Everyone loves the idea of the classic Parisian bistro: rickety chairs, ancient drips of wax on long-drunk wine bottles, Piaf warbling from a gramophone, gruff waiters and a menu unchanged since Paul Bocuse was in pantalons courts.
The problem is that nobody – apart from a few grizzled, Ricard-swilling old-timers, tourists in search of le vrai Paris, and the occasional British food writer (usually me) – actually eats there any more. Change neither food nor decor and the bistro will die; change both, and it will no longer be a bistro, so today’s Parisian bistro serves either traditional food in a modern setting, or a contemporary menu in an old, familiar one.
In the latter category one might include Yves Camdeborde’s ground-breaking Le Comptoir du Relais, with its imaginative food – on my last visit, slow-cooked beef shin with crumbled chestnuts and a dollop of herring caviar – and L’Ami Jean, run by Stephane Jego, one of M Camdeborde’s protégés. L’Ami Jean is cramped and service is on the brusque side of friendly, but the food is a few steps up from standard bistro fare. Jego cooks a fine version of the classic lièvre à la royale (richly stewed hare), for example, and his rice pudding, with which every meal ends, is legendary.
Bistroy Les Papilles (pictured), Bertrand Bluy’s buzzy little bistro in the Latin Quarter, also boasts inspired food in a traditional setting: a velvet‑smooth pumpkin soup ladled over a tangle of herbs, chorizo and vegetable crisps, then slow-cooked lamb with a fine ratatouille. A cheese course and pudding are included in the no-choice menu; it is, in true bistro fashion, a cheek-by‑jowl experience.
At Les 110 de Taillevent, a new bistro offshoot of the grand old Paris restaurant, the decor is sleekly modern, with wine taking centre stage – 110 refers to the number of bins – but the food, though smartened up, is classic bistro fare: a slab of pâté en croûte with pink pigeon breast, pistachios and foie gras in sparkling jelly and perfect pastry is as fine a dish as any you might find in Lyon.
Yannick Alléno, the globetrotting chef who won three Michelin stars at Le Meurice, has also matched chic interiors with classic food at Terroir Parisien, his homage to the capital’s historic cuisine. Flavoursome little dishes of chunky rillettes; artfully arranged artichoke vinaigrette; steak with excellent Béarnaise and a cone of crisp shoestring frites, all served in architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s cool and elegant room. Classic cuisine, or traditional decor? Pay your money and faites votre choix.