Seeing as a small venue selling alcohol and rustic, home-cooked local foods is a fairly wide concept, it’s almost impossible to say when the first bistro ever opened. However, if we remember that the term was first defined in late 19th century Paris, then we can get a little closer to finding the source of the matter. Certainly, the first true bistro could have been no later than 1765. According to popular knowledge this was the year that the first resteraunt in Paris was opened by a soup vendor called Monsieur Boulanger. Before he opened up his shop, selling thick local broths and hearty bread, most Parisians would buy various foods from street vendors and then eat at home – or on the street.
A Modern Myth
Monsieur Boulanger also hung a sign above his shop proclaiming the restorative properties of his stacked soups “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins” it said – or ‘Boulanger sells the restoratives of the Gods.” This fits with the known etymology of the word resteraunt, which does in fact come from the French for restore or refresh. As the story goes, the first Bistro may have fallen foul of pre revolution French politics. Mr Boulanger added a whole sheep’s foot to one of his meals, and authorities deemed that he had crossed the line from a soup to a stew maker – and that, apparently, was a big deal. It was enough to get the new bistro owner taken to court, where he demonstrated that he did in fact cook the soup-like sauce entirely separately before adding the joint of meat. Don’t ever say the French don’t take their food seriously!
Unfortunately, though, that yarn might be just be as twisty and stinky as an 18th century Parisian back alley. There’s no concrete evidence that Mr Boulanger existed at all, let alone being the man who was taken to court for opening the first bistro. Which is a shame, but regardless – the first bistro did not exist before around that time. So now we know the origins of the first bistro-like resteraunt – but what about the word itself?
The word Bistro’s actual roots are not entirely certain, but it may come from a number of French dialect and slang terms including ‘bistraud’ (wine waiter) or ‘bistouille’, which refers to poorly made or stored alcohol. For a long time, it was thought that the word may have came from Russian occupation of Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. Cossack soldiers would frequent these cheap drinking and eating houses and summon the waiter by shouting ‘bistro, bistro’ – which means faster in their native tongue.
Even though this is now disputed by most historians, the term bistro continues to be used to designate a homely, cheap resteraunt in many parts of Russia too – including dozens of such venues in Moscow. Whatever the truth, the concept certainly has long historical associations and its great that people can continue to enjoy traditional French bistros in Paris to this very day.