5 types of French restaurants in Shanghai

Five popular kinds of French restaurants you'll find in Shanghai, from the hip bistro to the bougie brasserie

Steak frites. Photo by Tim Toomey via Unsplash
A proud people and with good reason to be, given all that they’ve done for global gastronomy, the French might judge you for X, Y and Z, but perhaps one of the quickest ways to make them emit a disapproving *pfff* is by confusing a bistro for a brasserie or, even worse (mon Dieu), a bar à vin. It’s almost as embarrassing as meaning to say, “J’ai chaud,” (I’m hot) but blurting out, “Je suis chaud” (I’m feeling rauchy).

Ergo, here comes Time Out Shanghai with a guide on five popular kinds of French restaurants, which will hopefully help you avoid making a public faux pas.


Photos courtesy of Le Bec 62 Epicerie & Caviste

Once upon a time, your local épicerie was a place to pick up spices (épices) and little else. Given the globalisation of food culture, however, épiceries have evolved into gourmet grocers or fine food stores. Picture smoked sausages hanging from the rafters, more cheese options than you can count, and the occasional deli counter where sandwiches or light meals might be assembled.

Sure, the romanticised term is applied rather loosely in Shanghai. Nevertheless, it’s still nice to have options like Le Bec 62 Epicerie & Caviste, where one can pair pâté en croûte with a glass of wine while also picking up pantry staples.

Another casual establishment that might count as an épicerie, Pichet is parked in the More Than Eat food court at JULU758. French for ‘pitcher,’ the traditional vessel for serving wine at no-frills restaurants in France, Pichet serves straightforward meals and stocks charcuterie and cheeses for dine-in or to-go.


Photo courtesy of SOiF

Like mini ‘shrines’ to Dionysus (Greek) aka Bacchus (Roman), the god of wine and pleasure, wine bars have popped up all over Shanghai over the past decade, and we are ready to prostrate ourselves! A bar à vin is plainly about the wine-drinking experience; food occasionally follows, but mostly serves as a foil to whatever the customer decides to uncork.

If you threw a stone in any direction in Shanghai, you’d probably hit a wine bar, but purists seeking exclusively French wine bars have better luck of spotting a Red Panda. Perennial favourite SOiF (meaning ‘thirst’ in French) serves Shanghainese-French fusion fare, and even the very literal Bar à Vin dishes up a mishmash of French classics and crowd favourites — think duck confit and pastas — while keeping guests well-watered.


Photo courtesy of Polux by Paul Pairet

Of everything on this list, the bistro and the brasserie (which have entered popular English lexicon, and are therefore not italicised) are the two types of establishments that are most confused for one another. Here’s a general rule of thumb for telling them apart: size does matter, says Sébastien Groux, project manager of Paul Pairet Restaurants.

Since bistros were historically family-owned, they tend to be smaller and “a bit more popular or mainstream,” explains Groux. A trick to remembering this is by paying attention to the Mandarin term for bistro: xiǎo jiǔguǎn (小酒馆) crudely translates to ‘small pub.’

Confusingly, a handful of restaurants in Shanghai identify as bistros, but are rather grand; think Bistrot de Racine, with its gilded picture frames and crystal chandeliers, or Coquille Seafood Bistro, where it’s near impossible to order a dish that’s not crowned with caviar.

Screenshot 2024-01-09 at 4.09.20 PM
Photo courtesy of Alors

Groux also points out how restaurateurs in Shanghai have carved out a new niche, the ‘modern bistro.’ Alors (an informal French expression with a multitude of usages) in Xintiandi is an apt example. Albeit serving 100% French wine (mostly natural), the modern bistro’s creative sharing plates skew Chinese.

Co-founder Franklin Chiang cheerily calls the bistro concept “fun,” and wants Alors to be a platform that promises “more personality, new wines, new food, and unexpected experiences.” Three drinks and four dishes in, we can believe it, especially after soaking in the phenomenal playlist.


Fancy's the word at Mr & Mrs Bund. Photo courtesy of Paul Pairet Restaurants

Contrary to the cosy bistro, which traditionally served country-style cooking like coq au vin or cassoulet, the brasserie tends to be big, boisterous and a bit splashy — it’s where the French fork out for silver platters of fruits de mer and take their steak frites ‘blue’ (erring on the bloody side).

“A brasserie is bigger and more bourgeois,” explains Groux. “In our case, Polux would be a bistrot and Mr & Mrs Bund a brasserie.

Two more things demarcate the brasserie from the bistro: traditionally, the former serves meals from dawn till dusk, never shutting their doors even during off-peak hours. A prime example of this, Brasserie Babette in Putou’s new Hong Shou Fang F&B complex opens from daily from 10am until midnight. A bon week-end here begins with an order of the brasserie’s moules marinières and Champagne served in cute Coupe glasses (fabled to be molded on the shape of female breasts).


Dessert course at Maison Lameloise. Photo by Mattias Isaksson

In the words of French Wikipedia, “A restaurant gastronomique is a restaurant that seeks to put gastronomy in the spotlight: quality dishes, honorable cellar, attentive welcome, attentive service and pleasant surroundings.” Only a handful of Shanghai eateries — like Jade on 36 Restaurant, Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire and Maison Lameloise — fall under this sacred category, for the simple reason that few can afford it all the time.

Towering above the other categories of French restaurants in more ways than one, Maison Lameloise is perched on the 68th floor of the Shanghai Tower, and offers comprehensive tasting menus that mirror the essence of Burgundian cuisine while exploring Chinese ingredients.

_MG_5259 copy
Maison Lameloise's 'bread butler.' Photo by Mattias Isaksson

It’s a place that makes you realise what’s been missing all your life, be it a bread butler, a personal sommelier or both, and to treasure them while they’re at your disposal for an unforgettable three hours.

The restaurant gastronomique is also where chefs such as Maison Lameloise’s Yann Klein will check in on the customer, share the provenance of the kitchen’s ingredients and, if called for, pose for photos with tables of tai tais with the patience of Buddha.

TIME OUT TIP: Arguably more exciting than Gucci’s latest cold weather collection, Maison Lameloise’s Winter 2024 menu must be experienced before the advent of spring. Read about it here.