Alternative headings for this post could be Former Busboy Becomes Famous Restaurateur, Best Mid-Century French Restaurant in the U.S., or The Restaurant that Set the Standard for Fine Dining.
In other words, everyone who has known or researched Le Pavillon agrees that it produced this country’s finest French cuisine for most of its 22 years under Henri Soulé. It’s also significant that throughout that time numerous employees of the restaurant left to found some of New York’s other top French restaurants.
Not that the city was devoid of fine French restaurants when Le Pavillon arrived on the scene. French restaurants were well established and plentiful, both as independents and in hotels. Among those competing for the most discriminating and well-heeled diners were Voisin, Café Chambord, and La Belle Meunière. But they were soon outdone.
Because its story has been written about so often and so well, it is challenging to approach Le Pavillon as a topic. For a thorough history that gives a good appreciation of its cuisine, I recommend Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman.
Le Pavillon opened in New York City in 1941, after a spectacular two-year run at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Located near the top of the Fair’s French Pavilion, it had a dramatic spot overlooking the Lagoon of Nations where a light and fireworks show took place each night at 9 p.m. Despite being the Fair’s most expensive eating place, it was wildly popular and booked for weeks in advance. Because the Fair was difficult to get to by car, New Yorkers had to want to go there badly enough to take public transportation. Yet many returned again and again to dine at the Restaurant Français.
The French Pavilion’s restaurant was provisioned with food and wines brought from France and was staffed by French cooks, maitre d’s, and waiters. It was backed by the French Line and a number of prominent Paris restaurants owned by the Drouant family. Jean Drouant ran the show, hiring Soulé [pictured here], a maitre d’ at one of his Paris restaurants, to manage the dining room.
During the Fair’s tenure, Germany advanced on France, occupying Paris. When the Fair ended, Soulé decided to stay in New York. It has been said that he did not want to return to France under enemy occupation, but it’s likely he was also swayed by the stunning success of the Restaurant Français.
Since many of the restaurant’s French waiters had decided to return to France, Soulé had to hire a good number of French waiters already living in New York. He would soon become known for disputes with his staff, some resulting in resignations of chefs and temporary closure of the restaurant. His authoritarian attitudes may have been shaped by his history with Drouant, who occupied a powerful position in the French restaurant industry. He was president of the Syndicate of French Restaurants as well as the General Owners Union and was not sympathetic to waiters’ rights. He had fully supported military force used to stop a 1938 workers’ strike in response to elimination of the 40-hour week in France. He was critical of French waiters working in America, describing them as “contaminated.”
Soulé’s negative attitudes also included dislike of smoking at the table, women drinking, and the widespread American habit of eating quickly rather than slowly savoring the meal. Perhaps because of his general air of disapproval, regular patrons sought signs of his favor, which he gave sparingly. His was a notable ability to confer status on people who were as hungry for that as they were for Chateaubriand with sauce Béarnaise. One of his ways of winning the loyalty of valued patrons was to offer them special dishes not on the menu. [Note that his dislike of smoking in his restaurant did not keep him from appearing in a Luckies’ advertisement in 1954.]
In a 1962 review of a book about Le Pavillon, a clever journalist summed up how to become approved by Soulé. She wrote: “When you go to Le Pavillon you should be famous, if you can manage it, if not, you should at least be rich, elegant, chic and witty. Beautiful, if a woman, dintingué, if a man. If you can’t manage that, then maintain a balance between hauteur and quiet rapture and for heaven’s sake be careful of your manners and careless of your money.”
Yes, the restaurant was exceedingly expensive, beginning at the Fair. According to Craig Claiborne, in 1960 it was possible to spend as little as $6 there for a meal without drinks, equivalent to about $52 today. But with drinks it could cost ten times that. However, in the era of expense accounts, it was standard that a power lunch would be written off as a business expense.
1960 was the year that a dispute between chef Pierre Franey and Soulé over working hours resulted in Franey’s resignation, followed by that of seven of the kitchen staff and leading to a temporary closure of the restaurant. It was not the first time the restaurant closed in response to a dispute. [1955 notice above]
Soulé died in 1966, at age 62. I find it interesting that he willed his watch to frequent patron and “dear friend” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, whose favorite dishes included Filet of Beef Periogourdine accompanied by a bottle of vintage Romanée Conti.
After Soulé’s death, attempts were made to keep Le Pavillon going but it closed for good in 1971.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022