The notion of 'restaurants' came to France after the revolution when the unemployed chefs of the noble families founded the precursors of today's restaurants.
This happened at about the same time as the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson. The head start this gave the French, coupled with their natural love of regulation and food, in that order (both things were sadly lacking in our convict forebears), has allowed them to develop a strong cultural framework within which to operate.
At all levels, from the humblest cafe to the greatest of the three star restaurants there is a fundamental requirement that the establishment provides the food, service and ambience that is correct for its type and price bracket, whether it be Taillevent or a truck stop.
This is the reason that the names in world usage for eating houses are French and it is why, in France, these names have precise meanings.
Following is a description of the various eating houses, a resume of the services they provide, a list of the staff required to provide these services and examples, in Paris, of the different types.
A Cafe provides coffee, drinks and snacks at the bar. These could consist of a hard boiled egg, a baguette with ham or a Croque Monsieur, some also have, although usually only at lunch, a very simple cheap menu consisting of one or two dishes often cooked by the proprietor's wife. Service is bustling, usually by the owner who doubles behind the bar, ambience is laminex table tops with perhaps some frilly plastic doilies. The cost would be $5.00 to $20.00 (1990 prices). Good examples are Cafe du Capuccines and Cafe du Concorde. The proprietor, his wife and an assistant normally provide all.
A Bistro is a small modest establishment, it includes those thousands of simple places that take up half the footpaths of Paris. The menu is short and would include dishes such as Coq au Vin, Bavette (low quality steak), Salade Niçoise and Côte de Porc. They are used for a simple well priced meal in pleasant surroundings with competent waiters bustling around. Service is fast and prices are low. Bistros must turn their tables over to make a profit. The cost would range from $15.00 to $30.00 (1990 prices) for food. Some French examples are Cafe du Cherche Midi, Le Quercy and Polidor. A Bistro would boast a chef and an assistant; a waiter would be expected to serve food and drink to thirty covers (seats) and turn them over once or twice a night; the owner would do the bar and the cash.
A Brasserie is larger and more elaborate than a Bistro. Its distinguishing features are size - large; opening hours - long; availability of food - throughout the day. The menu is reasonably long and well priced. Typical dishes are Fruits de Mer, Choucroute Alsacienne, grills and simple fish dishes. Service is rapid from overworked waiters dressed in black and white. Traditionally many of the dishes are plated in the room. The surroundings are often quite smart and the atmosphere is one of noise and bustle, generated by the turnover of tables that their low prices require to make a profit. The food is rationalised but reasonable.
A brasserie is a pleasurable place to visit but not a major dining experience. It is used in a number of ways, for lunch, for a drink, for dinner and for supper. French examples are La Coupole, Flo and Au Pied de Cochon. The cost would be between $20 and $70 (1990 prices).
A brasserie would employ a chef and four assistants for approximately two hundred customers a day. A waiter would serve similar numbers to his compatriot in a bistro and there would be a barman and a maitre d'hotel overseeing the seating and service.
A restaurant provides a setting, service, food and wine list that is correct. The word correct means that the food is refined, the service attentive and the tables are properly spaced in a well appointed dining room. The food would be Haute Cuisine with sophisticated forays into the other branches of French cooking. You would spend the evening dining here, it would be a major event. The examples include all the great and famous three star restaurants of France (Taillevent, Roubuchon, l'Ambroisie) and also many simpler places such as Pierre Vedel or Lou Landes. Cost would be between $50 and $150 (1990 prices) for food.
A three star restaurant, in France, seating 80 would have a director in charge of the dining room; who would, in some cases be assisted by a premier maitre d'hotel followed by at least two maitre d'hotels each overseeing a chef de rang (waiter) each assisted by one or two commis waiters (junior waiters) there would also be two sommeliers (wine-waiters) In most cases there would also be a barman, cashier, toilet assistants and doorman. There would be almost no turnover of tables. The kitchen brigade would be from 14 to 20 consisting of executive chef, and sous chef plus four chefs de parties and eight junior chefs.
The customer staff ratio for a three star restaurant is around one staff member to two customers, for a brasserie one to twenty and for a bistro one to thirty (including the owners as staff). The ingredients used in the dishes at the various establishments would range from simple cheap things like pigs' trotters in a bistro to crayfish in a restaurant. During his visit to us Alain Chapel had a dish that required a scallop fumet, he poached 30 kilos of scallops, threw the scallops away and used the liquor they had produced.
Clearly only the top rank of restaurants operate with a staff level as high as this but equally clearly a restaurant must be more expensive than a cafe. As many brasseries are terrific you may wonder what all these expensive highly trained staff are doing. They are providing the level of service and the refinement of food that is required in a restaurant. That you may prefer the bustle of a brasserie, or even its food, is irrelevant, a restaurant provides a specific style of food and service.