O ne late evening in Paris, my famished parents and I turned to the hotelier for last-minute dinner recommendations. He suggested a local favorite and then warned, in a thick French accent, "but it's just a brasserie." That night we got a taste of Old Paris, experiencing our most memorable meal in a classic setting. Boston has seen a brasserie boom in the past couple of years, with Bouchee, Gaslight, and, most recently, La Voile opening their doors. Traditionally a big, busy place with black-and-white-clad servers offering "plats du jour," wine, and beer, brasseries tend to share a common aesthetic - think mosaic tiles, aged mirrors, and brass, Belle Epoque chandeliers.
Taking cues from the local designers and restaurateurs who envisioned these spaces, this warm, comfortable look can be had at home with a few well-chosen pieces and accessories.
In the South End, Gaslight is a "brasserie du coin," or "corner brasserie," and the concept is neighborhood casual. Working with Niemitz Design Group, owner Seth Woods kept things 80 percent steeped in tradition and then went with his gut. He omitted the formal white tablecloths and chose not to stencil words on the restaurant's sconces the old-fashioned way, which he said felt affected.
"When you're trying to create an environment like this, you need to look at each individual piece and make it unique so it speaks of authenticity and doesn't reek of Disney World," Woods says.
Gaslight is filled with iconic elements, from white subway tiles to a shiny zinc bar, which was manufactured in Paris for $50,000 and required 40 men to haul inside. In true "beer hall" fashion, the ceilings are vaulted, and fans whirl over a mix of antique communal tables, booths, and marble-topped cafe tables. Simple accents include crisp, white coffee cups and dishtowel napkins, which "you do not have to fold in a triangle and dab your pursed lips with," Woods said.
While Manhattan's famed Balthazar and Pastis surely helped generate interest in brasserie style, the famous French classics are still the source for inspiration. Hoping to bring that authenticity home to Newbury Street's Bouchee, which opened in 2006, restaurateur Charles Sarkis took his team to Paris's Café de Flore.
"We strove not to make it a caricature," says design architect Stephen Sousa. There's grand detail in every corner (even in the bathrooms) of the two-level "urban brasserie." Getting the warm amber glow on the walls required three colors of paint and special techniques from artist Jeremiah Sullivan. When they couldn't locate good aged mirrors, Sousa found a DIY kit for just the right finish.
Just down the street, La Voile, which debuted in the fall, is as authentic as it gets when it comes to design. The brasserie first opened in Cannes in 1947, and the proprietors imported the interior's original furnishings and nautical accessories (la voile means "the sail" in French) to re-create the restaurant here.
To personalize their eatery, owner Stephane Santos and his fiancee, Stephanie Zuberbuehler, added a few eye-catching pieces, proving it's worth scouring for antiques. The couple suggest anyone trying to get the look at home use mirrors, wood, brass, cut glass, velvet, and Bordeaux tones. Nothing should look new.
"The centerpiece is very important," Zuberbuerler says, pointing out theirs, a marble-topped, tiered console to hold flowers or sculptures. Another find is their wooden refrigerator, once used in a butcher shop that they modernized to display and chill wine. The chandeliers, coat rack, and century-old doors all came from other European bistros and brasseries maintaining a traditional look throughout.
"Find one old piece," she says, "and work around that."
1. Bentwood Chair: Since antiques can be hard to come by, this black bentwood look-alike, made of wood and plastic composite, makes a good stand-in. $29.99, Ikea.
2. Brass Chandelier: A modern take on the antique with scrolling arms and a brass finish - try no shades to make it look older. Georgian 6-Arm, $450, Restoration Hardware.
3. Glass Carafes: An essential, adding casual charm from morning juice to everyday table wine. $4.95-$9.95, Sur la Table at The Mall at Chestnut Hill.
4. Bistro Table: This Nantucket importer found the cafe classic, complete with a Cararra marble top. $800, LIle de France, 8 India St., Nantucket, 508-228-3686, frenchgeneralstore.com.
5. Cafe Cups: Serve coffee and espresso in timeless white porcelain. Set of six, $35.50-$89.50, at Sur la Table.
6. Elegant Espresso: A small-scale version of La Voiles Belle Époque beauty from the same legendary company, Elektra. $1,999, Williams-Sonoma.
7. Classic Tile: Detailed mosaics, such as this one for Bouchee, add a textured elegance. Call for pricing. Allstone, Boston Design Center, 1 Design Center Pl., Boston, 617-737-2200.
8. Dishtowel Napkins: Cheap cotton kitchen cloths are repurposed for a casual table setting. Tekla dishtowels, 49 cents each. Ikea.