They can be posh high-end or just like an old friend's dining room and these sociable staples are undergoing a chef-led revolution.
Let's hear it for steak tartare, bentwood chairs, wines by the carafe and plats du jour. Let's hear it for confit duck, tables set with paper, menu mainstays and gently singed crepes suzette. Most of all, let's hear it for that happy sense of chaos, like you've walked into someone's home just before dinner.
Born in France but found around the world wherever potatoes, bread, cheese and steak are sold, bistros are traditionally fast-paced places where the focus is not so much on fine dining as on feeding hungry people.
Those familiar with the concept will scan down the menu and expect to find soupe a l'oignon, steak frites, tarte tatin. And for those who aren't so familiar with the bistro oeuvre? Well, it's pretty hard not to feel good about onion soup with cheese on toast, steak and chips, and an upside-down apple tart for dessert.
Most bistro menus share common dishes, but no two bistros are the same. They can be experimental, or extremely safe. Gaspingly expensive and famous, or obscure and back-pocket friendly. At the heart of it, though, the formula remains universal: rambunctious, hospitable and built for comfort.
I guess people make it their own house a bit more. They feel more relaxed in it and they're just themselves.Chef Nicholas Hill, Porcine
The rub, of course, is that Sydney's restaurant scene never stays comfortable for long. And not even the humble bistro is safe. Recently, three young chefs have opened three very different versions of the genre.
There's the elevated-classic French Bistrot 916 in Potts Point, with chefs Michael Clift and Daniel Pepperell at the helm. On the surface, with its moody lighting and blushing pink tablecloths, it looks every bit the bistro you'd find during a wander through Paris's 11th arrondissement. But on the plate, it's a little more subversive.
"We wanted to do food that was more of an occasion," says Pepperell, whose career is dotted with restaurants famous for freedom of expression. As opening chef at celebrated city French restaurant Hubert back in 2016, his menu was a nonconformist love letter to classical French cooking. At Bistrot 916, he offers a slightly more grown-up version of that, winking to the classics, in a style that's all his own.
Loligo squidlets, no bigger than the top of a lady's thumb, are drowned in their own ink and cooked a la plancha (Spanish-style, on a flat-top grill) so their tiny tentacles are singed at the ends but tender everywhere else. Raw silver trevally is all mussed up on the plate with pieces of juicy torn fig and sweet slices of Meyer lemon with a lick of horseradish.
Rosy duck breast – dry-aged for five days to help create that crisp, golden skin, and served alongside a thicket of fries – is perfectly recognisable, perfectly bistro-appropriate, but then perfectly not a classic steak frites. A globe artichoke, blanched and served with a dipping dish of sherry cream enriched with a whole egg yolk, is a beautiful nod to the lost art of grown-up saucing techniques.
"I guess we just had a craving for proper dining," says Pepperell. "No one's soaking chicken livers in milk overnight to make perfect chicken liver parfait at home. That's what we do in the restaurant."
Every service at Porcine, chef Nicholas Hill presses the house-made butter into a different animal mould which, for the first tables of the evening may resemble a sleeping fawn, a leaping lake trout, or a glorious spiny lobster. By last sitting, it looks more like a pool toy left out in the sun. But the team likes it like that. It's bonne.
The Paddington restaurant opens just three nights a week above natural wine shop PnV. The rest of the time, the space is reserved for wine tastings and education evenings.
It is, at first glance, a Very Proper Bistro indeed, with its rough-hewn rillettes, Puy lentils and bruleed prune and custard tart. But in the flesh, the vibe is more Alt French house party – heavy on the meat, light on the vegetables and conducive to good times.
Fresh-faced waitstaff dressed in suede Vans sneakers and big hoop earrings serve up garlic and snail pie complete with a veal shin pie funnel.
Downstairs in the courtyard, decked out in bare brick and festoon lighting like a back alley dive bar, toasted sandwiches and Bandol rosé are served with joy and abandon.
"Sunday lunch is really relaxed where people are just chilled and happy," says Hill. "I guess people make it their own house a bit more. They feel more relaxed in it and they're just themselves."
Hill's smoked eel and potato salad might be bedded in tradition, but how many chefs are fishing their eels straight out of the Hawkesbury River, and smoking them at their mate's butchery? Or taking their house-made creme fraiche and enriching it with smoked eel oil, then covering the lot with tiny curls of fried potato?
Hill, whose resume includes Brisbane's Ecco Bistro with the legendary Philip Johnson; city fine diner Sepia under experimental chef Martin Benn, as well as London's famously tough and wonderfully delicious The Ledbury with Aussie chef Brett Graham, spent years as a self-described "tweezer geezer".
These days he wants to make food that's accessible, joyful and, most importantly, fun. "Partly," he says, "as a restaurateur you can't really afford the fuss anymore, so keeping it really simple is the best thing we can do."
Brasserie Fitz, steered by Good Food Guide 2020 Young Chef of the Year Anna Ugarte-Carral, is yet another take on the bistro concept – a bit Frenchy, a little bit Italian, a bit Spanish, with fun, easy and approachable as its guiding principles.
Here at The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo you'll find slices of raw beef lazing over buttery toasted brioche and seasoned with the salty pop of trout roe. She roasts her rice the way you might find, say, in a Northern Thai-style rice salad, but then uses Basque flavours such as spanner crab meat – a nod to her heritage.
"Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the fact Spanish food isn't well represented in Sydney. And I think it's really nice to bring it back," she says.
Ugarte-Carral, who stoked the fires alongside Lennox Hastie at Surry Hills' temple to wood-fire cookery Firedoor and Paul Carmichael at Pyrmont's fine-dining Barbadian restaurant Momofuku Seiobo, has had to adapt quickly to cooking out of a pub kitchen. She says it's been an interesting adjustment, and she has enjoyed letting go of some of the rules and formality of traditional fine dining.
"I think the spirit of a bistro gives you the room to cook food that can be really humble but also have room to give it a little flair. Which has definitely been the basis of my menu planning here," she says.
Her steak frites – bavette napped in liver sauce, delivering massive depth of flavour and French fries seasoned with a sort of nutritional yeast – is the kind of unconventional, divisive and entirely individual cooking a young chef operating with the freedom of a small bistro can really have fun with.
"Bistros are the buzzing centre of a community," she says. "I like the institutional idea of them. Like how they become a place where everyone goes to eat and it's not a big deal – almost like going over to a friend's house. Especially at the pub here because we have so many regulars – it's very communal."
Perhaps, at its core, it doesn't really matter what flavour a bistro takes on – what matters is the sense of community it develops. And that, in 2021, is a very welcome concept indeed.
Ten bistros to try
Bistro dining for the 21st century, where comfort and familiarity meets next-level cooking technique and some very neat cocktail service indeed.
Must eat: Chef Dan Pepperell's sauternes custard: silky, with a surprising hit of concentrated of sweet flavour.
22 Challis Avenue, Elizabeth Bay, 02 9167 6667, bistrot916.com
Nothing brings more joy to the indecisive than the words "plat du jour" – or plate of the day to non-Frenchies. Sign us up for Thursday's mussels and fries.
Must eat: The pure cooler season comfort of beef bourguignon.
40 Avalon Parade, Avalon Beach, 02 9918 8933, bistroboulevard.com.au
One of Sydney's OG bistros with plenty of laid-back charm, where long lunches very often turn into early dinners.
Must eat: The twice-cooked souffle rules the menu.
116A Queen Street, Woollahra, 02 9327 9713, bistromoncur.com.au
Think of this classically styled bistro as a local's local. The floors are tiled, the seats are bentwood, and there's always a dog bowl at the ready out the front for your French bulldog.
Must eat: Pissaladiere – the beautifully flaky southern French tart is finely layered with melted anchovy, caramelised onion and the bite of black olive.
50 Macleay Street, Potts Point, 02 9332 2100, bistrorex.com.au
Part pub, part restaurant, all good times and classic hits with a few new spins.
Must eat: Kind of like the kissing cousin of the Ferrero Rocher, the Sarah Bernhardt cake is a tiny, chocolatey, nutty end to dinner.
129 Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, 02 8317 3057, oldfitzroy.com.au
Grand bistro dining for the business crowd. The steak is dry-aged, the seafood is on ice, and the Champagne selection all but guarantees a sealed deal.
Must eat: The rotisserie spatchcock with figs and walnuts can't be beaten for trans-seasonal comfort eating.
2 Ash Street, Sydney, 02 9114 7303, merivale.com
Big and brassy, with a side of fries and plenty of butter, this basement bar and restaurant continues to thrill Sydney with big flavours and rich fun.
Must eat: A chicken fricassee with a side of complimentary live jazz and a perfect Manhattan? Yes please, and thank you.
15 Bligh Street, Sydney, 02 9232 0881, restauranthubert.com
Macleay Street Bistro
Over 30 years, this popular bistro has been serving the classics. May it serve for 30 more.
Must eat: French onion soup with comte cheese for the win.
73A Macleay Street, Potts Point, 02 9358 4891, macleaystbistro.com.au
Down-and-out Paris bistro meets on-the-up Paddington, invoking the spirit of the inner west.
Must eat: The bread with butter churned on-site and made from their own house-made creme fraiche is essential.
268 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 9054 3158, porcine.com.au
Parramatta Square's answer to the bistro where the Josper grill is firing and the crab on toast comes thick and fast.
Must eat: Keep it classic and order the hanger steak with a green salad and a side of fries.
Shop 4.01-4.03 Parramatta Square, 12 Darcy Street, Parramatta, 02 9169 0835, rusebarandbrasserie.com