July 4, 2021

Introducing Bistro Vibes, the Throwback Lifestyle for the Happily Washed

Once you notice it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s the 1989 BMW 325i buzzing down your street with the top down, piloted by a guy wearing a vintage Armani suit like Richard Gere would have worn in 1991 and blasting a Thundercat song that sounds like it’s from 1986. It’s the billboard promoting John Mayer’s new album with the instruction to “Make every drive a road trip.” (It’s the fact that Mayer’s new album will be released on CD, too.) It’s the return of seltzer with some lime—not purely for sobriety, but not not, either. It’s the rise of the era-fetishizing streetwear brand Aimé Leon Dore. It’s the resurgent look and feel of movies like Pretty Woman and L.A. Story. It’s Chris Paul shouting out literally Billy Crystal during the NBA playoffs. It’s being so happily washed that you’re now cleaned up.

It is Bistro Vibes, and it’s here to take over your summer.

The quickest way to explain Bistro Vibes is by reference to a place and time: Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s iconic Beverly Hills restaurant—in its ‘80s and ‘90s heyday—is the spiritual center of Bistro Vibes. It’s the clothes, the sounds, and the overall vibe. It’s not just about the restaurant’s dated-but-elevated food, or about the genial, mass-culture version of celebrity that thrived there. It’s also about the clothes famous people wore to places like Spago, and about the way that they wore them. As Dave Schilling, host of the “Galaxy Brains” podcast, points out that during the late 1980s and early ’90s, “Everyone seemed comfortable, but still put together.” He mentions Winona Ryder wearing a Dodgers cap and a baggy jacket to the premier of the movie Parenthood in 1989 and men wearing looser blazers with jeans and t-shirts. “I can look to this Spago era and see people who look like adults, whose looks I can easily recreate,” says Karina Longworth, writer and host of the “You Must Remember This” podcast. She notes that “People showed up dressed in Gap separates, but they also showed up dressed like the girls from the ‘Addicted to Love’ video, or the ‘Cradle of Love’ video,” in 1985 and 1990, respectively. “Chill, but cool. Laid back, but obviously thoughtful.”

Bistro Vibes progenitor Billy Crystal at Spago in 1991.

Ron Galella / Getty Images

Bistro Vibes belong to the generation that came of age during that period. Schilling, for example, is a dad and an older millennial, but he dressed more like a guy I’d try to sneak a script to in 1990. That’s to say: he looks exactly what I thought everybody in L.A. looked like when I was 8. Like a cool adult. I felt a certain resonance to my own life. I grew up on Cobain and Biggie, but I was secretly listening to Billy Joel. I was eyeballing the Vintage Contemporary paperbacks at the library, thinking of Billy Crystal, Denzel Washington, and Richard Gere as my style heroes. It all seemed mature. This wasn’t “adulting;” adults were just adults, and adulting was simply existing. And it feels really good now: After years of going to noise shows in basements with sitting water up to my ankles, I now want to turn the radio up real loud in my car when “Wishing Well” by Terence Trent D’Arby comes on. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. The people in their 30s and 40s I’ve talked to finally want to be just that: in their 30s and 40s.

Helpfully, the signifiers of Bistro Vibes—of the good life—are easy enough to track down. Longworth owns a mint green 1987 Mercedes SL. Schilling says he draws style inspiration from Jonah Hill and Lakeith Stanfield, but also from Jon Lovitz and the @Nightopenings Instagram account that features red carpet looks from yesteryear. He has the vintage Gucci loafers to prove it. It extends even further, into a never ending search for chill. You could be telling people you’re “sober curious,” that you’re really into making drinks from the non-alcoholic cocktail bible by Julia Brainbridge, Good Drinks, but weed is legal now so you and your friends can step out to smoke a joint at dinner. That setup alone sounds like something out of L.A. Story, or a tossed-off conversation you may have heard at some Keith McNally spot in 1991. And if you want to end the evening on decadent-yet-casual note, just pull a Viennetta out of the freezer since Good Humor is making the popular dessert once again and then go pull up the Wolfgang Puck documentary that’s streaming on Disney+.