The Bistro: Art and Eating

George Upton reflects on the bistro, the humble eatery that has spawned revolution, some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century, and a uniquely Parisian way of life

Bystro! Bystro!

It’s 30th March 1814 and the streets of Paris are ringing with the cries of Cossack troops. For almost two years, following Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, the soldiers have been chasing the French army back across the continent, and now they are in the capital, victorious and hungry. “Quickly! Quickly! Bystro! Bystro!” they shout impatiently, quite possibly becoming the first foreigners to complain about Parisian customer service, as well as inadvertently coining the name of one of the most important social, cultural and, of course, culinary institutions in French history.

At least that’s one theory; the ranks of France’s gastronomic historians are yet to agree on the etymological heritage of the humble bistro, though there is a consensus that these cheap, informal eateries – part bar, part café, part restaurant – have been central in shaping French culture. After all, not long before the impatient Cossacks, it was in these simple Parisian dining rooms that – fuelled by inexpensive, traditional fare – debate and discord would boil over into the revolution of 1789.

Later the bistro would help foster some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. Still cheap and unassuming, it was at this time that the bistro would come of age: jacketed, white-aproned waiters floating through tables of solitary readers and rowdy drunks, carrying casserole and carafes of wine, the bustle of the street half muted by curtains pinned just above eye level. It was here, amidst the pimps and anarchists of the Lapin Agile in Montmartre, that Picasso would talk and drink and define the course of modern art with Modigliani and Maurice Utrillo, as Satie and Debussy sat at the piano. Or where, across the Seine at the Polidor, Hemingway would write – recording the trials of his lost generation and fellow literary expats, James Joyce and Henry Miller – and drink, and fight.

Today, the number of bistros has dwindled – 8,000 in Paris, down from 50,000 at the turn of the century – and many of those that remain have moved away from their uncomplicated culinary origins, but the tradition of the bistro remains strong. Immortalised in the ideas they fostered, still populated by thinkers and drinkers, the bistros are a living museum to a uniquely Parisian attitude to life, art and eating.

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

The Wardrobes of Legendary Writers

Style and substance sit shoulder to shoulder in Terry Newman’s new book, which examines the personal styles of 50 literary icons from Joan Didion to James Joyce    

“Style is character,” Joan Didion famously wrote. The American writer, whose output is peppered with references to the cultural significance clothes, was talking about the tendency to view someone’s work as a reflection of their person. Specifically, she was writing about her young daughter’s desire to meet Georgia O’Keeffe after seeing her paintings. “She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet…,” Didion tells us.

This is a common, almost instinctive, assumption about artists, wherein the politics of personality and style reign supreme, but is to a lesser extent applied to the literary world. It is telling then that Didion, the well-dressed woman, has become inseparable from her sharp, stylish prose. 

London-based fashion journalist and writer Terry Newman takes this idea one step further in her new book, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, which details the relationship between the writing and wardrobes of 50 iconic authors. Ahead of its release, Newman sheds light on the book below. 

On the inspiration behind the book…

“I have only ever been interested in two things: books and clothes. When I started thinking about writing a book, it seemed to me that writing about what authors wear would be interesting. When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader and authors themselves were just as interesting as the books they wrote. I was always fascinated by the characters behind the books.”

On style versus substance…

“People sometimes feel that the clothes can be superficial and I have to say, when I sat down to write this book, I thought, perhaps this is a mad thing to do, to talk about such amazing writers and analyse them as per their clothes. Then I realised that is just not how I feel about clothes. 

Clothes reveal intense amounts about people; about their character, about their purpose, about their emotions. It seemed to me, to find a little bit more about these authors that I love, that looking at their clothes was a really obvious choice. It can be as revealing as talking to somebody. I can’t talk to Samuel Beckett because he is dead, but looking at his clothes gave me a glimpse of his personality. When people refer to clothes as being superficial, I think they are missing the point.”

On what she learned…

“What I found was that my premise was correct. As I started researching, what was most interesting was all of these authors had a style, they all had this uniqueness. But also the way they wrote about and used clothes in their literature was similar as well. They are all magnificent writers, all of them to a greater or lesser extent use clothes as a way of illuminating character. From James Joyce right through to Tom Wolfe, not one of these authors have dismissed clothes as being superficial in their work. What I feel about clothes, almost all these authors feel. They are important and interesting.”

Legendary Authors and The Clothes They Wore by Terry Newman, published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins, is out on July 27

Interview conducted by Hikmat Mohammed