Not for the lack of choice, but more so because of the ambience we reserved yet again a private dining room at Lapérouse. This time in the salon named after a certain famous courtesan – La Belle Otero. Our host, Hugo, a historian by degree, came in at regular intervals to tell the story of the second oldest restaurant in Paris.
…Lapérouse’s evolution is intimately linked to that of the 6th arrondissement, in which it is located. The restaurant’s first incarnation was tied to the destruction of the nearby Monastery of the Grands Augustins, which became the site of the Market of the Valley, specializing in poultry and game. M. Lefebvre, who was Master of the King’s Beverages to Louis XV (r. 1715—74) and to whom the king officially accorded the title of ‘Wine Merchant’ in 1766, purchased the private mansion, which had originally been constructed for Forget, Count of Bruillevert, Master of the Royal Waters and Forests to Louis XIV (r. 1643—1715).
There, Lefebvre opened a bar that quickly became famous for its quality as well as for its highly original turnstile, which indicated how many bottles had to be brought up from his glorious wine cellar. The place was always crowded with attorneys accompanied by their assistants and clients. Clever Lefebvre had the idea to place the small, unoccupied servants’ quarters on the first floor at his customers’ disposal so that they might review their accounts and discuss business with the utmost privacy. In that era, since there were neither credit cards nor checks and the crime rate was high, it was recommended to keep secret one’s assets.
Jules Lapérouse took over in 1840. He enjoyed the coincidence of sharing the same name as the famous French eighteenth-century explorer but became popular in his own rights. His clients proved their loyalty by providing advices for the redecoration of the upstairs “Petits Salons”, which turned to be very popular.
Indeed, a clause in French law made any accusation of adultery invalid if the reported incident had occurred in a public place, which was just what these ‘Petits Salons’ were considered to be. One needed to prove that adultery had taken place in private in order to make the charge stick.
Senators and politicians of all parties were permitted to arrive via a hidden stairway built into the structure’s foundations. The sympathetic but not naive courtesans, whom they secretly met upstairs, scratched the diamonds their paramours gave them in the mirrors in order to be certain that their ‘understanding’ had not been rewarded with an ordinary piece of glass.
Lapérouse might have been dealt a fatal blow when, just before 1870, the Market of the Valley moved across the river into the new Halles, constructed by Victor Baltard. On the contrary, the place became a favorite meeting spot for dealers, editors and writers, who discovered the ‘wine merchant’s place’ with its ‘Petits Salons’. Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, Colette, author of ‘La Chatte’, and Alexandre Dumas fils, all attended it. Victor Hugo tasted jams with his grandchilds every afternoon in the ‘Salon La Fontaine’.
By the end of the 1870s Lapérouse had become an important gastronomic destination, whose reputation, a leading guide of the era reported, was founded upon its ‘excellent cuisine’. The renowned chef Auguste Escoffier cooked there for eight months; then came Lecroze. When M. Topolinsky bought Lapérouse in 1920, he received more gastronomic distinctions than any other restaurateur and kept them for almost half a century, while welcoming the international elite — crowned heads, politicians, and luminaries of arts and letters — through his doors.
The well-known food critic Curnonsky (Maurice Edmond Saillard) proclaimed that the ‘Maison Lapérouse’ had a great kitchen of tradition. A legacy that is still preserved in its menus today.
today there are only happy faces
one of the famous mirrors
oriental inspired tapestry
the evening started in the bar rouge with….a cosmopolitan, what else?