The French have a system of naming their restaurants that defines what type of food is served. Here is a simplified glossary:
Restaurant – The classic term for a place to eat out. It is open only at certain hours and there is a menu to select dishes from. They can be fine dining or casual. Most offer a set menu for a fixed price with several courses that can be ordered instead of the a la carte items.
Bistro – Smaller and more informal than restaurants, the menu is typically written on a chalk board posted in the dining room, or hand-written on slates. Bistros are known for their cheap midday meals known as le plat du jour. Traditional bistros offer the staple French dishes such as coq au vin and pot-au-feu with some local ingredients and twists on the recipes.
Brasserie– This word means, literally, brewery. First established in 1870 by northeastern France refugees. They served wines from Alsace that included Riesling, Sylvaner, and Gewurztraminer, and beer as well. Due to the origin of its founders, the signature dishes were sauerkraut and large platters of seafood to be shared. Other more traditional fare can also be found on the menu. Brasseries are known for their decor, which is usually in the art nouveau style. Large mirrors, wooden paneling with carving, and mosaics. They are open late and good for stimulating conversation.
Cafe – Probably the most popular of the French eatery terms, but very different from what a cafe in middle America might look like. It is primarily a place where coffee, alcohol, and simple fare is served. Dishes such as croque monsieur, salads, and moules-frites (mussels with french fries). Sidewalk terraces in front of the cafe, open in season, seat people eager to watch the people passing by over a cup of coffee and small meal. It is an attractive feature of the most popular cafes on Parisian boulevards. Cafes open early, and can close in the late evening.
Salon de The – Tearooms in France are probably the style of restaurant that is closest to the American cafe. They serve coffee, tea, cakes, and gateaux. At lunch time they can offer a basic menu with salads, sandwiches, and snacks. Alcoholics beverages are rarely served. They are generally opened just before noon lunch, and close in the late afternoon.
Bistrot a vin– These wine bars offer wine by the glass and have become places of interest for wine enthusiasts. Frequently hundreds of different wines are offered and there is a special ambiance to these places. Food offerings are simply cheese, ham, and sausages. A more refined bistrot a vin may offer more courses.