Just off the Avenue de l'Opéra in Paris, not far from the neighborhood known as Les Grands Boulevards, in the tiny Place Gaillon, is the Restaurant Drouant. It is painted appropriately enough the same dove-gray as a boulevardier's spats, and in the same spirit the entire building is rakishly well maintained. The first-floor windows have potted carnations, the corner molding reads "Drouant 1880," and the oyster displays are backed up against the outside walls, shielded from the passing traffic by a bank of sculpted shrubs. It is a few minutes' walk from here to the Palais Garnier opera house and only a slightly longer stroll to the Comédie Française and the colonnaded gallery of the Palais Royal. It is, however, a long way from here to a reclaimed landfill in the borough of Queens, New York, though that is where this quintessential Belle Époque restaurant may have left its most lasting mark. It was from Drouant and its sister restaurant, the nearby Café de Paris, that a group of restaurant workers would embark to open the restaurant at the French Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair. The fair was held within sight of the Manhattan skyline, on a piece of land that Life magazine, even as it tried to promote the fair, could only describe as "a desolate, swampy, stinking expanse called Flushing Meadow." The French Pavilion was meant to communicate something finer, a certain idea of France-and in a very Parisian way, it did. The second-fioor balcony of the restaurant looked across the Lagoon of Nations with all the elegant entitlement of the terrace of Fouquet's on the Champs-Élysées, as if its every fluttering parasol were announcing to the country that the French had arrived.
The president of the fair, Grover A. Whalen, wrote that it "was built and dedicated to the people." Brotherly spirit was in the air and the theme that the entire fair was centered around was nothing less than "The World of Tomorrow." In the real world of tomorrow, Hitler would be invading Poland on September 1 of that year; but in the world of tomorrow the way the organizers meant it, everyone would have a GE toaster, a Chevy in the driveway, and AT&T long distance. Subtlest of all the promotional devices was the concept of audience interaction. The hard sell would have introduced a jarring note within the communal spirit of the fair and so, instead of simply showing a product as one did in a showroom, corporations showed Americans how the products worked. Thus, a market segment became "an audience," a sales floor became "a diorama," and a pitch "a demonstration."
At General Motors's "Futurama" exhibit, fairgoers could gaze at Norman Bel Geddes's design for a city surrounded by fourteen-lane highways that somehow managed to be both car-filled and fast-moving. Meanwhile, AT&T provided a balcony where three hundred people at a time could listen in on one lucky person's free long-distance conversation. GE brought its audience in by having engineers put five million volts of electricity through a hot dog to see if it would cook. (It wouldn't; it simply tasted burned.) Among international participants, the English may have failed to understand the subtlety of the interactive method when they brought the Magna Carta, an object that could not be bought. The French did not make that same mistake. They did not bring Gobelin tapestries or the Mona Lisa; they brought a restaurant that could seat four hundred, Le Pavillon de France.
The team of men who would work at this restaurant had been put together in France like specialists for a heist. The chef had been chef at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo; the sous-chef had worked at La Coupole in Montparnasse. Even a minor fish cook like Pierre Franey had been well trained in the kitchens of Drouant. The front of the house was taken care of by Monsieur Drouant himself, while the day-to-day operation was run by the maître d'hôtel of the Café de Paris, unknown as yet but soon to be mythical in the American restaurant world, Henri Soulé. Picked by Monsieur Drouant, backed by the French government, transported by the ocean liner that was the pride of the French Line, the Normandie, they disembarked at Pier 88 in the spring of 1939 and took their first steps in America across the still-cobblestoned Twelfth Avenue.
May 9, 1939-two days after President Roosevelt officially opened the fair-was a busy day at the Flushing fairgrounds. At the AT&T Pavilion, with three hundred people listening in, a member of the crowd, Carl Joss, Jr., put through a call to a certain Mrs. Alberts in St. Cloud Minnesota. ("Hello, is this Mrs. Albertsfi" the New York Times reported the conversation as starting. "This is Carl. I got a lucky number at the World's Fair so I'm able to make this call free.")
Carl Joss, Jr., undoubtedly used up his three free minutes explaining to Mrs. Alberts how it came to be that the American Telephone and Telegraph Company was giving away free phone time. Meanwhile, Mayor La Guardia, appearing unannounced at the Italian Pavilion, made a plea in two languages for world peace. Some of the attendees failed to understand either one of them and replied by shouting "Viva Mussolini!" and bursting into the Fascist hymn "Giovinezza."
At the French Pavilion, the restaurant opened with a gala meal. Served to Mr. and Mrs. Grover A. Whalen, the French ambassador, Count René Doynel de Saint-Quentin, other dignitaries, and 275 guests was the following menu:
Double Consommé de Viveur
Homard Pavillon de France
Noisettes de Prés-Salé Ambassadrice
Chapon Fin à la Gelée d'Estragon
Cœur de Laitue Princesse
A meal that the Times translated in the next day's edition as "Chicken consommé with twisted cheese sticks, broiled lobster with cream sauce served over rice, saddle of lamb with potato balls and stuffed artichokes, cold capon with aspic, and asparagus with French dressing served on lettuce leaves, strawberries with ice cream and whipped cream, with petit fours and coffee."
As lacking as the translation is, it does communicate the exoticness with which French food was perceived at the time (and, more subtly, the fact that the dishes were unheard-of by most readers), but the article does not claim that such food was actually unavailable in New York because, in fact, it already was. Perhaps not at the wholly American restaurants like the Stork Club or the "21" Club, but certainly at a select few French-influenced restaurants. Escoffier himself had opened the kitchens of the Pierre Hotel in 1930; and at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the famed chef Louis Diat not only created soups like vichyssoise but also dishes named after Hollywood stars, such as Chicken Gloria Swanson. At the Colony, on Sixty-first Street near Madison Avenue, the favorite restaurant of New York society-the polished owner, Gene Cavallero (who in the circuitous genealogies of the restaurant business would employ as a young captain Sirio Maccioni, who would go on to open Le Cirque) could, with the help of his French chef, also have produced such a meal. But he probably would not have had it translated, the understanding of the time being that if you needed to have it translated, you probably couldn't afford it.
At the Colony, the ladies' bathroom was famously filled with yapping lapdogs, and the dining room a sea of tables of ladies in hats with their fur coats draped over the back of their chairs. Here, the sense of clubbiness was so pronounced that the author of the restaurant's history, Iles Brody-described by his publisher as "informal, witty and urbane"-saw fit to describe the scene when someone who did not belong dared to venture in. "When perchance an unfamiliar face appears in the doorway of the dining room, all conversation within stops, forks on their way to lovely lips pause in midair, and you, newcomer, find yourself the focus of beautiful and inquisitive eyes of patricians." Anyone with a taste for twisted cheese sticks who would be uncomfortable being the focus of all this patrician attention was out of luck.
The restaurant of the French Pavilion would change that. The day after the opening gala, the average fairgoer arrived. In the first month of operation, the restaurant served 18,401 meals. In the second month, that number increased to 26,510. This was a restaurant very much in the spirit of the fair. The experience offered was not that of some wonder of technology but of dining in a French restaurant. Here, the restaurant itself was the diorama, eating was the audience participation, and, most prophetic of all, gastronomy was the product.
Grover A. Whalen may have cared about "the people" but Henri Soulé had only ever cared about the right people. In this regard, the configuration of the dining room at the French Pavilion could not have pleased him. Every table spread out over the five semicircular tiers looked out across the Lagoon of Nations toward the massive statue of a heroic worker that crowned the Soviet building. It wasn't that the view bothered him, it was that every table had the same view. No table, therefore, was better than any other one, thus denying him the opportunity to show preference to a customer and to display the true artistry of the classic French maître d' that is not a dainty show of carving but rather the expertly delivered snub. This was an area of expertise in which Henri Soulé had had the very best training that France could provide.
A portly five-foot-five-inch native of a hamlet near Bayonne in the French Basque country, Soulé followed the classic waiter's career path, going through all the stops at a very high speed. First as an apprentice at the Hôtel Continental in Biarritz, continuing up in Paris as a waiter at the Hôtel Mirabeau on the Rue de la Paix; he was a twenty-three-year-old captain at Claridge's on the Champs-Élysées and eventually assistant maître d' at the Michelin three-star Café de Paris. This last restaurant was managed by the famed restaurateur Luis Barraya, brother-in-law of Jean Drouant, who also managed the Pavillon d'Armenonville and the Pré Catelan in the elegant Bois de Boulogne (and, yes, Fouquet's). It is a list of names that is definitive of a level of elegance that certain French restaurants excel at and for which, ironically, they use an English word to describe-they call it le standing.
To understand where le standing comes from, we must review a little bit of history, going back to the late-nineteenth century when the future King of England, Edward VII, was still Prince of Wales. The prince loved Paris. He loved the theater, the sensuality of the cocottes. He loved to get away from his long-living mother, Victoria, whose shadow stretched from Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands to wherever in England he might happen to be, and, as much as anything else, he loved the food. The French language, slow to give a compliment, flung verbal bouquets at him by the adoption of certain words, all with vaguely Edwardian connotations. In Proust, the cocotte Odette de Crécy finds Charles Swann-her future husband, a member of the ultraselect Jockey Club and friend of the Prince of Wales-not "très chic" but "très smart." There were words that related to clothing: "le dandy," "le smoking," "le Prince de Galles" (plaid). There were words to describe activities: "le tea," "le steeple chase," and words to describe certain types: "le turfman" and, more pointedly, "le snob."
When in Paris, Edward enjoyed being hosted by the French Rothschilds, most notably Baron Alphonse, a practitioner of what has been called "the modified Rothschild style." (The full Rothschild style, as interpreted by Alphonse's father, James de Rothschild, may have been too difficult to reproduce, since culinarily it involved having the great Carême as your personal chef and the purchase of not only Château Lafite the wine but also Château Lafite the château.) The modified Rothschild style was thus best represented in Alphonse's Paris town house-known in French as a hôtel particulier-on the Rue Saint Florentin, where in an atmosphere of footmen and Louis XVI furniture, with views of both the Tuileries and the Place de la Concorde, the future King of England could dine in a setting that was suitably royal.
It didn't take long for someone to realize that the modified Rothschild style could be modified even further and that the select and private atmosphere that reigned on the Rue Saint Florentin could be kept select but made public. That person was the hotelier César Ritz.
The core belief of all Ritz properties was that if only for an instant guests should be able to feel that they were not in a hotel but in a hôtel particulier, a town house suitable to a member of the highest stratum of society. To achieve this, one did not just need the right food, for which Ritz had Escoffier, nor the right mix of Louis XIV antiques and a Regency setting. One needed a sweeping staircase. For that, Ritz turned to the master of the sweeping staircase of the period-the Royal Automobile Club in Piccadilly and a Warburg residence among them-Charles Mewes. The staircase that Mewes put into the Paris Ritz captured perfectly the dream that Ritz was trying to create. In a world of sweeping staircases, every bellhop was a footman, the lobby was a ballroom, and the fantasy that one just might be at Alphonse de Rothschild's was complete.
In fact, it was the Rothschilds that were at the Ritz. Among everything else that went on during the opening party of the Paris Ritz on June 5, 1898, Ritz's wife, Marie-Louise, found time to note that "the Rothschilds were there en masse." No less an authority on social nuance than the Prince of Wales understood what Ritz hotels achieved. "Where Ritz goes," he once said, "there I go."
From Ritz's point of view, it may have been too close a connection. In 1901, Queen Victoria did finally die. Edward immediately became king and his coronation ceremony was scheduled for the summer of the following year. Four days before it was to be held, the king developed a severe case of appendicitis. Ritz's Carlton Hotel in London was stuffed with royals from around the world (the procession itself was to pass right in front of the flower-laden balconies). In his memoirs, Escoffier, the chef at the Carlton, the man whose kitchens were now horribly overstaffed and whose pantries were monstrously overstocked, is tellingly reticent on the subject. "The following banquet was prepared for the gala planned to be held at the Carlton Hotel on June 24, 1902." Significantly enough, in terms of the culinary tradition of le standing, the same twisted cheese sticks that garnished the consommé in Flushing, Queens, were to grace the third of twelve courses of Edward VII coronation gala. Ritz did not take the appendicitis crisis quite as equanimously as Escoffier did. On the day it was announced that the coronation was postponed until August 9, he presented himself at the door of the dining room, repeated the news to the gathered dignitaries-who immediately canceled their stays-and then he went home to Golders Green and took to bed with a case of nervous exhaustion from which he never fully recovered.
Escoffier and Mewes would go on. Their particular gifts would intersect again when Edward VII's nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, decided to upstage the titans of British ocean travel, White Star-the company that would build the Titanic-and Cunard, with the ships of Germany's own Hamburg-Amerika Line. The Amerika was to make her maiden voyage in 1905 and the kaiser wanted it to be the most elegant liner that ever sailed. For that, he turned to the two Frenchmen. Mewes would be in charge of the staircases; Escoffier would look after the food in the small and very exclusive Ritz-Carlton Restaurant. The kaiser could only have been pleased when upon its arrival in New York Harbor, the Amerika was described by the New York Herald as "a floating St. Regis," referring to what was then considered the ultimate American interpretation of Edwardian grandeur, the hotel built by John Jacob Astor (who drowned on the Titanic) that opened in 1904 just east of Fifth Avenue on Fifty-fifth Street in New York.
It was directly across from the St. Regis that Henri Soulé-after working the 1939 season in Flushing, then returning to France to join a machine-gun company in the French army before being sent back to Flushing as manager of Le Pavillon de France for the 1940 season (by order of the French prime minister)-opened his New York restaurant. He shortened the name to Le Pavillon, put up Paget murals of the chestnut trees of the Champs-Élysées, and on October 15, 1941, opened for business. He invited the Vanderbilts, the Cabots, the Rockefellers, and the Kennedys for that first evening. He served them a set menu of caviar, sole bonne femme, poulet braisé au champagne, cheese, and dessert. And when it was over, he went upstairs to his changing room where he kept the tuxedos he wore for dinner and the blue suits, white shirts, and Macclesfield ties he would wear for lunch. He thought of all the people, including his wife, who because of the war could not be with him and he cried.
But let's not leave Soulé like this. Let's fast-forward several years to the glorious period of postwar New York, a city that Jan Morris, quoting John Cheever, describes as filled with "river light." It is in that light, on a bracingly cold winter's day, that we stand at 5 East Fifty-fifth Street before the restaurant's awning. Its three lines read:
Because it is a ground-fioor restaurant, there is no possibility of a sweeping staircase for customers to make la grande descente. Consequently, the front door becomes the focal point of the restaurant, and just as on all great ocean liners where the best tables were always the ones closest to the staircase, at Le Pavillon, the best tables are those closest to the door. Soulé has seven tables right at the entrance. He calls it "la Royale," the waiters call it "the blue-blood station." It is filled with the now mainly forgotten titans of Café Society: the Comtesse Camargo, who gave legendary parties at her estate in Cuba, Dubonnet, the Duchess of Windsor, Colonel Benes, and Cole Porter. But let's deny ourselves, for now, the experience of being the recipients of Henri Soulé's sizing-up should we venture in the front door and instead move just a few steps to the right to a more battered door from behind which the slightly insane sounds of a lunchtime service going at full speed emanate. It is the service entrance and let us instead pull this door open.
Here, there is a stairwell; the steps are dark with a compacted coat of grease left by deliverymen's work boots. We descend. The first people we see are two New York police patrolmen, in from the cold, warming themselves with big bowls of pot-au-feu that they rest on stacked cases of leeks. We pass them and, as we approach the kitchen, the noise level and sense of tension increase. Many of the menu items are cooked au gratin, under the salamanders. Because the only way to keep the salamanders hot enough to perform the gratin but not so hot that they will curdle the sauce is to intermittently throw water underneath it, the cooks are essentially working in a steam bath. These are men many of whom came over to work at the World's Fair, who are in America but not quite here. They may catch the IRT to Brooklyn every night after pulling their daily double shifts, but they still send their white bonnets back to France with friends who work on the French Line to have them pressed by nuns who, because of their own veils, are experts in pressing pleats into starched cotton.
We go up the busy stairwell that leads to the dining room, following a waiter carrying a silver serving dish with a rack of lamb surrounded by a bouquetière of tiny perfectly turned vegetables, and we slip inside just as the swinging door closes behind us. At the Royale, Cole Porter is still beaming at the recent memory of seeing the entire score of "Begin the Beguine" laid out in truffie notes on the surface of eighty eggs in aspic that were served at one of his private parties. Meanwhile, at his table, Joe Kennedy is tucking into his favorite order of veal chops Orloff, a dish that as proof that le standing could survive two world wars had been served by Escoffier himself to the ship-fixated kaiser aboard the Imperator in 1913. Soulé is happy also. The dining room is filled with the right people and everything is going well. As the waiter puts the lamb dish down on the gueridon, or small table, from where it would be served, the customers who have ordered it look up in admiration. Soulé beams in a very French way. He is going to show them how it is done. He shoots his cuffs to better show off the cuff links that are a gift from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (or, historically, from the grandson of the man whose appendicitis attack caused César Ritz to have a nervous breakdown) and begins to carve. Outside on Fifty-fifth Street, two strangely contented-looking patrolmen walk straight past all the double-parked limousines, both feeling the warm glow of a sensation wholly new to them-the taste of French food.
Reprinted from The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: America's Culinary Revolution by Patric Kuh by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Patric Kuh. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.