As with many culinary terms, the true origins of the word “bistro” (or “bistrot”) are varied. Some say it was Russian Cossacks yelling “Bystro” (Quickly!) when they wanted their food ASAP. There is a dialect in France where cowherds were called “bistreau.” Maybe cow herders opened little restaurants? Or it could be a shortened form of the slang word “bistrouille,” which is what the French call a specific type of after-dinner drink made with coffee and cheap Brandy. A modern bistro is defined by the ambiance and the food served. It should be an intimate eatery, with tables outside on the street, serving simple, home-spun food like cassoulet and fresh baguettes. In Philadelphia, a bistro is often a small, casual eatery; sometimes with outside seating and often with recipes passed down from generations.
1009 S 8th St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
This cash-only BYOB sophisticated bistro in the Italian Market has a dedicated following. It may get crowded at times in this tiny spot, like any popular Parisian bistro, but that doesn’t scare away true Francophiles (who are smart enough to make reservations). Many fans love its authenticity and come back time and again for chef/owner Pierre Calmels’ fare and his charming hostess and wife Charlotte’s attention to detail. Two of the favorite dishes are a little odd: Trotters, or Pied de Porc, is braised pig foot stuffed with foie gras and French lentils “De Puy,” while Aile de Raie is sautéed skate wing, cauliflower taboule, Meyer lemon and date brown butter for the same price of $27. The Escargots, arriving in a cool, spirally snail-like dish ($14), are tender perfection. Details like freshly plucked herbs from Bibou’s window boxes and French press-style coffee are just icing on the cake.
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246 S 11th St
Philadelphia, PA 19107
To answer your question: Zinc is named for the 1919 zinc bar that chef/owner Olivier Desaintmartin bought in Paris, refinished and shipped to Philly. Raised in Champagne, Desaintmartin’s cuisine is inspired by his beloved mother. Renowned for its cozy but not super crowded atmosphere, romantic feel and excellent service in Washington Square West, Zinc’s standouts are its Frites. The potatoes are hand-julienned, fried and drenched in butter ($6.50). Scupions Provencal, which is baby octopus in tomato concasse for $11, and Risotto de Homar lobster, risotto with egg yolk and truffle sauce for $16, are also very popular dishes. Desaintmartin’s maman would be proud of her son’s homage to her and their homeland.
Bistrot La Minette
623 S 6th St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Tucked into funky South Street, Bistrot la Minette has a French neighborhood feel. With the first bite of a fresh, house-made baguette and butter, you’ll be in love. Chef Peter Woolsey changes the menu daily, always looking for the freshest ingredients and most flavorful combinations. But the stars of the menu are the staples: doused in garlic butter, the Escargots de Bourgogne are perfectly succulent and topped with crispy croutons ($12) and the Œuf du Pêcheur combines mussels with a creamy tarragon sauce, topped with a poached egg ($11). The Private Salon can seat up to 20 guests at a long, rustic farmhouse table. Open up to the outside and you can add 30 more people. Bistrot la Minette offers several family-style menus that are sure to satisfy all of your guests.
227 S 18th St
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Steven Starr’s Parc has been called a “super sexy slice of Paris.” With its outdoor seating, awnings and view of Rittenhouse Square, Parc offers the authentic French bistro experience. Although the outside seating is great for people watching, it’s the food that brings back the customers. Parc is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and offers brunch on the weekends. Chef Robert Irvine called Parc’s Pommes Puree (mashed potatoes) the best on the popular Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” They come alongside its 1/2 Roast Chicken ($23), which is pretty amazing, too. The cocktail selection is interesting; try the Basilic – citrus vodka, elderflower liqueur, basil and cucumber ($9) make for a refreshingly delightful libation, especially while people watching at Parc’s street-side tables.
1717 Arch St
Philadelphia, PA 19103
The sparkling clean, tiny Tower Bistro in Penn Center is a takeout spot serving breakfast and lunch quickly, deliciously and reasonably. For breakfast, the regulars love the Build-Your-Own-Burrito or –Omelet, with fresh eggs and a plethora of yummy fillings for $4.75. For lunch, favorites are the Paninis ($7.25 – $8.25) and the Salad of Romaine Hearts with oven-roasted tomatoes, lemon-reggiano dressing and addictive little parmesan crisps starting at $5.75. Every day of the week features a different hot sandwich special; the Rib-Eye Sloppy Joe (Wednesday) is a sure winner.
Trish Deitemyer is a freelance writer living in Philly. She covers Food & Drink and has been writing since 1986. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.