BASTILLE DAY : Restaurants in France as Old as the Revolution
It’s a Frenchman’s pleasure to dine out. And, in a sense, his patriotic duty.
The great revolution over which countless aristocrats lost their heads put ideas into others, notably the brigades of private maitres d’hotel and chefs facing sudden unemployment. In an era when it was dangerous to be less revolutionary than one’s neighbor, the cleverest among this new class of unemployed disavowed their aristocratic ties and looked to put their talents to work in patriotic ways.
Though cafes, which served the various revolutionary camps, are an older Parisian tradition, restaurants, as we know them, are truly a revolutionary concept.
Inspired, it seems, by a man named Boulanger who in 1765 opened Paris’ first a la carte restaurant on the Rue des Poulies, several restaurants opened (and closed) during the years of upheaval. Some survivors are still operating, remarkably unchanged.
Eat in any number of cafes or restaurants in the center of Paris today and you’re likely to be served some history with your napoleon.
Consider the tale of the two Tour d’Argents.
Latter-day gourmets are familiar with the Tour d’Argent, arguably France’s most famous restaurant, tracing its roots to an inn founded in the shadow of Notre Dame in 1582. Following the trend, it adapted a carte , or menu, around 1780, executed by a kitchen brigade of the type formerly reserved for aristocratic homes. Serving kings and courtesans, it introduced the idea that one need not own a country manor to become a gourmet. Viewed as undemocratic, it was pillaged by patriots and auctioned.
As current owner Claude Terrail phrases it, “the ball closed” for a time. It was eventually reopened by Napoleon’s chef, and has since served kings and commoners thousands of its famous numbered ducks. It has retained three stars from Michelin longer than any other Parisian restaurant and, according to many, still merits them.
A visit to its penthouse dining room (moved upstairs decades ago) provides a magnificent bird’s-eye perspective of Notre Dame, an experience that nearly justifies the lofty prices. Current chef Manuel Martinez combines contemporary and classic, under Terrail’s ever-vigilant eye. A fixed-price lunch menu hovers around $50, while dinners climb closer to $100 per person.
Tour d’Argent, 15 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005. Telephone 126.96.36.199. Closed Mondays.
The other Tour d’Argent sits at the Place de la Bastille. National Archive documents establish its opening in 1640. Named for Henri VI’s treasury tower in the original Bastille prison, this Tour d’Argent played an active role in the conflicts of 1789. Owned by Gilbert Gaillard, captain of the people’s army, it was a principal gathering site surrounded by barricades and later served as a hospital. Reopened recently after a two-year renovation by third-generation owner Jean Francois Solignac, it remains a more common ground than the other Tour d’Argent, with which it is still waging a battle, this time in court, over the use of its name.
Its terrace overlooks the curving glass front of the newly unveiled Opera Bastille. The brasserie- style menu features simple grilled items and shellfish platters at prices and hours (until 1:30 p.m.) to make republicans smile. Dinner for one person is $40 or less.
Tour d’Argent Bastille, 6 Place de La Bastille, 75012. Telephone 188.8.131.52. Open daily.
While patriots stormed the Bastille by day, evenings in the Palais Royal steamed with more carnal passions.
An arcaded square built in the 17th Century for Cardinal Richelieu, the gardens by the 1760s drew Paris’ demimonde to cafes, gambling houses and brothels. The most sparkling survivor of the era is Grand Vefour, which traces its history to Antoine Aubertot’s Cafe de Chartres, a fashionable see-and-be scene of the era, established in 1780. Now classified a national monument, the restaurant takes its name from Jean Vefour, who bought it during the Restoration.
Its magnificent decor, Louis XVI-garlanded ceiling and elaborate wall frescoes often backdropped Napoleon and Josephine as diners. Owned today by the Tattinger (Champagne) group with Jean-Claude Lhonneur at the stove this season, its menu is classic, meriting two Michelin stars. Prices are far from democratic (around $100 per person), but there’s an excellent fixed-price lunch menu at $45.
Grand Vefour, 17 rue de Beaujolais, Paris 75001 . Telephone 184.108.40.206. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.
Far from the Bastille and Palais Royal was a seamy little inn called the Auberge du Dauphin. Set on a dirt road leading west out of Paris, it became a carriage stop on the journey from the Tuileries to the Bois de Boulogne. If the Auberge lacked refinement, the location held great potential, and Michel Doyen rented it for 1,200 a year in 1791. The miserable road became the Champs Elysees; the Inn, the elegant Ledoyen. Surviving the centuries, its own fortunes rising and falling with subsequent republics, Ledoyen rose phoenixlike last fall when its lease was taken by Regine, Paris’ nightclub queen. Extensively remodeled, its kitchens have been taken in hand by three-star chef Jacques Maximin (formerly of Hotel Negresco, Nice).
Currently, the place is savoring its reputation as one of Paris’ most expensive and controversial restaurants, while flaunting its revival across the avenue at another restaurant, Laurent, which traces its beginning to the same period. Consultant Maxim recently passed the relay baton, so to speak, to chef Philippe Dorange, but a Provencal flavor remains. Dinner in the subdued salon of Le Guepard can easily pass the $100 per person level, inspiring loyalty among some, derision among others.
Ledoyen, Carre des Champs-Elysees, 75008 Paris . Telephone 220.127.116.11.
Down a Palais Royal passageway on the Rue du Beaujolais existed another restaurant directly linked to the revolution. Antoine Beauvilliers, the Count of Provence’s officer de bouche (chef), unemployed after his employer’s emigration, decided to open a restaurant in 1790.
The restaurant, offering 168 menu choices, was an immediate success. While other restaurants rose little above simple tavern status, Beauvilliers added touches to warm the hearts of contemporary designers--a dining room of tasseled silk, liveried waiters, a well-stocked wine cellar and refined cuisine.
Arrested during the Terror, Beauvilliers survived, and for 15 years was Paris’ most touted and trend-setting restaurateur. As Briffault wrote in 1846, “Quickly raising the reputation of restaurateurs, he did for our cuisine what the 17th and 18th centuries did for our literature.”
Though Beauvilliers no longer exists on its original site, those in search of the restaurant’s spirit will do well to take a little license (and considerable cash) and climb up to Montmartre, where a restaurant conceived in his honor numbers among Paris’ most celebrated.
Beauvilliers, 52, rue Lamarck, Paris 75018 . Telephone 18.104.22.168. Closed Sunday and Monday lunch.
When the revolution broke out, partisans chose their camps or, more likely, their cafes. Royalists gathered at the Cafe Valois, while citizens frequented the Cafe des Aveugles. From the Cafe de Foy, Camille Desmoulins incited the crowds on the 13th of July, 1789, and Danton could frequently be found at the Cafe Parnasse, partly because the owner was his father-in-law.
While these have disappeared, there are others which carry on in much the same revolutionary spirit.
Billing itself as the world’s oldest cafe, and founded in 1686, Le Procope quickly became the fief of politicos and journalists. Playwrights and performers from the nearby Comedie Francaise were habitues, and by the turn of the century Procope was one of the most celebrated of Paris’ cafes. During the revolution, it was the meeting place of Marat, Danton and Robespierre. It’s from there that the order to invade the Tuileries came.
Surviving as an undistinguished bistro since then, it underwent radical change recently when purchased by an ambitious Parisian restaurant group. Salons refurbished in 18th-Century bourgeois style now set the stage for waiters in Napoleonic waistcoats and a menu of “reign of terror” selections: Dr. Guillotin fish soup.
The best formula here, perhaps: Have a cup of coffee, read the newspapers and contemplate the Rights of Man.
Le Procope, 13 rue de 1’Ancienne--Comedie, 75006. Telephone 22.214.171.124. Open daily.