Maxim’s: Dining At The World’s Most Famous Restaurant
When I was younger, food wasn’t an important item in my life.
This was the late 1970s, and I had more important things on my mind. Like boys, clothes, and how to keep that bully at school off my back so I wouldn’t be late to tennis practice.
Even less important than food was anything that didn’t concern my geographical microcosm. So it was thanks to evening sitcoms whose characters occasionally talked about taking romantic getaways that I visualized what I thought was France: all baguettes, berets, and the Eiffel Tower.
Looking back through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, a few things other than boys and tennis stick out in my mind: this was the classic era in which my lifelong love of rock and roll developed. It was during these impressionable years that I saw my first Corvette parked at a neighbor’s house and knew someday I would have one of those beauties all for myself. And I had also undoubtedly heard the name of what at that time was the most famous restaurant in the entire world: Maxim’s.
In Paris, but not thinking about Maxim’s
That latter factoid – unlike all the others I listed off – resided squarely in my subconscious until one day during one of my many, many trips to Paris (oddly enough, a city I visit several times a year these many decades later), I rode down Rue Royale in the back of a taxi and spied the famous red sign of the restaurant that had captivated my imagination – albeit briefly – all those many years ago . . . a time during which I dreamed of one day being fabulous enough to actually eat there, sitting at the window with my glass of pink champagne hoping that passersby were appropriately jealous of me.
In all the years I have been going to Paris, staying in swanky five-star hotels and eating cuisine prepared by the famous chefs who populate Paris – my job has been very, very good to me – it never once crossed my mind that I could actually just make a reservation and go to Maxim’s.
I had even forgotten that Maxim’s was in Paris, so out of vogue it had fallen in my mind.
Until recently, that is, when an old friend from the above-described period of my life, who I had lost touch with for decades, found me on Facebook and we rekindled our friendship. This serendipitous occurrence woke all kinds of old dreams in me, triggering memories of a time I had long but forgotten.
And as fate would have it, she regularly travels to Europe. And in particular to Paris.
What now seems like a natural progression felt in fact like a lightbulb going off in my head: during our first trip to Paris together, we of course dined at Maxim’s wanting to celebrate the moment.
And if you think I had set the bar high for this evening, you’d be spot on. But the truth was that adult me didn’t know what to expect from the place. There had to be a reason no one talks about Maxim’s anymore and none of my chic business acquaintances had ever suggested dining there.
Had this institution, now officially classified as a historical monument in Paris, degenerated into a veritable tourist trap with a grand name? Had it not fared better than most of what you find on the Champs-Elysées today?
I was about to find out.
A short history of Maxim’s
But, first, let’s very briefly delve into why Maxim’s is – or was – the most famous restaurant in the world.
Founded in 1893 by Maxime Gaillard, it was first a bistro. Its next owner, Eugene Cornuché, redecorated the dining room in the then-fashionable Art Nouveau style, adding a piano and making sure that beautiful women always populated it. La belle époque indeed.
In 1932 Octave Vaudable bought Maxim’s. The culinary heart of Paris, some of the famous guests he invited to become regulars included artist Jean Cocteau and British King Edward VIII. The restaurant was protected during World War II by the fact that the German high command loved to dine there (though it briefly closed after France’s liberation, reopening in 1946).
The 1950s jet set, including luminaries such as Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, the Duke of Windsor (the previous Edward VIII) and his Wallis Simpson, frequented Maxim’s.
As did 1970s celebrities like Brigitte Bardot, John Travolta, and Barbra Streisand.
It was during these three decades under the management of Louis Vaudable, Octave’s son, that Maxim’s became globally known as the most famous and one of the most expensive restaurants in the world.
The Vaudables sold it to Pierre Cardin in 1981; the 96-year-old French fashion designer and his family still own it.
Maxim’s has shown up often in works of art throughout the 126 years of its existence: the third act of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow operetta was set there; it was mentioned in the film La Grande Illusion (1937) and pop group Sparks’ “I Predict”; playwright Georges Feydeau’s comedy La Dame de chez Maxim placed it squarely in the title; and it featured grandly in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
And Ernest Hemingway, who wrote (among other things), “ . . . Even the original Maxim’s in Paris is a dull enough place . . . The music plays loudly and the prices are high. It is a good place to get a headache.” The references go on and on.
Saturday night, dining at Maxim’s
The Saturday finally arrived when I would dine at Maxim’s; and the anticipation was building.
When I asked at the hotel’s front desk for the best way to get to there, the concierge gave me an approving nod and suggested we take the Metro instead of a taxi as the Yellow Vests were protesting and a number of streets in that part of the city were closed off.
The approving nod reinforced my feeling of having made a spectacularly good decision of dining there, and my anticipation inched yet another degree upward.
We arrived at exactly 8 pm; after checking our coats we followed the maître d’ to our table in the main dining room . . . which was surprisingly empty. In fact only three other tables were filled, and one of those tables became unexpectedly vacant after the Asian couple occupying it suddenly stood up and left, even leaving half-filled wine glasses on the table and leaving me to ponder the startling departure.
I could not help but notice the Art Nouveau beauty of the dining room, but also its slightly musty smell, both reminding me of the geriatric age of the place. I also wondered whether the stage and dance floor that the tables were arranged around were still used.
A waiter interrupted these thoughts to finally take drink orders. Discovering the only champagne available by the glass was “Maxim’s brand,” I inquired as to which wines were available on the menu by the glass.
The answer – “white or red” – garnered the waiter a stern look and a light chuff from me, at which point he deigned to name the grapes, but not the vineyards. I backtracked to the house champagne, deciding I would indeed probably get the most joy out of that after all, knowing that it at least came from the Champagne region.
A quick Google search later revealed that it is available to buy in Maxim’s online shop and from other sources, but the origin vineyard is mentioned nowhere.
The small menu displayed traditional dishes, but nothing very fancy and not quite approaching contemporary French haute cuisine. Its paucity did explain the Asian couple’s sudden departure to me, though, as I entertained the same fleeting thought.
As our lamb and coquilles Saint-Jacques arrived, my question about the small stage answered itself as an English-language entertainer appeared, overpowering our conversation with old-fashioned chansons (“La Vie en Rose” naturally leading off his set) and what was surely meant to be witty banter.
My feelings of awe at dining at Maxim’s were soon replaced with a relative need to leave the musty nostalgic atmosphere now tinged with regret caused by the idea of spending too much money on too little return on my investment other than quenching an ideal.
So when the waiter came back to clear our plates – mine wasn’t even empty as I could not identify the cardboard-like vegetable that accompanied my scallops, though later I became quite sure it was kohlrabi – my friend and I decided that dessert (possibly even in liquid form) would best be taken elsewhere.
So after a self-guided tour of the building, we took our leave of what I was now sure was the most expensive tourist trap in Paris and headed for the Les Ambassadeurs bar in the freshly renovated historic Crillon hotel around the corner.
And with that we stepped back into the contemporary luxury of modern-day Paris, where our hard-earned money was very well spent on an extraneous luxury, but one that left a very good taste in our mouths and even fonder new memories in our heads.
For more information, please visit maxims-de-paris.com.