Join me in welcoming R. A. Pedersen with an in-depth review of dinner at Bistro de Paris in Epcot’s France Pavilion!
I’ll give you fair warning – as an Epcot historian I can’t help but link this review to the history of the park as a whole. I’ll try to keep it light though, perhaps an anecdote you can tell over candlelight between courses during your next visit.
Bistro de Paris Story and History
There’s a bit of humor and history in the name of the Bistro de Paris at the France Pavilion in Epcot. In French culture a “Bistro” is more typically a small, less formal establishment than a standard restaurant. A good comparison would be along the lines of an English pub; in fact, the hearty bar food would be quite comparable to the sort of cuisine they serve: typically casseroles and simple comfort foods.
So why is the high-end restaurant in the France pavilion, the darling of the famed Chefs de France (Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenotre, and Roger Verge), called a bistro?
Bistros in France were carved out of the basements in apartment buildings in order to feed the masses. Essentially the space was created from nothing to fulfill a need — and so goes the story in Epcot as well.
The France pavilion opened in 1982 with a small pair of restaurants amid its mansard roofs: the lower-level Chefs de France, and a connected exterior sidewalk café, Au Petit Café. Additionally guests could grab a croissant or baguette from the bakery section of Chefs de France via a grab-and-go area configuration with glass cases. This setup was not adequate to meet demand.
The restaurants of the France pavilion would be fully booked by noon via touch-screen reservations at the WorldKey kiosks located in the post-show area of Spaceship Earth. At that point, reservations were only allowed to be made same-day in-park a the WorldKey Information Service kiosks, and they still sold out within hours of opening.
The press and critical reviews had lauded the French and Italian pavilions as having the best food in the park and dining at one was seen as almost requisite for the EPCOT Center experience. The popularity obviously noted, contracts were drawn up and both pavilions and their sponsors committed to expand their dining offerings.
At this point the histories really diverge –- the Italy pavilion sponsorship becoming rocky because of the lack of follow through, while the France pavilion made major changes to its offerings. Italy could have simply expanded in one of the open spaces in its pavilion plot. The France pavilion, on the other hand, never had much space to spare. Where to go, but up?
Offices above the Chefs de France restaurant were vacated and the Bistro de Paris was born –- of found space and necessity –- and the Chefs de France restaurant itself expanded outward consuming and enclosing Au Petite Café. The bakery was also relocated to become the free-standing Boulangerie Patisserie at the rear of the pavilion, allowing Bistro de Paris to create a dramatic spiral staircase entry.
While the French pavilion as a whole is meant to evoke La Belle Époque — or “the beautiful time” –- of a romanticized Paris at the turn of the century, the Bistro de Paris takes on the most subtle of design styles popular at the time. It’s a very restrained art nouveau look, with subtle calls to the flower petal motifs and whiplash style distinct to the movement.
In fact the interior is so regimented and utilitarian aside from the accents that it seems almost neo-classical with art nouveau thrust upon it. It is well handled, though, the color scheme staying light. If they had gone with dark wood and heavy fabrics it would actually look much more akin to the namesake bistros in France.
It’s also quite small. Being re-utilized space, the waiting area only has four chairs. If you have a party of five, someone is going to be standing. Only for a moment though, as the restaurant is not known to overbook and seeks to quickly seat patrons.
For our 8pm dinner my party-of-two was brought to a small table both in a corner and aligned with the windows overlooking World Showcase lagoon. It seemed the 8pm-ish reservations were the parties put at the windows in anticipation of the fireworks to come later in the evening. We counted ourselves quite lucky for that unplanned perk.
The rest of the restaurant really doesn’t have a view out the windows –- they are small casement windows not purpose-made for sweeping views of the lagoon. Rather, they were likely designed just to provide some natural light in the previously housed offices while being minimized in size for a bit of forced perspective on the façade. It’s a bit dim –- witty in the use of space, but dim nonetheless.
Lighting at the tables in the evening is almost entirely by candlelight atop the tables with sparse frosted fixtures giving just a slight boost to the glow. While this was far from conducive to photography (short of blinding other patrons excessively with flash) it did create a nice mood.
Luckily the last review of Bistro de Paris on this blog by AJ was attended earlier in the day with daylight streaming in. The interior has changed little if at all since that review was written so I’m quite relieved someone was able to adequately photograph it.
You’ll likely notice the tables are quite close, but not uncomfortably so. You can spy on other diners though; in my case Tom Bricker and his other half were just finishing dinner as I was seated nearby.
The smallness of the space would be more apparent if the atmosphere wasn’t so subdued from the usual bustle of Walt Disney World. There are no screaming children here, no one’s talking on their cell phone, and everyone’s afraid to take flash photos because they think they’ll look a bit crass.
It’s not stuffy at all though, just a smidge more refined than the usual theme park dining experience. Nothing shows up with forks you can’t identify for use. No, that’s reserved for spoons.
Being my first experience at the restaurant I decided to go full-gusto into it and went with the Prix Fixe menu of three courses along with the optional wine pairings. At $95 it’s not a bargain, but not above what I’d expect to pay for a nicer meal with alcohol in a theme park.
Compliments of the chef we were treated to an amuse-bouche (literally: to amuse your mouth) of Parmesan soup along with a mini French baguette. It’s strange to describe a cheese soup as light, but it was.
And though I dread culinary foam as it rarely looks or tastes good, it was a nice touch atop the soup and aided the airy texture. It was almost like a well-frothed cappuccino made of cheese.
This is where the odd utensil comes in. A tiny spoon with a swirly handle came with the little shot of soup. To further complicate the issue the small porcelain soup dish had a little appendage on the rim much akin to a tiny petal handle. It even had a handy thumb indent.
Was I supposed to grip it and power down the soup, or was I supposed to daintily slurp it from the pretty spoon that held less than half a teaspoon of contents at a time? I tried both methods in the thankfully dark environment and no one seemed to notice or care that I was obviously doing it wrong at least 50% of the time.
Complimentary compliments dispatched, my actual appetizer (prelude, if you’re feeling French today) arrived the moment I had given up on trying to figure out the soup: Serrano ham, celery root remoulade, and artichoke hearts paired with Bourgogne, Mâcon, Bouchard Aîné & Fils, 2008.
Pretty isn’t it? There’s a crusty sort of bed of some bread-crumb item down at the bottom topped with the celery and then the salad of ham, field greens, and very thin slices of beet.
As a person who hates celery I was not expecting to like this menu item –- rather I went into it fully expecting to nibble the ham off the top. Instead I was quite surprised and devoured all of it. I’m not even particularly fond of field greens.
The celery remoulade had a consistency I’d liken to a good tuna fish sandwich –- it held together and the pieces were so finely chopped that it avoided big-honking-chunk syndrome. Well balanced and enjoyable.
As for the wine, it complimented both the precursor soup and prelude well. It was light with a fruity aroma and what I’m told were “hints of citrus, mint, and honeysuckle in the nose.” As for the palate it was enjoyably crisp, and apparently has notes of grass and flower with what some call a seductive “spontaneity” –- whatever that means. I enjoyed it.
Plates cleared, forks replaced, and it was time for the Grilled Beef Tenderloin with mushroom “crust’, Bordelaise sauce, and mashed potato. The accompanying wine for the course was Bordeaux, Clarendelle, by Haut Brion, 2005.
I don’t like red wine. I’ll put that upfront right now so you can judge me quietly from a distance. However, I enjoyed this wine. I’m not sure if it was the “long finish” or the “velvet tannin,” but I distinctly did not hate my first experience with the Clarendelle.
As for the beef –- cooked medium –- it was rather enjoyable. As you can see, I didn’t really wait to take the photo and was fully enjoying my dining experience enough to forget about blogging for a moment.
Aside from the fact that it was beef and cooked properly, there’s not much you can say about beef. It tastes like beef. The crust and sauce did compliment well and weren’t too heavy or overpowering.
The potatoes were the disappointment, if anything. They were served on the side in a small separate dish. They seemed like an unnecessary afterthought and I barely touched them. You can make out the frilly doily beneath the potato cup in the photo — it’s mashed potatoes, no amount of lace is really going to class it up or make it remarkable.
And onto dessert, where I had completely forgotten to take a photo because between the main course and dessert, Illuminations up and happened. Right outside my little window –- as if it was just for me.
Seriously, what dessert could compare to that? Regardless, the Warm Chocolate and Almond Cake with feuilletine, vanilla ice cream, and praline sauce was enjoyable. AJ had the same dessert when she was at the bistro so there’s not much to add other than that feuilletine essentially is the little crispy bits sort of like crushed ice cream cone. Bakery shards really, not to be confused with the praline, which is more a sugar-based candy construction.
There was noticeable discord in the final wine pairing: Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Brut. As a champagne itself: delish. Served ice cold and bubbling happily. Against a very sweet chocolate based dessert? It became bitter in contrast. Alas, the world cannot all be perfect.
The consensus at the table was that a rather sweet dessert wine, perhaps even a five point royal tokaji, would be in order. But that’s not exactly French so perhaps either order the cheese plate as well, to cleanse the palate, or just down the flute of champagne before touching dessert.
A wonderful adult experience amid the princess-dress up-playtime that the Walt Disney company seems to want to market the whole Walt Disney World resort as exclusively being. There was a time where higher-end dining was more prominent in the resort, with a stricter dress code (and Bistro still has one); but it’s accommodating to the modern tourist as well. Seriously, who packs a suit jacket to go to Walt Disney World? No one; that’s why they changed the rules. But if you want to escape and a feel a bit pampered with some slightly froofy but accessible food, it’s really an experience.
The prices? Eh, it’s a little much for what it is. In fact, between October and February the price on nearly every menu item had gone up. Some entrees have gone up as much as $5 with only minimal changes in the preparation and presentation. The wine pairing works out to $12 a glass.
Going into the experience being unaware of the old pricing, realizing it only during this write up, I don’t think I was sticker shocked or disappointed. The other substitutions and changes made to the menu seem like positives to me; you can peruse it yourself and decide if you agree. If anything, there’s aspic — a long forgotten ingredient that was still popular in the 70’s you could find on many menus at Walt Disney World when it opened. It’s like nostalgia in gel form.
Even if you don’t care about the history, refuse to heed the mostly glowing reviews, and know nothing of namesake chefs who operate the location, there’s still much good to be had in what it offers. It’s the mildly hoity-toity French dining experience you want it to be without as much pretense as some other restaurants with similar cuisine.
Even compared to Chefs de France downstairs the palate is more refined and the atmosphere more restrained. Boisterous and bustling it is not, and after a few days getting jostled around in queues that can be a much appreciated respite.
R. A. Pedersen is the author of The Epcot Explorer’s Encyclopedia with a long-winded interest in all aspects of theme parks, sometimes even their food. After all, with long hours in the parks for research one has to eat and one might as well eat well.
Have you had a dining experience at Bistro de Paris, or are you headed there soon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!