Guests will enter a restaurant with certain expectations towards the food, service, and overall dining experience. At a fine dining restaurant, they anticipate a waitlist, fancy printed menus, and food served with professional table service. A quick service or casual restaurant will have open seating, a soda fountain, and maybe an area designated for online order pickups.

However, most guests and restaurant operators tend to get confused about the dining expectations in a modern bistro. This stems from different restaurateurs using the word "bistro" to describe various aspects of the dining experience. To make sure there aren't any misunderstandings, we'll explore the history and the definition of bistro restaurants, as well as some of the main differences between a bistro and other types of restaurants.

What is a bistro restaurant?

A bistro is a small, simple restaurant that offers inexpensive food served in a casual and intimate setting. Most bistros serve French food or some variation of traditional French cuisine. Provençal vegetable stew, grilled ham, roasted chicken, fried egg, and steak frites (otherwise known as grilled steak and crispy fried potatoes) are all popular food dishes served in a bistro.

Even if bistro restaurants have French origins, some modern bistros don't necessarily need to serve French cuisine. They tend to serve locally inspired dishes that you wouldn't find at a typical fine dining establishment. These bistros aim to emphasize a meal-centric experience that matches the comfort of home-cooked meals in a small dining room.

Instagram of Michelin star menu winning restaurant bistro Munno Pizzera & Bistro
Munno Pizzeria & Bistro offers delicious Italian bites in a cozy bistro setting worthy of an Instagram post.

What's the origin of the word bistro?

While many people assume that bistro is simply a French word, there are some disagreements about its actual origins. Some sources claim that the word "bistro" actually derives from the Russian word for "quick."

Allegedly during the Napoleonic wars, when French soldiers would frequent small taverns, Russian soldiers would say the word "bistra," meaning "quick," to get their food as fast as possible. After hearing Russian soldiers use that word, French soldiers apparently took the word bistro to describe the small Parisian restaurants that resembled local community restaurants in Russia.

Empty bistro tables with chairs available for hungry guests looking for a bistro setting.
A bistro is the perfect place for a warm meal and cozy company with friends.

Of course, you don't need to be a French restaurant that serves traditional French food to use bistro in your restaurant name. In its contemporary use, the modern bistro can imply that a restaurant provides a down-to-earth dining experience with a small dining room, simple food, and maybe some lounge-like furniture. And no, you don't need to use French words to describe the food served at your bistro restaurant either.

Differences between bistro vs. other restaurants

People sitting at a bistro restaurant table eating and talking and laughing on a restaurant date
A bistro is a great spot for a date or a simple night out.

Since a bistro may evoke a similar guest experience that you'd find in a bar or small restaurant, it's easy to confuse bistros with other types of restaurants. Of course, even if a restaurant borrows from the bistro look or menu, a bistro will always bring a friendly and simple food experience that you might find on a street in Paris.

Bistro vs cafe

Cafes and bistros have a lot in common thanks to the simple dining experience and casual restaurant environment. Both bistros and cafes tend to serve simple meals and beverages that can be shared with another person in order to act as that "third place" where people in the local community gather.

Guests in a cafe coffee shop bistro smiling and drinking coffee and lattes.
The modern bistro and cafe are similar in many ways, but they have their differences as well.

However, there are still some major differences between bistros and cafes. Bistros tend to act more as a sit-down restaurant where patrons can eat full meals. Most cafes are not serving large meals that could be found in a restaurant at all. A cafe will offer coffee, small sandwiches, tea, and pastries you'd typically find in a coffee shop, alongside comfortable seating and a convivial atmosphere.

Bistro vs. gastro pub or bar

A bar will always ask guests to take a seat and unwind after work. Unlike most bistros, a bar doesn't typically serve meals alongside their alcoholic beverages. If a bar does serve food, that food is meant to complement the drinking experience itself. A bistro is primarily concerned with the dining experience above the drinking experience. Even if bistros serve drinks and small meals together, the food and calm atmosphere will always be prioritized.

Patrons at a bar gastro pub bistro sharing drinks and beers and cheering to the great bar bistro staff service.
A bar is a great place for a beer, mocktail, or even a simple well drink with friends.

Use tech to perfect your modern bistro

Much like any other type of restaurant, it requires a lot of hard work to manage or own a bistro that people will love. From crafting the perfect menu to making sure you've got a marketing plan that fits your restaurant type and clientele, you want the world to enjoy your bistro exactly as you imagined it. Even if those old-school bistros tend to serve either traditional French cuisine or foods with French influence, we can all agree that a contemporary bistro centers on a calm and simplified dining experience.

SpotOn point-of-sale system being used by restaurant staff and bar staff to easily serve guests
A point-of-sale might be the missing puzzle piece to your business.

With the right tech, you can make sure that the bistro experience won't be bogged down by too many screens. With SpotOn's point-of-sale system for restaurants, you get a wide range of tools to help make sure you aren't distracted from offering the quality service associated with most bistros. SpotOn's point-of-sale allows operators to create instant reports, easy online ordering implementation, and more to make sure your guests dine in comfort.

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