– both French terms for fast food.

The format and the service

The service format, offering, and quality vary greatly between these types of eateries. Some, including global chains like McDonald’s and Quick, pre-prepare items en masse (and the quality is accordingly mediocre). Others make their specialties to order (such as with the Lebanese pizzas shown above) and can be best categorised as “street food”, both for their quality and authenticity.

In some places, you can sit in and scarf down your pizza, crèpe, croque-monsieur, sandwich or burger, while others are tiny stands with no seating at all, or perhaps have one or two small tables out on the sidewalk.

Some are casual food “bars” serving specialities from Japanese bento boxes or ramen in heaping bowls to Vietnamese Pho and Middle-Eastern schwarma or falafel. Some have alcohol licenses and sell wine, beer, or even cocktails, while others serve only non-alcoholic beverages.

Bento box from Juji-Ya, Paris

In all cases, the prices are (generally) quite low, food is prepared and served in an informal manner (generally ordered and paid for at the counter, but some offer table service), and tips aren’t usually required or expected (though if a jar is present, they’re no doubt strongly appreciated). And choosing these sorts of places for at least some of your meals out can aid greatly, of course, in sticking to your budget.

Most, but not all, restaurants serving street or fast food offer service continu (as mentioned above, this means they serve food outside of what are considered “normal” meal times. Some are open late into the night.

{Related: My Top Tips for Eating Out on a Budget in France}

To gobble down some of the best street food in Paris, see this page. Also see our feature on the best crepes and creperies in the capital. And if you’re in the mood for steaming bowls of ramen or delicious bento boxes, check out our feature on the best Japanese restaurants (including spots for a quick lunch) on Rue-Sainte Anne in Paris.

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