The 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.
According 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.
Detractors, 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.”
By 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