Tag Archives: Maxim’s

Take your Valentine to dinner

Dinner in a romantic restaurant is a popular way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But that would have been far from true in the nineteenth century when going to what was known as a romantic restaurant meant something entirely different. Something disreputable.

It took decades before a romantic restaurant dinner became part of an evening primarily meant to please the woman rather than the man.

As late as the 1920s young single women had to guard their reputations closely when they went out in public, especially in restaurants in the evening. Emily Post advised in 1923 that “It is not good form for an engaged couple to dine together in a restaurant, but it is all right for them to lunch, or have afternoon tea . . . They should take a chaperon if they motor to road-houses for meals.”

Things loosened up not long after Emily’s edict, and celebrations in romantic restaurants increased in the 1960s. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that the typical Valentine’s Day restaurant experience we know today with its wine, candlelight, and soft music became popular. [see London House, Fort Worth TX, 1971] In the late 1970s and 1980s February ads for candlelit dinners “for lovers only” appeared frequently.

But earlier, when many married women were primarily homemakers, it was enough just to get a night off from cooking, even if the destination restaurant was nothing more than a cafeteria or a drive-in. How odd now to see a 1930s advertisement saying, Take Your Valentine to Dinner at Mrs. Adkins’, a cafeteria where “we never embarrass your pocketbook!” What? no service, no splurging, no Champagne, no tableside theatrics?

Even that pedestrian cafeteria meal was a celebration of sorts then. Being taken out for a Valentine’s dinner was still fairly unusual in the 1940s and 1950s. For many women, the day meant more cooking, not less. Newspaper food columns of the 1950s and even the 1960s gave the impression that mothers were expected to show love for their families by making special dinners for them.

But by the late 20th century, newspapers had changed their focus from family dinners at home to romantic couples-only dinners in restaurants. Even readers living in a city less blessed with romantic restaurants could find a hotel that filled the need. A writer in the Huntsville Times admitted that “the selection of truly romantic restaurants . . . is limited in Huntsville,” but at least there was a Radisson, or a Marriott offering a Sweetheart Dinner for Two consisting of Chateaubriand, Champagne, and Strawberries Romanoff.

In 1979 a Cleveland journalist convinced his wife to travel with him all over the U.S. to verify the romantic value of ten of the country’s restaurants as recommended in an airline magazine. Several failed the test, but they were delighted with Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, with its “beautiful wall sconces and tiny, rose-colored table lamps, all imported from Paris, and gold service plates that were originally designed for Sarah Bernhardt.” They ate Rack of Lamb that “looked like a picture from a gourmet magazine.”

Guess what kind of food was deemed most romantic – at least by those newspaper food writers who assembled lists of best places to celebrate the day? It certainly wasn’t beef stew or mixed vegetables. Better to be served something sauced, stuffed, or puffed. Many restaurants, in fact, stuck to the old standbys, steak and prime rib, but they didn’t score as high on the romance scale as did those purveying food with French names. Ah, bisque, terrine of lobster, pommes duchesse, tournedos de beef, and Grand Marnier soufflé!

Champagne and long-stemmed roses aside, could it be that the ladies especially enjoyed that their dinners had been fretted and fussed over by male chefs?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under atmosphere, food, restaurant customs, women

That night at Maxim’s

A restaurant is an expression of its time and place. Except for fast food franchises which are based on an industrial mode of mass production detached from local particularity. So when a replica of an art nouveau turn-of-the-century culinary haunt of demimonde Paris shows up in the basement of a hotel on Lake Michigan’s gold coast in the mid-20th century – well, it’s a little strange.

In short, was the Paris-based Maxim’s franchise that arrived in Chicago in 1963, with its undulating woodwork, fleur-de-lis lights, red velvet banquettes, Soles Albert, and Poires Helene, the real thing?

I’ve been pondering this question as I’ve pored over the fascinating photograph above, which was taken by prize-winning photographer Gary Settle, probably for The Chicago Daily News.

What was the occasion? It’s not a casual shot. At least two floodlights are in evidence and there is something stagey about the scene. I suspect the couples were asked to leave their coffee and smokes and get up and dance. Unfortunately, in the process two napkins were flung aside in an unsightly manner. Elegance is so hard to achieve.

The Brylcreemed man leaning over the table must be Chef Pierre Orsi who had very recently arrived from Paris to take command of the kitchen. The man seated to the right of him looks as though he could be French, but the other men in the picture, apart from the musicians, appear to be of German ancestry. I wonder if they might be two sets of twins.

Which of the women owns the sable coat and elbow-length black gloves? I believe it is the blissful dancer on the left. She will carry home leftovers in a foil purse-shaped doggie bag — perhaps she is dieting or didn’t love her Calves Liver with Raisin and Grape Sauce so much.

The table has a center lamp with pink silk shades and coffee cups bearing Maxim’s curlicue M logo. A cigarillo rests in one of the souvenir ashtrays, while others have been used by the table’s two Winston smokers who prefer a fliptop box to a soft pack. Did these eight people really polish off four bottles of champagne? Did anyone use the replica antique telephone to check in with their babysitter?

I invite readers to create a scenario. Who are these people and what were they thinking at this moment in September, 1967?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under elite restaurants, miscellaneous, patrons

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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Filed under proprietors & careers

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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Filed under elite restaurants