Like the Eiffel Tower and the winding Seine, bistros are an iconic part of the Parisian landscape. From morning till night, hungry patrons flock to these casual eateries to chow down on hearty comfort foods and people-watch from tables on outdoor terraces. But as Ciara Nugent reports for TIME, the classic French bistro is in trouble—and one proprietor is leading a campaign to save them.
Alain Fontaine, who owns Le Mesturet in central Paris, is at the helm of a movement to secure Unesco “intangible cultural heritage status” for Parisian bistros. The designation recognizes “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants,” according to Unesco’s website. Receiving intangible cultural heritage status can have monetary benefits—Unesco funds efforts to safeguard certain practices—and it also brings much-needed awareness to cherished traditions. It is little surprise, then, that the status has become a key target for bistro advocates like Fontaine.
In recent years, money woes and a changing food culture have pushed the classic eateries to the wayside. Steep rents in Paris have forced some bistros to close, and bistro proprietors have found it difficult to compete with the low prices of imported American chains like Starbucks and Chipotle. Eating habits are also evolving; in place of drawn-out midday meals on bistro terraces, residents are opting to eat speedy lunches at their desks. Nugent reports that the France’s National Statistics Office has calculated that at least 300 Paris bistros closed between 2014 and 2018—around a quarter of what the city had to offer.
What makes a bistro a bistro? “By Fontaine’s definition, an authentic bistro is an eatery that’s open continuously morning to night, serves French comfort foods at moderate prices, and houses an active bar where locals can gather for a drink and some lively conversation,” writes Vivian Song of the BBC. (Heaven forbid you should confuse bistros with brasseries, larger establishments with more expensive menus.)
Bistros are said to have come to Paris in the 19th century, as migrants from south-central France flocked to the capital in search of work during the Industrial Revolution. Some new arrivals, according to Song, opened up cafés. While the husbands delivered coal, wives would serve up drinks and home-cooked dishes in these establishments at prices that laborers could afford. Fittingly, these eateries were distinguished by their signs that read “Vins et charbons” (Wines and coal).
While bistros of later decades became cultural and intellectual hubs—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the famous fixtures of several establishments in Paris—today’s bistros continue to be defined by their affordability and welcoming atmosphere.
“We have everyone here, blue collar workers, professionals, families, students, tourists,” Fontaine tells Nugent. “They can meet, share, argue.”
In the wake of the 2015 terror attack that killed at least 130 people in Paris and wounded hundreds more, bistros also became a symbol of resilience. According to Claire Mufson of the New York Times, Parisians shared photos of themselves on bistro terraces with the hashtag #tousaubistrot —“Everyone to the bistro”—as a sign that they would not be cowed by acts of violence.
For Fontaine’s campaign to be successful, it will need to be approved by France’s culture ministry, which will then recommend it to Unesco. The proposal will be submitted in September, but French bistros are already facing competition from other cultural staples. Parisian “bouquinistes,” or open-air booksellers, are also campaigning for Unesco status, as are the roofers and zinc workers who install the gray rooftops that cover many of the city’s buildings.
In Fontaine’s eyes, Paris’ bistros are as worthy of preservation as any of the city’s other rich cultural offerings.
“A bistro isn’t just some place for a quick bite to eat,” he tells Nugent. “It’s the home of the Parisian art de vivre [art of living]—that’s what we’re losing if these places die out: our way of life.”