Tag Archives: Paris

Maxim’s three of NYC

As some New Yorkers may recall, their city once boasted a certified branch of the famed Maxim’s de Paris. It opened in 1985 on two floors in the Carlton House on Madison and 61st. After seven years in which it went through many changes, it closed in 1992. It was grand and expensive, but despite its golden name never made it into the highest ranks of NYC restaurants.

The proprietor of an earlier, independent Maxim’s in New York, Julius Keller [pictured below], once wrote that “the American people reveled in anything that savored of a European atmosphere,” but perhaps that was truer in his day than the 1980s. His Maxim’s thrived from 1909 until 1920 when it fell victim to wartime austerity.

It was one of the “lobster palaces” on and near Broadway that appeared before the First World War to cater to fun-seeking after-theater crowds. Typically the palaces adopted French names, poured champagne like water, and featured some form of entertainment as well as premium-priced chicken sandwiches and broiled crustaceans.

Keller, who liked to be called Jules because it was classier, was a Swiss immigrant who landed in New York solo in 1880 at age 16. After working as a waiter in a number of restaurants and hotels, and eventually owning a few, he found a promising location on 38th street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Activity was moving in that direction and he thought he could make a go of it despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by four failed predecessors which included the Café des Ambassadeurs and the Café de France.

At first he operated under the name Café de France. Nobody came. So, being resourceful, he dressed his waiters like servants to Louis XIV, hired an orchestra, and, most importantly, borrowed the name of the famous Paris house of good food and naughty gaiety, Maxim’s. Success followed quickly. Each year on New Years Eve he gave away souvenir plates displaying the words, “Let us go to Maxim’s, where fun & frolic beams,” possibly lyrics from the 1899 French play The Girl from Maxim’s.

His clientele was made up of society figures, financiers, celebrities, and those indispensable “others” with money to spend. Maxim’s courtly tone had a tendency to slip occasionally, as was often the case with lobster palaces. On one occasion in 1911, 250 people coming from the annual automobile show jammed the place, causing quite a fracas when the staff had to forcibly eject them in the wee hours. But Keller drew the line at known criminals. He deliberately discouraged the patronage of gangster friends from the old days – when he had ventured into gambling and, as part of the operation of his Old Heidelberg, prostitution. He wanted Maxim’s to be first-class.

During his years operating Maxim’s Jules was known as “the father of café society,” and for providing male dance partners for lone women patrons in the dance craze of 1914. Among these was his discovery, Rudolph Valentino. He was proud of his restaurant. As he wrote in his 1939 autobiography Inns and Outs, his visit to the original Maxim’s convinced him “that the replica we had put together . . . suffered nothing from comparison.”

Given restaurant-world Francophilia and the fame of the Maxim’s name, it’s to be expected that there were namesakes scattered across the U.S.A. (even in pre-WWI Salt Lake City, a city not generally known for kicking up its heels). And it’s hardly surprising that there was yet another Maxim’s in New York, this one sprouting in the Depression among other Greenwich Village hotspots such as The Black Cat, The Blue Horse, and El Chico. Other than that it acquired new banquettes around 1931, I know absolutely nothing about it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Birth of the theme restaurant

Credit for the development of the first theme restaurants goes to Paris cafés and cabarets which opened in Montmartre in the later nineteenth century. They were primarily drinking spots rather than full-scale restaurants but they served food also. Like American theme restaurants today they were built around a concept and created an environment which appeared to be something other than a mere eating and drinking place.

In their early years these artistic cafés had a counter-cultural impetus that in some cases celebrated the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 which had been rooted in Montmartre.

That was particularly true of the Café du Bagne (Café of the Penitentiary) established in 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne (shown with waiters), a member of the Commune long exiled in a South Pacific penal colony. Posters on the wall of his café, which replicated a prison eating hall, hailed Commune heroes. Waiters were dressed as real convicts but with fake balls and chains. The place caused an instant sensation when it opened, with patrons lining up outside to get in. Possessed of a socialistic mission, Lisbonne posted a sign in 1886 announcing a free breakfast for the poor residents of Montmartre: “Come, and eat your fill, your appetite sharpened by the knowledge that it was from their [the capitalists] coffers the money was extracted.”

The Chateau d’If’ of the 1880s, possibly an imitator of the Café du Bagne, was designed to resemble the prison by the same name in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Outside it had an imitation drawbridge which stretched from the street to a large oak door, while inside were cells and dungeons. The L’Abbaye de Thélème, with a medieval theme, dressed its servers as monks and nuns.

At Le Chat Noir, the decor was in Louis XIII style, with waiters dressed in the authentic green jackets of the Immortals of the French Academy whose job it was to protect the purity of the French language – the object being, of course, to mock them. When it was established in 1881, Le Chat Noir, which was also decorated with images of black cats throughout, served as a club for artists where they exhibited their work. Its fame spread quickly and it became a magnet for visitors to Paris. (Later incarnation of Le Chat Noir pictured below.)

Many of the Montmartre cafés celebrated the macabre, with paintings and decor whose subjects included infanticide, crucifixion, and assassination, but in 1894 The Café of Death opened, furnished with coffins serving as tables. The police objected to its name and its habit of serving beer in imitation human skulls so its name was changed to the Cabaret du Néant [of Nothingness].

The 1890s marked a turning point at which original owners left the scene, artists stopped coming, bohemianism vanished, and new café owners took dead aim at tourists. Certainly few of the popular cafés and cabarets of the early 20th century had much connection with earlier enterprises even when old names remained. Many felt that the Café de l’Enfer (Café of Hell) exemplified the purely commercial type of enterprise.

The spirit of Paris’s bohemian cafés passed into the United States first in New York City. Au Chat Noir was in business there in 1895, decorated with a wall frieze of black cats. Otherwise, though, it seemed like a fairly standard small French restaurant of the day serving dishes such as cold lobster, tripe, and deviled crabs. Later at least a couple of other cafés named The Black Cat appeared in NY and Coppa’s in San Francisco adopted a similar theme.

Other early theme restaurants undoubtedly inspired by Paris cafés include beefsteak dungeons in New York and elsewhere, as well as tea rooms and cabarets in Greenwich Village both before and after World War I, a prime example being the Pirates’ Den. As in Paris, theme restaurants and cafés rapidly lost any counter-cultural overtones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Who hasn’t heard of Maxim’s in Paris?

maximslogoThe name has cast a spell over Americans since the 1890s and bits of its odd history have played out in the U.S. The fortunes of the “world’s most famous restaurant” have risen and fallen. It has won high ratings and lost them. It has been the subject and site of operettas, songs, and movies. It has been declared a French national treasure and an altar to haute cuisine, but also a fraud and a tourist trap. Maxim’s name has appeared on perfumes, airplane meals, and franchised outlets, yet even today it resonates.

maxim's1966According to most accounts a waiter named Maxime Gaillard began Maxim’s in 1893. Yet another report calls him maitre d’hôtel Signor Maximo, while another stakes a claim for Georges Everard as founder in 1890. Everyone seems to agree, though, that the early Maxim’s was a late-night glamour magnet for American and English visitors to Paris, liberally supplied with friendly prostitutes. In 1899 it acquired a flamboyant Art Nouveau interior with enough murals, curves, and mirrors for a loopy carnival ride. Its prices were high, which may explain why many turn-of-the-century patrons, though dressed in silks and tuxedos, preferred to watch the action while munching pommes frites, an early specialty of the house.

maxims1967blue1Detractors, such as H. L. Mencken, charged that Maxim’s “gypsy” orchestra was composed of Germans and that the toy balloons floating around were from “the Elite Novelty Co. of Jersey City, U.S.A.” In “Paris à la Carte” (1911), Julian Street, an authority on French food and wines, asserted “I abominate it,” and denounced it as “a brazen fake, over-advertised, ogling, odoriferous; a nightmare of smoke, champagne, and banality.” Debauched merrymakers aside, these were the golden years, before World War I, the era of wine, women, and song on which the Maxim’s legend would be built.

Business was slowed down by war and evidently did not pick up much in the 1920s. By the 1930s Maxim’s was ready for an overhaul. Octave Vaudable acquired it in 1932 (however in other accounts the owner was a British syndicate). After undergoing German WWII occupation followed by service as a British officers’ mess hall, the restaurant resumed regular operation in 1946 under the management of Octave’s son and daughter-in-law. The reopening, according to Colman Andrews (wine and food writer and co-founder of Saveur), “marked the end of the legendary Maxim’s and the beginning of the Maxim’s legend.”

maxim's1896MenuBy 1953 the restaurant had earned 3 stars in the Michelin Guide and was starting on a new course. It had developed a frozen food division which supplied airplane meals and was poised to sell frozen sauces and entrées in select American stores. In another twist, Maxim’s authorized a Chicago franchise which in 1963 opened an exact replica of the original with chefs trained in Paris. In the 1970s Maxim’s began a downward slide in the Kleber and Gault/Millau guidebooks. By 1978 the restaurant was no longer listed in Michelin, but more franchises were popping up in Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, and Palm Springs. About this time, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who would buy Maxim’s in 1981, obtained a license and began to merchandise candy, perfume, men’s wear, and other goods under that label. Several Maxim’s have come and gone around the world but today the original Paris Maxim’s persists and there are Maxim’s luxury restaurants and hotels in 7 other cities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Rats and other unwanted guests

It would be unusual to find an advertising card from an American restaurant with such a humorous attitude toward rats as shown on this French postcard. Here we see the “rat who is not dead,” a play on The Dead Rat, a famous bohemian café in 1920s Paris. In this country, restaurants would rather their customers never think about rats or other vermin. Their customers also prefer to put the subject out of mind.

As a consequence, researching this topic is not so easy – BUT it is possible. Even the impeccable Delmonico’s, at its peak in the 1850s, used the historic version of Roach Doom, also lethal to rats. Cheap restaurants of the 1870s were known familiarly as “cockroach dens” and one New York place was dubbed Cockroach Hall, all very funny until rumors circulated that cockroaches were regularly seen floating in the minestrone. Bohemian joints in San Francisco were renowned for keeping monkeys and parrots and winking at the roaches swarming the walls. Over time patrons became less tolerant of these conditions. Really, who could disagree with the journalist of the 1890s who wrote, “A dining room that smells of grease or mold or stale cookery, or that has cockroaches in the wainscot that peep out at the customer as he sits at dinner … is not a desirable place to go”?

The real crackdown came in the early 20th century after exposés described unhygienic kitchens to a public already queasy from revelations about Chicago stockyards. Cities enacted tougher sanitary laws and sent out inspectors with the power to shut down filthy eateries. Still, I recall the large rat that glanced at me as it went about its business a few years ago in New York lunchroom late at night. The truth is they will never totally go away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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