Parisian Bistro Owners, Feeling Threatened, Petition for Protection

An association of aficionados and professionals is calling on UNESCO to recognize their establishments as intangible cultural heritage.

By Ethan L. Johns
June 12, 2018

Image: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

After the official protection and codification of the French gastronomic meal; after the launch of a campaign to do the same for the baguette, a group of Parisian bistro enthusiasts and professionals hopes that their establishments will be next on the list.

On Monday, an association of proprietors, historians and artists announced its official bid to seek a place on UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” for Parisian bistros and terraces, and for the art de vivre that they exemplify. Mayor Anne Hidalgo was in attendance to express the city government’s support of the petition.

The group will work to complete a full nomination form for submission in March of 2019. If all goes according to plan, a decision will be passed down later that year in December, or in January of 2020.

The number of bistros in France has been in decline over the past decades. While the number in Paris has been relatively stable, others around the country have folded in the face of skyrocketing rents and competition stemming from a raging French appetite for fast food.

But what is a bistro (or bistrot, as it is spelled in French), anyway? It’s a question that even many French do not know how to answer, as is evidenced by a recent explosion in articles trying to make sense of the term.

There is no American equivalent to the bistro.

It’s open non-stop from before work until after dinner, and locals can stop by at any time of day for a coffee, a glass of wine, a sandwich, a full meal, or just to read a newspaper and chat with the owner and other regulars. It’s as much defined by those who frequent it (everybody from the street cleaner to the lawyer) as it is by its (oft-stereotyped) appearance—wooden tables and chairs, mosaic tile floors and, most importantly, the tin or pewter countertop (known colloquially as a zinc).

The association responsible for the petition points out that Parisian bistros and terraces offer a “unique, human experience,” which offers a forum for conversation and the exchange of ideas between “all social classes, all generations, all admissions, all origins and all types, without anyone being discriminated against.”

Can such an ideal be codified by international law? The city of Paris now hopes to find out within the next couple of years.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns