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The relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere associated with Parisian bistros reflects their origins. Most of the first bistros started out as cafe-charbons – shops that sold coal and firewood for heating, where neighbors could meet for a glass of wine or cup of coffee. When the owners of these simple wine bars began to offer a few modest dishes served family style to their guests, the bistro tradition was born. These first bistros were places for working people to eat quickly around Les Halles, the historic market distric of Paris. By the mid-1800s, neighborhood bistros had popped up in almost every district of the city. Along with the laboreers came artist and intellectuals, atracted by delicious, inexpensive meals.

For Parisians who lived in apartments with limited or non-existent kitchens, the closest thing to a home-cooked meal could be found at neighborhood bistros. And because the same patrons returned night after night, these restaurants offered more than old-fashioned country cuisine — they were also places where Parisians could escape the anonymity of the big city. In France, bistro cuisine is often called cuisine de grand-mere. The simple salads and steaks, braised stews and meats, and comforting, homespun desserts served in most bistros are the kinds of dishes you would expect to be served by a French grandmother.

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