For a country that produces as much wine as France does, you might not expect it to be a major producer of beer, as well. It is number two in Europe for wine, after Italy, and number six for beer, behind the Netherlands. There is no doubt about it: in addition to other beverages the French love beer. Nor is it relegated to the drink of the common man: one of the country’s most beloved recent presidents was Jacques Chirac, and his favorite drink was beer. You may not be surprised to hear, therefore, that, quite a long time ago, the French evolved a special place to which to go to requite this particular thirst, and that particular place was and still is called a brasserie.
In French, the verb ‘brasser’ means ‘to brew.’ It is a word that is at the root of the noun ‘brasserie,’ which today denotes a type of eating establishment of which you find countless examples all over France, Flanders and the francophone world. Before the European Union was formed, they were esteemed as places that brewed their own beer on the premises, rather than re-selling someone else’s brew.
People frequented brasseries primarily to drink well-brewed beer, a past-time that often went on for hours, during which time many of the clients became hungry. The owners of brasseries were only too eager to expand their product range and to boost their sales, so they added the provision of simple fare that was good accompaniment to the beer. The gradual result was a type of cuisine that was relatively easy to prepare and became recognizable as distinctly brasserie fare, unsophisticated dishes that you would not normally order in a restaurant.
If the owner of the brasserie was from Auvergne (and a huge number of those in Paris were), he or she drew on the cuisine of their roots, and made steak-frites available, among other choices. If the owner was from Alsace, they were likely to provide various presentations of pork, especially a venerable sauerkraut. Owners originating from Holland, Belgium and northern France were sure to provide sea food and shell fish.
Places where people went to drink beer were naturally not very formal. Quite the contrary, they were distinctly more casual establishments than restaurants, and they opened earlier and closed later. Some opened as early as ten in the morning and many did not close until past midnight. A few stayed open until dawn, especially those found near les Halles in Paris, at one time the capital’s food distribution center, which functioned during the hours when the rest of the capital slept. Au Pied du Cochon in the first district of Paris is one of those, and (in normal times) it never closes. Onion soup served to workers ending their shift became a standard of those establishments. Brasseries all served continuously from their opening and continued offering their daily specials all day long.
Today, after the formation of the European Union, most brasseries in France no longer brew their own beer, and they instead re-sell beer brewed in professional breweries. That was the result of a concession made by the founding members of the union to Germany, which feared that its treasured breweries might be forced to lower standards to compete with cheap breweries situated in some of the other countries of the union. Germany demanded and got everyone to adopt strict rules governing the production of beer, stringent enough to ensure that producers of inferior quality brews simply could not afford to comply and went out of business.
A secondary result of providing food in brasseries was that clients were no longer constrained to frequent brasseries only to drink beer: you might choose to go to one simply to eat relatively simple fare at all hours. Gradually they evolved from being exclusively drinking establishments into casual eating establishments offering relatively simple fare in a casual atmosphere, and open both sooner and later than most restaurants. Brasseries offered still another prized value: they were less expensive than restaurants.
A further evolution was the expansion of what brasseries offered to drink. Wines, juices and soft drinks joined the array of brews, as well as spirits and liqueurs. Gradually people learned to no longer identify brasseries as places for drinking beer. Eventually cocktails joined the fray and in the 1920’s, here and there, some brasseries in Paris were proud to advertise their ‘American’ bars. Purists, however, looked down their noses at them, and bemoaned their lack of skill in the fine art of mixing cocktails. Many of them were found in the Montparnasse district of Paris, some of which are still there: La Coupole, le Select and La Rotonde. Hard to please critics, such as Ernest Hemingway, agreed, and they settled on those that came closest to the real thing, becoming regular fixtures at places that they approved, such as la Closerie des Lilas in the same district.
As they evolved, many brasseries became specialized in particular types of cuisine. Some made a niche for themselves by serving the freshest Breton oysters, shucked on the spot for each order. In Paris those included Le Dôme in the 14th district and Stella in the 16th district. Others became renowned for their snails à la bourguignonne, such as le Boulingrin in Reims or La Coupole in Paris. Brasseries Lipp and Balzar in the 6th and 5th districts of Paris and Flo in the third district (and also in Reims and Nancy) were proud of their steak tartare.
As stated earlier, you will find wonderful brasseries throughout all of France, but it is in Paris that you are spoiled with a positively magic array of them, each one with its unique character and attractions. It is not an exaggeration to say that collectively they provide you with insights into one facet of what makes France so different and valuable in comparison with other countries.
The choice of superb brasseries in Paris is so great that books have been published on the subject, and, if you can still find it, one that I recommend is Brasseries de Paris, sumptuously photographed by Yannis Vlamos, with commentary both in French and English. It was published by editions Acanthe in 2004. Perusing its countless pictures of elegant interiors of 20 Parisian brasserie establishments is a treat by itself. His book includes the following:
|Flöderer (Flo), 75010||Bouillon (Chez) Julien, 75010|
|Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse, 75006||La Fermette Marbeuf, 75008|
|Lipp, 75006||Le Grand Café Capucines, 75009|
|Le Balzar, 75005||Le Boeuf sur le Toit, 75008|
|Chez André, 75008||Le Vaudeville, 75002|
|La Coupole, 75014||L’Alsace, 75008|
|La Closerie des Lilas, 75006||L’Auberge DAB, 75116|
|Au Pied de Cochon, 75001||Le Wepler, 75018|
|Bofinger, 75004||Sébillon Elysée, 75008|
|Chez Jenny, 75003||Le Train Bleu, 75012|
The author also includes the two literary cafés, Le Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, side-by-side in the 6th district of Paris. For a tome devoted to Parisian brasseries, that will surely appear strange to some, but I don’t mind it at all. As the author acknowledges, neither is a brasserie, but they both perfectly embody the brasserie spirit, so including them makes perfect sense to me. A true French brasserie is as much a matter of style and an affair of the heart as it is of the stomach. In an ideal world you might have breakfast at one of them and either lunch or dinner at the other.
To be sure the list above is not exhaustive, and I regret the omission of some of my favourite brasseries, such as Le Grand Colbert in the second district of Paris and the Brasserie du Théâtre Montansier in Versailles, or L’Européen in the 12th district of Paris.
As I write this article, France has entered its third anti-COVID lock-down, and in-house dining and drinking at every sort of café, bar, bistro, brasserie and restaurant is forbidden throughout the whole country. When you google them, several of the brasseries mentioned above are identified as permanently closed. We hope that, whenever this pandemic is ever mastered, enterprising individuals will find ways to re-open all of them. To lose even one of them permanently would be a national tragedy.
Moreover, the pandemic is not the only threat to brasseries in France. They are an institution that has declined precipitously in numbers. It is estimated that there were 130,000 brasseries throughout France as recently as in 1900. That number was down to 34,000 in 2019.