The story of the Grand Véfour
The saga of the Grand Véfour
What kind of stroller, wandering under the sleepy galleries of the Palais Royal hasn’t been attracted to the galerie de Beaujolais where the Grand Véfour shines, jewel of the Parisian Restoration, still shivering from the cheerful sounds which have enlivened the Palais Royal for more than a century? This restaurant, the finest place for French cooking, is the only one of a kind to keep the ancient décor in which thousands of gourmets ate in the years 1784-1785. Without any regard toward the geographic evolution of the Parisian pleasures taking account of the way the pleasures of Parisian life have evolved, le Grand Véfour has travelled through time with charm and dignity, and has kept its glory for the finest gourmets of the world.
Let us describe the location. Situated the length of the Joinville colonnade, linked with the rue de Beaujolais, the restaurant opens on the gardens of the Palais Royal through three arches. The sign “Café de Chartres”, on the façade opposite the garden, bears the name of the establishment that was there before le Grand Véfour. A name chosen to honour the duke of Chartres, first son of Louis d’Orléans, the one who created the domain of the Palais Royal, and father of the soon-to-be Philippe Egalité, last owner of the Palais before the Revolution.
When you enter the restaurant, you're taken two hundred years back in time ! Embellished with delicate carved panelling with Louis XVI style garlands, the entrance gives access to two different rooms ; on the walls, mirrors share the space with famous glass-protected paintings. Inspired by Pompeian frescoes in the neo classical style, much liked under the Empire, the themes for decoration – fish, game, flowers and women with baskets of flowers – awake the guests’ desire for good food. On the ceiling, roses and stucco garlands frame allegories of women, painted like 18th century Italian ceilings. In the mezzanine, a large room decorated with panelling welcomes the guests.
The building, where the famous Parisian restaurant will arise, was built during the 17th century. To get closer to Anne of Austria, who was living at the Louvre, Richelieu built a magnificent palace called the Palais-Cardinal, surrounded by gardens, the work of the architect Lemercier. When the Cardinal died, the palace, bequeathed to Louis XIII and his heirs, became the property of Louis XIV, who gave it away to his brother, Philippe d’Orléans. His son, who became Regent in 1715, started to rebuild the area and he altered the gardens which were then opened to the public. The Palais Royal neighbourhood started to welcome more and more visitors. The entourage of the Regent was also a part of the success of the gardens. An Aesthete, Philippe d’Orléans attracted a distinguished crowd to the magnificent parties that took place in his palace. As a gourmet, he carefully selected the persons who were attending his very intimate suppers. It was precisely during this period at the end of the 18th century that French cooking reached its peak in the aristocratic households, where luxury and refinement were absolute rules. In the crowded gardens of the Palais Royal, shelters appeared, where people could taste exotic ice-creams, drinks and fashionable refreshments such as punch.
A few years later, the new resident of the palace, Louis-Philippe Joseph (who voted in favour of the death of his cousin Louis XVI) lived la grande vie but soon ran out of money. He decided to allot the gardens of his palace. In 1781, an incredible estate speculation operation began : the building of the galeries de Montpensier, de Beaujolais and de Valais, which surround the gardens on three sides. These stone galleries were linked with wooden galleries, since replaced by the galerie d’Orléans, and were said to be “the gathering of thieves, crooks and cheaters who filled the city”, without forgetting the many “living flowers that should be known better”, housed in the mezzanine ! Madame Montansier, head of the Versailles Theatre, owned 17 arcades, two of which were rented for prostitution. In 1784, the colossal building by Louis, architect of the Bordeaux Theatre and the French Theatre in Paris, was finished. The Palais Royal, replacing le Marais, became the central attraction of Parisian life and, most importantly, the birthplace of French Cooking. The galleries were public and one could wander freely until late at night, as the powerful owner of the place forbade access to the police.
The sixty pavilions surrrounding the gardens were built in what was then the most modern style. The ground floor units were let to shopkeepers, with private apartments on the floors above. Each one of the three arcades wide pavilion rose on four levels. Those who enjoyed profitable investments got their hands on this opportunity quickly, hoping for good business thanks to the clientele wandering in the gardens.
On May 4th 1782, Monsieur Aubertot, a soft drinks manufacturer, rented a house to the Duke of Orleans, for 14 000 pounds a year. The location of the later Grand Véfour was wisely chosen to gather faithful customers, as it was situated just in front of the Petits Comédiens du comte de Beaujolais Theatre, which belonged to the third son of the Duke of Orleans. As soon as the building of the pavilions was over, in 1784, Aubertot opened a café with the café de Chartres sign.
Was the operation as profitable as planned ? In 1787, for 300 000 pounds, Jean-Baptiste Fontaine bought the house rented by Aubertot from the Duke of Orleans, who was again experiencing financial hardships, and took over the funds of the soft drinks manufacturer for 40 600 pounds. All that remained for the unhappy tenant was a small room under the roof. However, the café de Chartres was honourably known since it figured in 1785 in the Palais Royal’s almanac, a travellers reference book : “a vast and good society gets together in this large room to read English and German newspapers”, following a trend coming from across the Channel.
« Business people come to consume and play chess and draughts, distinguished strangers are eager to settle down. » It was an elegant café, and the prices are a testimony of that : “they are as high as its famous neighbour the Café du Caveau, where you pay six deniers for a so-called cup of mocha, when you can get an excellent cup for five deniers at the café du Pont-Saint-Michel. But we are at the Palais Royal” wrote ironically Mayeur Saint-Paul in his of the new Palais Royal, published in 1788. It was proper to show oneself there and there was much discussion about politics. The Palais Royal was a hotbed for the ideas that would eventually lead to the French Revolution. Yet, Paris didn’t lack cafés. Sébastien Mercier, the outspoken chronicler of who dealt with the end of the Old Régime, counted some 600 in the city, but the cafés in the Palais Royal were those which attracted the finest clientele.
The housing estate operation leaded by Louis-Philippe of Orleans was a huge success. And this game of bluff was mostly a success for the owner : not only were his money problems over, but he also managed to create nearby his palace the most lively animation center of Paris, where every pleasure were offered to the enthusiasts : exclusive cafés, gambling halls, very peculiars cabinets and soon the first gourmet restaurants, hosting “déjeuners à la fourchette”. The amount of Parisians gourmet restaurants would soon lead to the supremacy of French cooking around the world : “when an armed Europe rushed against France, every chefs of this multitude roared the same war cry ‘Paris ! Paris !’. This was their cry when they pushed from the edges of the Rhine to the edges of the Seine. In Paris, what was their first question ? The Palais Royal ! At the Palais Royal, what was their first desire ? To seat at the table of the chefs whose glorious names they revered” wrote Eugène Briffault, author of « Paris à Table », a book following the French culinary habits across the ages.
As a matter of fact, the word ‘restaurant’ started meaning "a place offering food to patrons" during the 18th century. Before, it was the name for plain broths : “restaurants" or "revigorant”. Restaurants quickly became part of the French way of life, Parliament members soon gathered there for their meals before the afternoon’s sessions. Still there was an eagerness about imitating the English enemy who used to have meals in taverns. Between 1770 and 1789, a hundred restaurants rose in Paris. Before that time, there were host tables and decent caterers, but no restaurant that provided food from a menu, any hour of the day, in a decent décor. Antoine Beauvilliers, former cook for both the prince de Condé and the count of Provence - who were known for the refinement of their “bouche” - had the honor to open the first luxury restaurant in Paris. In 1788, he bought a house in the gallery de Valois, a few meters from the café de Chartres. For fifteen years, the restaurant Beauvilliers Le Magnifique remained famous, despite the Révolution that roared through the heart of the Palais Royal and despite the numerous imitators settling nearby.
Fontaine, owner of the café de Chartres, had a successfull business until year 1791. Four years after he settled, during troubled times, he asked for the permission to pitch a tent in the gardens in order to extend his café and shelter his customers. Inspired by the success of "les déjeuners à la fourchette", he started serving delicious cuisine and became a competion to the well established – Boeuf à la Monde, Méot and Les Frères Provençaux – thus attracting a new gourmet clientèle, that added up with the politicians.
At the time, the Palais Royal’s cafés had become places for conspiracy ; the Café de Chartres became the headquarter of the Ultras, who, after Thermidor, chased down the Jacobins who dared to come in the neighborhood. Because of its political engagement, the Café de Chartres was always in opposition : it was even nicknamed the Café des Canonniers ! The Empire, and then the Allies, made the Palais Royal grew to be called the “Capoue of France” : in 1815, the galleries held fifteen restaurants, twenty cafes, eighteen gambling halls were the Allies lost their war indemnities back to the French – Blücher lost 15 000 Francs in one night ! –, eleven pawnshops that helped the unlucky players, and many brothels. The café de Chartres took advantage of this prosperity : gourmets came and went in his salons, such as Murat, the Duke of Berry, Rosopchine and the champions of cooking like Grimod de la Reynière, father of the culinary column, Brillat-Savarin, Doctor in Physiology of taste, and Berchoux the poet. Nevertheless, the competition was tough under the Galerie de Beaujolais. The Frères Provençaux, founded in 1786, competed with Véry, established in 1808, but remained the best. At the Café de Chartres, two owners, Charrier, then Moynault, replaced Fontaine before the arrival of Jean Véfour, who would brought glory upon the establishment, soon renamed after him.
THE SINKING PALAIS ROYAL
Jean Véfour was born on May, 5th 1784 in Saint-Just-en-Bast, a small town in Loire region. Was he really Head chef of Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, soon to be king of France, as some say ? We still don’t know. One thing is sure though: he was driven by ambition. In 1820, aged 36, he bought the building housing the Café de Chartres for 900 000 Francs. Settled on three arcades and rising above three floors, it sheltered a love story between Barras and Montansier, who lived there until her 90e birthday, when she died. Fragonard also lived in this building and died in 1806 while eating an ice-cream…
Jean Véfour, with a great deal of passion, wanted to transform this old pub into a somptuous restaurant, in order to overcome his neighbor and competitor, Véry. With a great deal of expensives, he fitted out the three floors, equipped them with a kitchen and decorated the rooms with an obvious sense of luxury : the access was thus made through the carriage entrance of the rue de Beaujolais. The quality of the kitchen got up to the level of the décor.
The results of his policy came soon enough and the Tout-Paris rushed to Véfour : “the old Café de Chartres, according to various stories, is now one of the most crowded in Paris. Mr Véfour brought a crowd. Nowhere else can you find a better sauté, fricassée de poulet Marengo or volaille mayonnaise. Salons were full from five in the afternoon” wrote Grimod de la Reynière who underlined that “Le Café de Chartres is one of the few places that offer good food for a reasonable price”. The neighborhood of Corcellet and de Chevet, the best grocers in France, and probably in the world, was a extra for the reputation of the restaurant. Jean Véfour won his bet : his table, the best in Paris, attracted more and more customers and he served 2000 meals a day.
THE MARBLE TABLES
The cooking of the beginning of the 19th century laid the basis of French traditional bourgeois cooking ; it was codified by Antonin Carême, the first cooking star during the Empire area. The Véfour’s menu was eclectic : if the truffle was queen and brought the prices to breathtaking heights – eight francs for a truffe Marengo au poulet – one can also enjoy simple côtelettes de mouton for 18 deniers or even un merlan for one franc and ten deniers. Desserts were the weak point of that time's cooking : you had to wait until the end of the 19th century for the patisserie’s world to reach its golden age in France. Fruits, biscuits, jam, macaron, meringue were the most consumed desserts. But what fruits ! A whole range of regional fruits was served in a perfect state of freshness – raisin de Fontainebleau or even groseille à maquereaux – but also exotic products such as pineapplesn, grown in the greenhouses of Sarcelles.
When a homonym newcomer (unrelated to Jean Véfour) came to settle down not far from Véfour's restaurant, the word “Grand” was added on the restaurant’s sign. His wealth was then so significant, that in 1823, three years only after the purchase of the café de Chartres, he retired from business in order to enjoy the new life he could expect from his wedding to the young Adélaïde-Elisabeth Billion. He sold off his business for a huge amount of money to his friend Louis Boissier, who was also best man at his wedding. Worthy successor of Jean Véfour, Boissier kept the establishment at its highest level and even managed to inherit all the dinners from the wooden gallery and the glassed one.
Business was so good that en 1827, Boissier sold off the restaurant to the Hamel Brothers. This was a lucky move, since the wooden gallery’s fire in 1828 and the gambling hall’s closing in 1836 were fatal to the Palais Royal and signed the death sentence of the heart of Paris.
Thus began the slow agony of this “terrible bazar” that was “the most amazing Parisian neighbourhood for a hundred years”, but that would survive anyway until the dawn of the 20th century. The Boulevard then took over : it was the new place that seduced and held back the amateurs of Parisian pleasures. Thanks to the skills and savoir-faire of the Hamel Brothers, le Grand Véfour, dignified and unruffled, resisted the fierce competition and watched the Palais Royal’s collapse with a certain serenity. In 1840 the restaurant was even at its best and triumphed over its only competitors, the Fréres Provençaux and Véry. If great dinners took place at the Rocher de Cancale, beloved by the stomach of Grimod de la Reynière, Grand Véfour’s lunchs were the most attended in Paris. Ten years later, Tavernier, the new owner of the Véfour, even managed to take over Véry.
However, in the second half of the 19th century, the establishment wasn't as successfull as it used to be. “The cuisine level has lowered, the place is now only good enough for visitors coming to Paris” but Grand Véfour remained among the best restaurants : “there are people and things we do not brag about, you just have to name them ! While everything around was callapsing, after the gambling hall’s closing, our restaurant remained, in a quieter frame”. A short eclipse. During the Second Empire, parties regained their rights : “The Véfour restaurant is one of the glory of the Palais Royal”. The restaurant had spread in the gardens with a new pavilion, entered through a canopy. Despite the many ups and downs of the 19th century, the Grand Véfour remained a place to hangout for the political, literary and artistic elite ; Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Sainte-Beuve, the Duke of Aumale, the prince of Joinville, Thiers, Mac-Mahon and Humboldt (the famous explorer) were regular patrons. Victor Hugo and his friends came to eat there the night after the battle of Hernani. The poet’s menu was always the same: vermicelle, poitrine de mouton et haricots blancs.
At the end of the 19th century, the elite and those who wanted to be a part of them, kept coming to the Grand Véfour, where the beautiful Otéra twirled on the pink marble tables. But the Heart of Paris did not beat in the Palais Royal anymore. In 1905, the press widely announced the closing of the most famous Parisian restaurant - only remained an infamous bar on the first floor -. No one could believe that such an institution could sink. Halas, one had to accept the unavoidable ! With tremendous emotion, every culinary columnists wrote down an obituary for the fallen restaurant. Some would try to bring the light that rose so high during the Empire back. But the Véfour declined for good : it had several owners and became a poor café that did not dare to call itself “Grand” anymore. It became a casse-croûte where saucisson had taken the place of the poularde truffé. Among the many sacrileges that took place in the former temple of refinement was the appearance of the first paper napkin on May 28th 1917. Soon after that, the building was bought by the Parisian bailiff’s chamber which occupied the first floor and rented the café downstairs to Sakar, a chess world champion. The Véfour became the headquarter of chess-players who had neither the time nor the means to offer sacrifice to the god Comus, Bacchus’s alter ego, that ran the pleasures of the table. Moved by the state of the establishment (due to lack of maintenance), the authorities decided to protect the walls of the restaurant in 1920. René Héron de Villefosse, President of the Club des cent, soon began a nostalgic pilgrimage there : “for the love of the memory, I seated in front of the worst meal ever, surrounded by a sticky sauce, in a rather dead atmosphere. Paintings have turned yellow. Everything bears the mark of generations of flies living peacefully. The half-dead seats kept the prints of ancient butts : George Sand or Joseph Prud’homme ?”. How distant the were, the times when pink marble tables, silver cutleries and golden porcelain were everywhere.
After the Liberation came eventually the rightful mind who would save the gourmet temple from a pathetic ending. Louis Vaudables, owner of the famous Maxim’s, bought the building of the former café de Chartres and decided to make the Grand Véfour a branch of his restaurant located rue Royale, closed by military authorities. Helped by Colette de Jouvenel, daughter of the famous writer, Louis Vaudable worked a lot to attract customers to his new place. The Grand Véfour was born again : rooms were redecorated, walls and roofs were cleaned, furniture and dishes were renewed, and most important : the kitchen rediscovered the luxury and refinement that were the brand of the Grand Véfour at its highest. Halas ! It was not easy to gather the Tout-Paris and to lead it outside the beaten path. The Palais Royal seems so far away from the lively Boulevards ! Despite a lot of work, it was another failure. Disappointed, Louis Vaudable got rid of this ungrateful place and sold it to Raymond Olliver.
HAIL TO THE STAR COOK !
Born in south-west of France, the happy owner of the Ours blanc, in the Alpe-d’Huez, had quite a challenge : to succeed where the most Parisian restaurant owner had failed. Both men soon found an agreement : Louis Vaudable remained an associate but Raymond Olivier ran the place. With the help of the Ours Blanc’s team, already known by the snow loving Parisians, Raymond Olliver finished the décor and the new Véfour opened its doors in 1948. And the fresh start met quite a success ! The Tout-Paris, among which Raymond Olivier has many friends, attracted a fine clientele Louis Vaudable could not reach. Hélène and Pierre Lazareff, faithful supporters of the new owner, attended the opening night and counted in the wonderful critics of that night. The name of Raymond Olliver became famous to every customer that sat at the Grand Véfour and enjoyed the cuisine of the new star. The Véfour was truly Grand again !
This chef had pretty good instinct: he could feel what was going to be the new cooking trend. Promoter of regional food, he bet on his south-western recipes and brought long forgotten recipies back to life : the terrine de poisson Guillaume Tirel - aka Taillevent, Charles V’s maître queux and writer of the first cooking book written in French -, riz de veau au verjus, foie gras, poulet à l’ail, lamproie, pigeon Prince Rainier III garnished with truffes and foie gras au cognac. These novelties were coldly welcomed at first, Parisians not being used to unexpected tasts. But soon enough, the originality of these meals combined with the quality of local products, attracted new customers. Among the fans of this new cuisine were two brilliant writers, Colette and Jean Cocteau, neighbors to the Véfour. Colette, who enjoyed good food, lived rue de Beaujolais and ruled over the Palais Royal neighbourhood ; Cocteau, refined gourmet, lived next to the Palais Royal’s Theatre, former territory of Montansier, just in front of the Grand Véfour. Soon enough, both writers became friend with the cook : one was fond of koulibiac de saumon, the other prefered more delicate cocktails. Cocteau soon made the place his cantine, sitting every day at his reserved table near the front door. Christian Bérard was an other regular, followed by many more. Colette wrote a brochure, Bérard scribbled a drawing and Cocteau wrote an article. It was more than enough to get the literary and artistic celebrities back to the Grand Véfour : Marguerite Moreno, Marcel Schwob, Jean Giraudoux, Emmanuel Berl, Sacha Guitry, Louis Aragon and Elso Triolet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Genet, André Malraux, Juliette Gréco and her friend Marc Doëniltz, show-business figure, Simone Berriau, Louis Jauvet and so on. In this exclusive club, you could only meet famous faces ! Cooking programs launched in television by Raymond Olliver and Catherine Langeais provided the chef with a world-class reputation. The time for famous chefs had arrived: kings, queens, politics, women of the world, bankers, designers came to the golden salons during the 36 years of Raymond Olliver’s reign.
Feeling age and tiredness, Raymond Olliver sought a successor worthy enough to rule over the destiny of the Véfour. Despite the stupid attack on December 23rd, 1983 – a bomb thrown by a crazy iconoclast that seriously hurt people and damaged the settings of the oldest restaurant in Paris – Jean Taittinger came as a future buyer. A new life-savior ! More than 16 000 hours of work were needed to repair the damages and restore the delicate settings. One has to pay tribute to the Taittinger Group’s patronage, for participating to the efforts to save the French luxury hotel business in Paris. After the rebirth of the Crillon, more cheerful and sparkling than fifty years ago, the Grand Véfour, armed with a younger menu – long life for the neo-classical cooking! – and a freshened décor, sets off again for new adventures. Let’s wish this still young veteran a long and happy life.