THE French bistro, that comfortable, inexpensive, neighborhood kind of restaurant, has come to America. The Americanized version may not have a sign over the door saying ``Bistro.'' It may be plain and cheerful, or colorful and noisy. But it has a French flavor. A bistro is a restaurant where people go for lunch, dinner, or a snack at any time and in any kind of clothes - from formal to business to casual. Today's relaxed, impromptu lifestyles share many of the same attitudes of these French restaurants.
``Bistro is food without pretension,'' says food writer Patricia Wells. ``They are a French institution. But they've come into the modern age with more salads, more fish, less meat, and lighter desserts.''
An authority on French cuisine and a food writer for both French and American publications, Ms. Wells's goal has been to demystify bistro food for people who want to cook it at home.
Americans already serve a lot of bistro food, she has found. ``We do want to go back to simpler times and simpler food that's comfortable and easy,'' she says. ``This is what many of the new American restaurants are all about.''
Restaurants with bistro fare and ambiance have been appearing all across the United States. One of the most recent is Lydia Shire's new Boston restaurant, Biba's. Typical of American bistros, its eclectic menu is interspersed with familiar dishes. Yet there are also special dishes in Chef Lydia's style.
Jeremiah Tower had the French bistro in mind when he opened his San Francisco restaurant, Stars, several years ago. Customers there can spend a long evening lingering over several courses, or they can drop by for a quick, individual pizza with smoked salmon for less than $5.
French bistro food has a reputation for earthiness. Bistro cuisine is based on familiar ingredients such as inexpensive - but flavorful - cuts of meat (cooked until they're so tender the meat falls off the bone), fresh green salads, and many kinds of casseroles called potato gratins.
Wells's collection of bistro recipes goes far beyond the typical rustic soups, bubbling gratins, and stick-to-the-ribs desserts. She has persuaded chefs from Paris to Nice to give her their recipes and special tips for bistro dishes.
``Most simply,'' she explained in an interview here, ``a bistro is a small restaurant serving home-style, substantial fare. In days past, in Paris in particular, the bistro served as an extension of the family living room of the chef. Many Parisians took all their meals at their local caf'e-style bistro. In some, they even stored their napkins there.''
In a typical French bistro, the china is almost always thick and plain white, the tables covered with crinkle-edged paper, the floors with sawdust. The menu is often an illegible mimeographed sheet encased in clear plastic. It's brief and seldom changes - save for the ritual plat du jour.
Wells says she has been collecting and cooking bistro recipes for years. These recipes sometimes take longer to cook, but they're what Wells calls her ``around the house'' dishes. ``You can leave them to do other things while they cook and come back once in a while for a stir,'' she says.
Her favorite bistro recipes, with introductions about their origins, can be found in ``Bistro Cooking'' (New York: Workman Publishing, $22.95 cloth, $12.95 paper).
Roast chicken, cooked to perfection, is typical of good bistro food, and Ms. Wells includes an ample chapter on this subject (Mistral's Chicken with Garlic, Chez Rose's Chicken Fricassee with Mushrooms, and Tante Paulette's Chicken Stew with Fennel and Saffron, among others), as well as a substantial section on potato dishes. The latter includes Blue Cheese Potato Gratin; Grandma's Potato, Red Pepper, and Zucchini Gratin; and Monsieur Henny's Potato, Onion, and Tomato Gratin.