The dining and imbibing concept of the brasserie has been around for centuries and was originally associated with Western-European beer producing countries. The first brasseries would have been little more than an alehouse, where beer and light meals were served to workers and journeymen.
This French word broadly translates as brewery, with more of a culinary slant. Modern brew-pubs that serve meals are pretty much the idea that the original brasseries were all about, albeit much less pretentious and expensive. As time moved on, brasseries became less focused on brewing beer, and concentrated on selling drinks and hearty meals to working class diners.
A defining feature of many old-time brasseries was the communal table. Rather than separate smaller tables for a single party, the proletarian concept of eating with total strangers was the norm. Labourers would rub shoulders with struggling artists; market workers would spill soupe de poisson on the journalist sitting directly to his right. This seating arrangement slowly lost favour, yet in a genuine display of all that is old is new again, communal tables are again becoming a fashion statement at some of the funkier brasseries around the world.
Unlike restaurants and bistros, which had defined eating times - say lunch and dinner only, a brasserie will open before lunch and stay open all day and well into the night for post-theatre crowds, food and drink available any time.
The region a particular brasserie was located would dictate not only the food they served, but the tipple as well. Germanic brasseries would obviously serve beer, in the main lagers, with the hearty cuisine of their cool climes. Think sauerkraut, potatoes and wurst. In the east of France, cider has long been the commoner's drink of choice, and as such would find place alongside beers of the region - served up with the delightful cuisine of Alsace. The beers of Belgium have long been admired by thirsty travelers and the Trappist Monk's ales and lambic beers would definitely be on offer in these brasseries - along with steaming plates of mussels so enjoyed in that country.
The concept of the brasserie has moved up in the world since those times, and more upmarket versions can be found in major cities around the world. They now have more diverse beverage lists; perhaps reasonable wines to complement the beers and ciders, along with coffee and aperitifs. The food may at first seem up-market to English speaking diners; confit de canard, rillette, cassoulet, boudin noir, steak frites and tete du porc. What must be remembered is all these dishes have one thing in common - they are rich and rustic working mans fare, shaped over generations to give the most satisfaction to hungry diners for the least amount of money.
In essence, a brasserie is a place where you can expect to eat well, in terms of both quantity and quality, and enjoy a few drinks to wash it all down with. It is an eating-house without pretense - haute cuisine it is not, but a fun time is usually had by all.
Want to replicate a genuine brasserie experience in your own home? Try grabbing a six-pack of really good ale or lager. Chimay, Duvel, Becks or Coopers would all be perfect. Then have a go at one of the following recipes.