Tag Archives: Paris restaurants

Americans in Paris: The Chinese Umbrella

“Why do Americans stick to their own kind of food in France?” wondered an American aviator in Paris in 1917.

Good question, given that the Americans he was referring to were able to afford dining in the finest Paris restaurants. And that French cuisine had long enjoyed prestige in large American cities.

Perhaps it was simply longing for home that brought Americans to The Chinese Umbrella in the early 20th century. The Umbrella was a tea room serving American food that was located near the Bon Marché department store on Rue du Bac.

When it opened in 1905 it served only afternoon tea but soon expanded the menu and became a popular lunch spot. Shortly after its debut American newspapers took note and a story traveled around stating boldly that its luncheons “represent the finest cooking that can be obtained in Paris.” Although this seems unjustifiably boastful, The Chinese Umbrella was recommended in Baedeker and other travel guides.

Among its specialties were homey dishes, many associated with the American South where the proprietor’s mother was from. A journalist writing about The Umbrella in 1908 hailed its okra soup, chicken a la king, tomato and cucumber salad, fried hominy, sweet potatoes, roast lamb, corn fritters, cold asparagus, strawberry ice cream, and waffles with maple syrup. He declared, “Not one of these dishes, apart from the cold asparagus, can be had in any of the famous Paris restaurants.” [advertisement from NY Sun, 1907]

The Chinese Umbrella was the creation of Edith Fabris and her younger sisters, born in Shanghai of a father who was a British consul in Tientsin, China. While in China Edith gathered together a collection of Chinese artifacts that included embroidered satin hangings, delicate porcelain, and a four-yard-wide umbrella that formed a ceiling in one room of the restaurant. Her brother, who served with American-English forces to defeat the Boxer Rebellion, “picked up the valuable loot” that formed the tea room’s decorations. “Loot” is the correct word, since the aftermath of the anti-colonial, anti-Christian-missionary uprising has been described as “mad scenes of pillage.” [Douglas Rigby, The American Scholar, 1944]

Perhaps the looted items on display in The Chinese Umbrella explain why China’s ambassador to France who presided over the tea room’s opening was described in one account as seeming “a little bit dubious as to the dignity of the affair.”

Fabris also brought to Paris a recipe for Chinese vegetable curries that she described – with an authenticity claim that may strike us as odd today — as “true English-American colony China curries.” Fabris said that chefs from top Paris restaurants begged for her recipes. When she told them they could not be made without ingredients sent by her brother from China, they came to her tea room to sample curries and try to analyze how they were made.

Although most of the tea room’s customers were apparently American or English it also did a good business selling baked goods such as mincemeat pies, plum puddings, and gingerbread to French families. During World War I Fabris supplied cakes to American soldiers in French hospitals.

At some point the tea room moved to a new location as shown on the blue postcard shown above. I could find no trace of it after 1920.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under decor, food, tea shops, women

Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, 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

Sweet treats and teddy bears

rumpelmayers343Where could you — once upon a time – enjoy European pastries, cinnamon toast, and ice cream soda while you hugged a teddy bear? Rumpelmayer’s, of course. A very popular rendezvous for pampered New York children after a visit to the zoo or the ballet. I suppose adults could hug the bears too, but Rumpelmayer’s sweetness – its confections, pink walls, and shelves of stuffed toys — might close in on you if you didn’t hold fast to some grown-up habits such as cigarettes and highballs.

rumpelmayer's36REV2Rumpelmayer’s tea and pastry café  began its Manhattan life in 1930 in the new Hotel St. Moritz on the corner of Central Park South and Sixth Avenue. The hotel almost immediately went into foreclosure though it continued in business. Oh, happy day when Repeal commenced in December of 1933 and the St. Moritz announced, “In Rumpelmayer’s, as in the Grill, we will feature a number of bartenders with Perambulating Bars, for serving mixed drinks.” Bars might be everywhere, but Rumpelmayer’s other attractions were not. For decades it provided a jolly spot for children’s birthday parties, lunches, late Sunday breakfasts, and afternoon teas and hot chocolates. It closed around 1998.

rumpelmayerspitcherREV2Always proud of its continental delicacies, New York’s Rumpelmayer’s was related (exactly how I’m not sure) to sister tea shops in London, Paris, and on the Riviera. The original Rumpelmayer’s was begun by an Austrian pastry cook in the German resort town of Baden-Baden in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It then followed its Russian clientele to Cannes and Nice, then later to Mentone and Monte Carlo. In 1903 a shop was opened on Paris’s Rue de Rivoli (pictured, somewhat later) and in 1907 on St. James Street in London. Parisians, infected by Anglomania in the early 20th century, eagerly adopted the afternoon tea custom, in this case reputedly known as having a feeve o’clock-air at “Rumpie’s.” Though it was rated slightly less chic than the Ritz, it attracted mobs of fashionably dressed women who paraded their outfits up to the counter where, according to custom, they speared their chosen pastries with a fork.

In London before World War I Rumpelmayer’s became incorporated into the daily routine of the elite smart set who spent most of their time at the table, beginning with breakfast at 11:00, lunch at the Carlton at 2:00, tea at Rumpelmayer’s at 4:00, a stroll in the park, followed by dinner, then supper a few hours later. Although some Rumpelmayer’s survived well into the 20th century, the pre-WWI lifestyle that gave birth to them did not.

On tea shops and tea rooms, see also:
Mary Elizabeth’s
Schrafft’s
Vanity Fair, etc.
Country tea houses
Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage
Maillard’s
— Also, search for department stores

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Filed under confectionery restaurants, family restaurants