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Food / Wine

What's the difference between a bistro and a gastro-pub?

By Charlotte Reverse

What's the difference between a bistro and a gastro-pub? Both appear to offer the same deal. On the one hand we have the pub or the bistro and on the other hand the slightly more expensive restaurant. Both Bistro and gastro-pubs aim to provide affordable quality dishes in a relaxed atmosphere.
Why is it then that a Bistro would never have the same look as a gastro-pub? First and foremost, the difference starts with the contents of the glass; a glass of red wine in a bistro and a pint in a gastro-pub. Which brings us to a non-negligible cultural difference. The bistro, which appeared in the 19th century in France, serves wine and is therefore a more modest restaurant. The dishes are good and simple. They are primarily there to accompany the wine! The gastro-pub, a more recent invention (c.1990), is effectively an up-market re-invention of the pub where chicken and chips were served in a basket or you could get a ploughman's lunch. Beer is still at the centre of the concept but the food has to be more creative, attract attention and through its quality, meet the most discerning consumer's expectation. The menus speak for themselves. In a bistro, the names of the dishes are very simply indicated. In a Gastro Pub, the dishes are verbally enhanced. Each dish is detailed to the last ingredient. However, it is fair to say that the line between gastro pub and bistro is never very well defined. Some gastro pubs have an amazing wine list and similarly, some bistros offer a remarkably creative menu. Does the name really matter if the atmosphere and the food are excellent?

Le Rendez-Vous du café

Situated in an old butcher's shop opposite Smithfield Market, Le Rendez-vous du Café could not offer anything but meat dishes. The fact that this bistro mostly gets its meat from Scottish farms does not prevent it from having on its menu such things as: Veal Florentine (escalope de veau Florentine) or fillet of beef with watercress, tomato and Parmesan. Let's not forget the most delicious `côte de boeuf sauce béarnaise', a `must' according to the painter John Hoyland, a regular patron of the place. The fish menu alone is without doubt worth a second visit. The calamari grilled with pistou (a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lemon, onions and basil) is as simple as it is delicious. A few minutes on the grill, a few drops of olive oil, some salt and pepper and it keeps all its freshness. Vanya, the chef, is incredibly talented. The dish is served with salad and chips. For dessert, the plum tart offers a delicately buttered almond pastry and leaves you with a gentle acid taste. To end the meal, a glass of Moscatel (sweet dessert wine) is welcomed. The Portuguese influence is not far thanks to Antonio from Coimbra who from behind the bar cleverly manages his team. He brings his discreet yet necessary touch to this picture of French gastronomy.

The atmosphere is relaxed and the service without fuss. If you are looking for more solemnity, simply push the door next door and enter the Café du Marché that shares its kitchen with the Rendez-Vous du Café. 121 Charterhouse is unquestionably an address to recommend. Definitely one of our favourites.

Jazz evening every second and last Thursday of the month.
Special Spring time: 5 tables outside.

Le Rendez-Vous du Café
121 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6AH
(020) 7336 8836



Contrary to what the name may led you to believe, Gastro is not a gastro pub, let's call it instead a gastro bistro. Indeed, more wine than beer is served there and the dishes are highly based on the classics of what can be found in brasseries: moules marinières, Oysters, entrecote sauce béarnaise or andouillette à la moutarde. The meat comes an organic butcher in Balham, the oysters from Oléron (French Atlantic coast) and the mussels from the Irish sea. The freshness of the ingredients can be savoured once in your plate. The sea bass is cooked to perfection and offers a firm and tasty flesh. Served with an onion, green pepper and caper vinaigrette, it is absolutely divine.
For dessert, the `crémaline' is a real sin: small almond biscuits, layer of caramel, caramel mousse and praline pieces. The first mouthful is heavenly but you find it difficult to finish it all.
The décor is a mix of Breton folklore and Parisian bistro. This singular combination is due to the two owners, Bertrand the Breton from Morbihan and Roger Tourangeot from the Loire Valley, who started Gastro ten years ago. The third man is Thierry, the manager, ex- Lindsay house. Behind a friendly and welcoming personality, Thierry runs the place like the best-known restaurants. The customers know it and come back regularly to enjoy a good `steak-frites' in a relaxed atmosphere. Tonight for instance, Francis, a Londoner from Peckham and Arima from Brixton confirm it: " We have been here approximately ten times. You get quality dishes and the people here are without fuss and down to earth. And what's more, it is well situated. It is right opposite the Clapham cinema. We can easily do both and have good evening out"

Every Monday: Couscous
Spring time: 4 Tables outside
Gastro, 67 Venn Street, SW4 0BD
(020) 7627 0222


The Atlas

This ancient pub converted into a gastro pub in 1998, has experienced a complete metamorphosis: new menus with Mediterranean accents and new customers, younger and not so male dominated. Only the name of the old pub remains because like boats, it's bad luck to change it. The place is very pleasant: large windows and wood panelling. The menu is mouth watering and the dishes are far from disappointing.

The Atlas pub  
  The paper-thin slices of Parma ham and its salad of grilled asparagus give a sample of what might await you.
The sautéed asparagus with a knob of butter are crisp and the antipasti that are served with them - sun-blushed tomatoes, peppers marinated with coriander - are very tasty indeed. Contrary to what you might think, the dishes make you hungrier by the minute. Never mind, the prices are very reasonable (£6 for a salad) and therefore don't limit you too much in the quantities you order. For dessert, the tarte tatin is caramelised to perfection. Obviously, it is not through luck that this year, the Atlas got its title of "Best London Dining Pub" from the Good Pub Guide. The Pub itself is in very good hands. George Manner, who came from the Eagle's kitchen, the first London gastro pub, runs it with his brother Richard.
In the kitchen, Ben creates the menu according to seasonal deliveries and the small North African shop owners from Northend Road. The menu changes everyday and no longer has anything from a traditional Pub. Typical Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding is now passé; in its place you will find duck fillets with cumin and taboulé salad. The change can be somewhat confusing for a certain type of customers used to Chips and prawn cocktails. However, this option shows that the introduction of change is good for business.

Special Springtime: approx. 60 seats outside
The Atlas
16 Seagrave Road
Fulham SW6
Tel (020) 7385 9129


The North Star

Concept: "Shabby-chic". In this gatro pub of Islington, the décor is very mixed: A palm tree near the bar looks like a familiar patron, a bronze bouddha seats on the bar itself, reclaimed chairs from a church, " Here nothing is new and everything has a story" explains Alex one of the managers. Let's start with the opening day of the North Star on 1st June 2002, the day of the Queen's Jubilee. A pure coincidence according to Alex; the type of pure coincidence that enables the perfect launch with plenty of drinks to celebrate.
The atmosphere is relaxed and the food delicious. In the kitchen, Richard, ex-café Med, supervises the work. He gives the tone for the menus. For starters the blanched peppers are accompanied with a chickpea purée. Balsamic vinegar gives a little lift to the whole dish, which cleverly plays on contrasts: sweet and sour, softness of the peppers and the consistency of the chickpea purée. This dish is served with bread tasted with olive oil and a rocket salad. The quantity is rather generous for a starter.
As a main course, try the venison on a bed of lentils with Moroccan spices. The meat is pink, the lentils al dente, the cabbage and the spinach melt in the mouth. The spices - cumin, coriander, and juniper - are finely harmonised with the taste of game. One can appreciates the expert's touch and the sense of things well done. "Here, everything is homemade, assures Richard, with the exception of pasta, although we are planning to make that soon as well". To be followed.

Special Spring time: approx. 66 seats outside
The North Star
188-190 New North Road, Hoxton, N1
(020) 7354 5400


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