Eating in France
in a Brasserie or a Bistro

By Diane Condon-Boutier

You’ve got yet another meal option to feed your wanderings in France.

There are lots of small establishments which carry the name brasserie, not to be confused of course with brassiere. Remember to be careful of your spelling when you label your photos once you’re back home, or you’ll be reaping lots of raised eyebrows when you write about where you had lunch. Hmmm… Back on track…

What is a brasserie? It’s a sort of café/restaurant which serves a less formal menu of main dishes.


Salades Composées

You’ll find salads under the title salades composées. This means lots of stuff in your salad, making a meal of it and not just some greenery on the side, to make you feel good about ordering a burger. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a burger at a brasserie. That’s a good thing, believe me.

Some salads have toasted goat’s cheese (really yummy) with real bacon bits- lardons, a hard boiled egg, sometimes avocado, corn kernels, shredded carrots, Swiss cheese chunks, mushroom slices, tuna or ham. You name it, you can put it in a salade compose! It’s a kind-of an “empty-the-fridge-of-left-over-raw-veggies-and-any-meat- available” mixture served with a vinaigrette dressing.

Don’t expect to find your choice of dressings. The French just basically do vinaigrette dressings, but they do them well, using olive oil and good flavored vinegars. After all, good vinegar comes from leftover good wine gone bad, and who has good wine? Although how any of it ever gets leftover long enough to make it to the vinegar jar is an unsolved mystery.


Steak-frites

On the menu at a brasserie you’ll most likely find the traditional steak-frites which has become a staple of the working person’s lunch. This is a smallish piece of beefsteak grilled to your liking, unless you go for really well done.

The cook hates it when you order “well done” beef. Honestly, he really hates it. It’s going to turn your not-very-thick-cut-of-steak quite tough and he’ll be unhappy to have to punish you in this fashion. Most often he tries to slip you a “medium” instead of a “well done”. If you can stand it, try eating the medium, because the “insisting by sending it back to be re-cooked” part is going to ruffle some feathers.

You won’t want the cook to get mad at you or the other stuff on your plate will be charred along with your meat. Cooks get very huffy when they think, that you think, they’ve done a bad job.

Beware of a huffy cook! (Your mother or your wife should have already given you some pretty graphic examples of what can happen to you if you huff up the cook! I’m certain that my family knows better than to huffle me too much when I’m in the kitchen!)

Truly, part of the problem comes from the size of the cut. It is not the size of a porterhouse or a NY strip. It’s just a steak for lunch. Read - smaller portion.

If you insist on ordering “well done” you most likely will hear the waiter use the expression un morceau de semelle meaning literally a piece of shoe leather sole. Most French people eat meat bleeding and hardly even dead at all. So your “well done” request will garner you some raised eyebrows and snorting.

They’re not far from the truth, but then again I like shoe leather steak. So, in order to obtain some nicely dried out, very well done meat to give my jaw muscles a good work out, I cook my own at home and most often order the not at all cooked salade composée at a brasserie. No huffy cook, no charred veggies on the side. It’s called “the safety zone”!


French Fries... (And Ice)

The good news is that you’ll get a ton of thick cut fries which are almost always very tasty. The French do very good French-fries. “But of course!” you exclaim, “look at the name! They’d have to be good!” While that could seem obvious, I have to admit it is also very true. You’ll have to ask for the ketchup though. And when you use your charming American accent while doing so, you just might catch a small, smirky smile from the waiter, especially if you’re drinking cola with ice.

You’ll most probably have to ask for the ice as well, unless it’s a very hot day. Ice isn’t mandatory here. You might get just one or two cubes when you ask for it. This, by the way, is about the only place you’ll be able to get away with that. Drinking cola with your lunch might slide by unnoticed here, or in a café with your foot long sandwich. However, this small rule bending is allowed in cafés or brasseries only! Not in restaurants!


Le plat du jour

Le plat du jour is the main dish of the day. Usually it’s very good. The cook knows how to do it and it’s quite often at a bargain price, because he’s made up a lot of it. Give it a try! It’s what the other patrons are eating at the brasserie, and thus very French.


Desserts!

After you’ve finished your meal, there’s some good news. You can order dessert here! As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, dessert eating is pretty common. The portions are lifesize and won’t kill you. It’s not necessarily overindulgence. Mousse au chocolat is a good thing to try. It’s lighter than a pastry and made with wonderful dark chocolate. Creamy and cool, it can be refreshing.

Ice cream desserts are also very popular. You might try a Poire Belle Hélène or a Pêche Melba. For some odd reason, I’ve noticed that Frenchmen actually like it when a woman orders dessert. It’s some weird sign that they equate with something of a sexual nature which I can’t really explain, even if I truly understood what was going on there. But like it they do, and you’ll get an admiring glance or two from your meal-mates if you eat up your dessert. It’s kind of strange.


Coffee to finish

Coffee finishes off your meal. The punch in a tiny cup of expresso will get you up off your seat and back on the pavement, guidebook in hand.


Beer!

One last tidbit of information: the word brasserie actually comes from the verb brasser which means “to brew”. I’ll let you guess what lots of French people drink with their lunch… no, not cola with ice… a beer.

There are lots of very well known French beers: Kronenbourg, Carlsberg, Obernai, and Fischer, just to name a few. The French really like their beer on tap. Apparently it has something to do with the naturally fermented bubbles that come from it’s stewing in kegs. I’ve heard that bottled beer has an additive to make up for this bubbly effect which can cause headaches, but the opinions on that point are divided.

French beers are mostly blonde, lager type beers: easy to swallow, no bitter aftertaste. Also available are quite a few imported beers from Belgium, Holland and Germany, but you can go there on a different trip! If you like beer, you’ll be fine.

By the way, it is perfectly acceptable to sip a beer at the terrace of a café or brasserie and people watch after 11:30am any day of the week. No one is going to think you’re overdoing it.

Vive la France!


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