The newly-landed Anglophone expat might be interested to learn that the distinction between French eating and drinking places (cafés, bistrots, bars, brasseries and restaurants) is becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases these words can be used to mean more or less the same thing.
The most common of French eating and drinking places is, of course, the café. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village one, usually owned and run by a local (unlike the frequently brewery-owned British ‘tied’ pub run by a manager having no previous connections with the village) who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. One thing all French cafés have without exception, however, is some kind of terrace – the larger ones being capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside. Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night, and serve a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, both hot and cold. And you can always get something to eat. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time of day you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached. They all provide a place where shoppers, strollers or tourists can have a bite to eat, slake their thirst or relax on the terrace and simply watch the world go by, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. A small-town or village café is, therefore, an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time.
Sometimes a café is a bar-tabac: the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagents shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds. Some are even licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are sometimes PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) licensed. The PMU is a sort of State-controlled betting organization, mainly centred on horse-racing.
Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistrot is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting, and available at most times of the day.
In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or even on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing up or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually has a terrace of some description – even when it’s located inside. And you can usually get some kind of snack there, too.
Larger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though you can get all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, Sauerkraut, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries – especially in Paris – can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking, however, is not normally required.