Transatlantic food-lovers who walked through the doors of Balthazar London earlier this year must have experienced an odd feeling of double-familiarity – a kind of déjà-déjà-vu. For the new London incarnation of Kevin McNally's legendary all-day restaurant in New York's SoHo district is an almost exact replica of the original (the layout, the interior, the lighting, the bar, the food).
"If you took a sleeping pill in New York and went to sleep and woke up in London," says Balthazar chef Robert Reid, "you probably wouldn't know the difference." But here's the thing: you may also experience a jolt of familiarity that says, "I've been in at least 20 restaurants lately that looked like this, and they all remind me of a place in Paris…"
Have you noticed how many new eating-houses borrow the décor from a Paris bistro or brasserie in the 1920s/1930s? Look at the red-leather banquettes, the bentwood bar stools, the wooden block floor, and the brass rail that runs round the back of the diners' heads. So many lookalikes of Le Dôme and La Coupole have sprung up in London lately, you'd swear an edict had been issued by Gastronomy Central, insisting that, whatever design a new restaurateur may be considering (new-wave Italian, basement dude-food, minimalist Japanese), only the Paris brasserie look will do.
Kevin McNally's partner in Balthazar London is Richard Caring, the Croesus-emulating boss of Caprice Holdings. Until recently Caring owned the Côte chain of reasonably priced French bistros. They were, and are, wildly successful. The latest available figures from the Zolto Cooper Profit Tracker (which lists the 50 most profitable eating-out and drinking-out companies in the UK) put Côte's 32 outlets at the top of the list, ahead of Wasabi and Nando's.
Lunchers with an eye on budgets, families wanting a break from pizza, Friday evening carousers and let's-have-one-course-before-the-movie culture vultures have all felt the benefit of Côte's two-courses-for-£7.99 deal. Personally, I cannot get through the week without a hit of its chargrilled Poulet Breton with garlic-butter sauce. But the whole concept of old-fashioned, down-to-earth French cooking in "simple" surroundings is now driving all before it.
If Balthazar was London's hottest ticket last month, the Brasserie Chavot at the Westbury Hotel in Conduit Street runs it a close second. Eric Chavot is a Michelin-starred chef who, when summoned by the Westbury, could have continued to fashion the haute cuisine at which he excels. Instead he's switched to earthy, Relais Routier stuff – beouf en daube, snails bourgignon, choucroute Alsacienne – described by Jay Rayner as "the sort of brilliant faux-paysan stuff you get when you put a culinary aristocrat in the kitchen".
Jason Atherton, the chef-patron whose star is firmly in the ascendant, opened Little Social off Regent Street some weeks ago, a sister to the Pollen Street Social across the road, and guess what? Oxblood banquettes, brass railings, polished brass bar. It's gorgeous; you don't even stop to wonder why a mocked-up late-1940s Parisian cellar should be so attractive for Londoners in 2013.
Oh, and this summer sees the return of an old friend: Le Boulestin, the flagship Covent Garden restaurant opened in 1927 by the monumentally talented Marcel Boulestin, and closed in 1998 to be taken over by (O tempora! O mores!) Pizza Hut, will ride again in St James, under the eye of Joel Kissin, Sir Terence Conran's former business partner. And what will it serve? "We will serve classic French dishes that are a lot more bistro-style than high-end brasserie style," says Kissin. "This will set us apart from so many other French brasseries that have recently opened in London."
Can he mean, say, Brasserie Zedel, the massive, all-day-long, gastro-cathedral off Piccadilly, opened in 2011 by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, serving what seems wholly authentic, unpretentious dishes at startlingly low prices? The Zedel is a curious hybrid of high-end (sumptuous Thirties) décor and low-cost food. Or the Colbert in Sloane Square, which the same duo opened to fanfare last year? Some reviewers remarked that "the brasserie décor is lovely" while others praised the "elegant French bistro-style…"
What the hell is the difference between a bistro and a brasserie? It's a conundrum to which few people have the answer. Consult The Penguin Companion to Food and you're told: "Drawing a line between a brasserie and a bistro is no easy matter." Ask the manager of the Côte Bistro in Kensington to explain how they differ from the Côte Brasserie in Sloane Square and they'll tell you they're exactly the same. One chap told me: "Brasserie is the French for bistro," which isn't as silly as it sounds because some people insist the word derives from the Russian command "Bystro!", meaning "Quickly!", and refers to the time when soldiers from the invading Russian army issued curt orders to waiters in Paris for what, in 1815, passed for "fast food".
The word brasserie goes back to the early Middle Ages; it's French for "brewery". It came to mean "place where beer is sold", then "place where beer and some vittles are sold". It's nothing fancier than a pub where you eat. "Bistro" arrived at the end of the 19th century and also meant "somewhere you can drink alcohol and eat". A popular claim is that bistros started out in the kitchens of Parisian tenement blocks, where a landlady made simple suppers for those paying for "board and lodging". It made sense for the landlord to open the kitchen to the paying public. And if things got too crowded – well, you just put some tables and chairs out on the pavement. The food would have been simple, earthy, gutsy, leguminous, chicken-in-a-pot cuisine, or sausage-and-bean cassoulets, cooked for ages.
Look around now, and marvel how far we've travelled from these beery backrooms and basement kitchens. How grand bistros and brasseries have become. Bistro 51 at Buckingham Gate boasts a "sumptuous modern menu of international cuisine [which] boasts British classics and Pan-Asian favourites" and is therefore by no stretch of the imagination a bistro at all; and the chef's special menu is £30 a head. Bistro 190 at the Gore Hotel in Queensgate boasts about its "well-earned reputation throughout London for fine food" and announces that the restaurant is "the ideal accompaniment to events at the Albert Hall, the ultimate chic place to start or finish your evening".
Shall we just remind ourselves what the new owner of Le Boulestin said? "We will serve classic French dishes that are a lot more bistro-style than high-end brasserie style… This will set us apart from so many other French brasseries that have recently opened in London." Notice the pride with which he promises his cooking will be much more earthily downmarket and "bistro" than some lah-di-dah "brasseries" he'd care to mention. In the topsy-turvy world of London restaurants, "bistro" is now synonymous with both "street-level" and "the ultimate chic" while "brasserie" can mean both "affectedly posh" and "wholly democratic".
But at least they're bringing us mounds of coq au vin and steaming bowls of moules marinières, and tuna niçoise and lamb shank and tarte fine aux pommes and roquefort and, on the whole, it you're going to be carpet-bombed with some country's national cuisine, I can think of a lot worse than the French.