Restaurant 101: What’s in a Name?

Names of restaurants are more than merely assemblies of culinary words cleverly tossed together. The name of a restaurant can tell you everything from the hours of operation, the size of the staff, and how the wine will be presented.

I say CAN because– as with most things co-opted by American culture– sometimes the original intentions are lost. Like the word restaurant itself.

Initially, the name restaurant came from the name of a restorative broth that was served in 17th century Paris. In those days just before the French Revolution, many city-dwelling people took their meals at their neighborhood cook caterer’s dining room. Meals there were served family style at set times and every customer paid the same rate, whether or not there was still meat on the table by the time they sat at one of the communal tables. A salon de restaurant– salon of restoration– styled itself to capture the more discerning city-dweller, a rising middle class figure with a delicate constitution. There were many things that could lead to a delicate constitution– the fatiguing work of deep thought, the travails of living in close proximity to so many strangers, the damaging impacts of industrial fumes, the daily inhalation of foul vapors from a city that was till developing a sewage system– Parisians in such dire circumstances could restore themselves by supping on healthful consommes from the privacy of their own table, and pay only for what they consumed, a la carte. As the human constitution could find itself in need of restoration at any moment, restaurants themselves were often allowed to operate outside of the prescribed mealtimes that catering halls, by law, adhered to. What Parisian would deny Rousseau a cup of broth at 9pm when he had been so wrapped in thought about revolutionary ideas that he missed dinner?

I think of this foundation often when tasked to find a way to accommodate particularly daunting dietary restrictions and allergies in the dining room. It is, after all, the design of the institution itself to offer such patrons the restoration they seek.

But in general, here is a quick list of what you should expect from certain words and phrases in restaurant names:

What to expect from a–

Cafe: a casual venue with casual service, frequently a place with a menu heavy on the breakfast foods and coffee drinks. The same menu is typically served throughout the day, with business hours extending from early morning to late afternoon or early evening. Most cafes are not late night spots, and many rely on a counter service model where guests order and pay at a counter and food and drinks are delivered at the counter, or guests are given a number to take with them that ties them to their order.

Bistro: a casual restaurant with quick table service, usually specializing in french classic fare like Steak Frites and Moules Mariniere. A bistro (or bistrot) is boisterous, tables may be rather close together, and service will be casual. If you order a bottle of wine, it will be opened at your table and left there; don’t expect the server come by constantly to refill your glasses.

Brasserie: a slightly more upscale establishment originating in the Alsace region of France. Initially the Brasserie was intended to showcase the beer and wine of Alsace as well as the rich fare that compliments them. While the alcoholic distinction may have vanished slightly– most bistros and cafes have bars nowadays– many Brasseries do brew some of their own beer.

Chez X: roughly translated, chez means “In the home of” so Chez Fernand is to be “In the home of Fernand” where, presumably, things are done Fernand’s way. Fernand’s house, Fernand’s rules, oiui? A Chez restaurant can vary in service style, though most tend toward higher end service. There will be more service staff on hand, generally the dining room trinity of server-backwaiter-runner rather than more casual spots where the servers do most things with the support of a single busser.

Nouns: A restaurant that is merely a noun can be anything. As in The French Laundry is about is high end as it gets. But The Olive Garden is a casual family spot. There’s no real guidance here. Only a suggestion that you avail yourself of the google machine or the good old telephone to uncover things like menu style and dress code policies.

In higher end service, wine will be presented tableside, though likely opened at a side station and tasted by the sommelier or server to ensure it is ‘correct’ before it is poured for you, the wine will then be left at the side station and the staff will retrieve it to refill your glasses for you.

Other culinary traditions have their hierarchies as well. A sampling of a few, listed from most to least casual:

Japanese: Izakaya-Shokudo-Taishokuya-Kaiseki

Italian: pizzeria-Trattoria- ristorante- osteria

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