Lean times for Maxim's as gourmets say adieu - The [London] Daily Telegraph
Ah, Maxim's! In 1955 it was my first experience of a Paris restaurant. Though not rich, I was an American serviceman in England and therefore had more money in my pocket than was decent. When I read in an English paper that British Rail were offering soccer enthusiasts a cheap one-day excursion to Paris, arriving at 9 a.m. and leaving at midnight, I leapt at the opportunity. Not caring in the least who was playing whom, I donned my newly-tailored Kilgour French and Stanbury suit, together with appropriate accessories,and set off by train and ferry for the Center of Western Culture. (Football fans in those days were civilized human beings, and so they did not tear these glad rags from my presumptuous limbs. They merely expressed polite curiosity as to where I was going and wished me well.)
I knew that there were four things I had to do: lunch at Maxim's, race pell-mell around the Louvre, dine early at the Cafe de la Paix, and then saunter up the street to the Paris Opera. The rest would take care of itself. The opera that evening was a much-touted production of Rameau's Les Indes Gallantes (complete with shipwreck) which had sold out well into the future, but I had an unquestioning faith in the persuasive talents of the USO. It was not misplaced. Unaccustomed to being refused, they responded to my unique request with an immediately procured choice seat.
But first, there was Maxim's. I had taken the precaution of booking in advance - or rather, having a Francophile English friend do it for me. The maitre de must have been unimpressed by the callow American youth who appeared at the door, but my finery suggested that I was worth being reasonably polite to. The waiter who took my order was less deferential when I carefully selected the cheapest lunch that would stop me being forcibly ejected. When I refused the wine list, his nose went even further into the air. From then on, I was treated with the minimum respect that decorum demanded.
But I was impervious to insult. Not having been consigned to a far corner, I was able to bask vicariously in the glamour with which I was surrounded. An aspiring bourgeois gentilhomme, I had been outfitted so as not to attract attention to my gaucherie - so long as I did not open my mouth.
Today, whether arriving in a limousine or a tourist bus, I would be received with equal indifference so long as my credit card was honored. Even the Club des Cent - the last institution to keep Maxim's reputation barely alive - has finally deserted it. The following news item tells of its ultimate disgrace:
Lean times for Maxim's as gourmets say adieu
Susannah Herbert in Paris reports on the declining fortunes of a famous restaurant
The [London] Daily Telegraph November 11 1997
MAXIM'S, the faded Belle Epoque restaurant once considered the last word in Parisian sophistication, has lost its most faithful customers: the gourmets of the Club des Cent, a dining society that has met there to eat and ruminate three times a month for the past 30 years.
The club, whose distinguished members include the chef Paul Bocuse and the philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, has decided to defect to Ledoyen, a near-by Michelin rosetted restaurant on the Champs Elysees where both food and ambience are considered a cut above the tourist-filled Maxim's.
The defection, prompted by the temporary closure of Maxim's first-floor dining room for renovation, has unleashed a press onslaught on the restaurant, which was described yesterday as overpriced and dingy, with artificial flowers on the tables.
The charges have stung Pierre Cardin, the designer and Maxim's owner, into a counter-attack. "If anyone knows about flowers, it's me," he told Le Figaro yesterday. "I know what natural flowers are. However, people who make artificial flowers have a right to exist. They're true artists."
He angrily rejected all the accusations of falling standards printed in the standard restaurant guides. M Cardin, 75, himself a member of the Club des Cent, said that his fellow members were out of touch and suggested that they were not necessarily the kind of people he wanted in his restaurant.
"We are trying to attract the young. The Club des Cent ... can't see that Maxim's isn't just a place for the old. They forget that they've been replaced these days. Maxim's is about tomorrow, not yesterday. I don't just want fat cats. People come here for one of the most beautiful settings in the world, not simply to stuff themselves," he said.
The highly commercial M Cardin, who bought Maxim's in 1981 and licensed the name world-wide, setting up 13 branches and selling everything from menswear to tinned food under the Maxim's label, claims he is the victim of "sour" backbiters, envious of his success.
"Whatever I do, I'm always criticised. No one ever thanks me. As soon as I touch a banquette, I'm criticised. It's incredible..... Maxim's doesn't have rats any more, it used to have them. That's the difference I've made," he said, reciting a list of his achievements, which include branding cigars, spectacles, watches, champagne truffles and even a boat with the Maxim's name.
"The former owners, so-called professionals, never made anything of the brand," he added, implying that their lack of commercial nous was somehow unpatriotic. "Me, I work for France. These attacks make me laugh. My critics see me as some little cook, some little restaurateur. They muddle me up with other people.
"I'm a couturier, an academician, a chancellor - and pathetic creeps attack me," he said. "It's unbelievable."
What petit bourgeois arrogance!. Cardin has elevated commerce to the ultimate raison d'etre. By his logic, the Club des Cent should immediately repair to the nearest MacDonald's (of which Paris has so many) to toast their discrimination in Giant Pepsis.
Back in 1969, Waverley Root captured for all time what Maxim's was really about. As in the case of Delmonico's in the New World, food was merely an excuse. I append his brilliant summary.
From Waverley Root
Paris Dining Guide, New York, Atheneum, 1969
3, rue Royale, Se 265.27.94
Maxim's is not primarily a restaurant. It is a social phenomenon, preserving in the space age the atmosphere of the world of Edward VII. If European culture were studied in the same fashion as Touareg or Tonga Island culture, Maxim's would be crowded with anthropologists. It isn't. In any case, they couldn't afford it - without a foundation grant.
Maxim's is therefore inhabited by cafe society, holders of titles, celebrities of the entertainment world, big businessmen impressing customers on the expense account, and the richer varieties of snobs. These people eat expensively, but seldom very well. I suspect that they don't know much about food and don't care. Anyway, people don't go to Maxim's to eat. They go to see or be seen. They have an insatiable appetite for looking at each other.
You might enjoy going there to see once yourself (it is not necessarily habit-forming) - high-level slumming, one might say. The spectacle has its points. Maxim's still maintains the height of fin de siecle luxury (it celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1968), even to an orchestra which plays airs from The Merry Widow and provides, in the evening, music for dancing on a pocket-handkerchief-sized floor. Sem's caricatures of the notables of the vanished period may be seen here (you can view them more cheaply at Harry's New York Bar), since Sem (Georges Goursat) was a fixture here and did most of his sketching from his table.
The tone and character of Maxim's are preserved vigilantly by M. and Mme. Louis Vaudable, the second-generation proprietors (M. Vaudable's father bought Maxim's in 1931); by chef Alex Humbert, who can, and frequently does, produce top-level food; by the head waiter, Roger, here only since 1968, who shares with his opposite number at New York's 21 the ability to separate the U's from the non-U's with a single piercing glance; and by Mme. Paulette, perched halfway to heaven in the most inconveniently placed vestiaire known to architecture, who, like her opposite number at Sardi's, returns unerringly the wraps confided to her without benefit of identifying checks. (If you continue up the stairs which the cloakroom overhangs, you come to a bar and upperfloor dining room known as the Imperiale, not because it has any particular associations with emperors, but because this was the name for the upper deck of the duplex horse-drawn buses which flourished in Paris when Maxim's was young. Maxim's seems obsessed by public transport; the long corridor-like extension of the main dining room, considered a relatively undesirable location, is known as the Omnibus. I don't know what Maxim's will call the new dining room it has just opened one more floor up - the Jet?)
Maxim's has been a glittering name ever since the restaurant's original 19th-century proprietor, an Italian named Imoda, got into difficulties and sidestepped them by putting the place in the name of one of his waiters, Maxim. The present personnel seems unaware of this tidbit of history, and I also ran into blank incomprehension there when I tried to delve into the origin of a specialty in which the house takes particular pride. This is a cream-and-mussel soup, called Billy-by by Maxim's, but in Normandy, where I first encountered it, billi-bi. Its ingredients are consistent with a Norman origin, but actually it was invented at Maxim's and named for an American bon vivant, William B. Beebe, whose friends called him Billy B., pronounced, in French, Billy-by.
Let us not forget that there is food at Maxim's, even if it is not the primary attraction. Actually it is at the moment very good food, of the elaborate haute cuisine variety (as it should be at Maxim's prices), but if your prime interest is gastronomic, you might do better to walk a couple of blocks up the street to Lucas-Carton, where in my opinion the food (not exactly given away either) is superior and the setting is of the same period, though less lush. In this estimate I am pretty much alone. Michelin gives Maxim's three stars, its top rating. Kleber-Colombes marks it "a very great table," its top rating. Julliard awards it 17 points, its second-highest rating (Lucas-Carton gets 18). I suspect some of this is accounted for by glamour, rather than by gastronomy. After all, a few years ago Michelin dropped Maxim's from three stars to nothing at all, not even listing it, and later restored it, three stars and all, with no explanation either time. Then again Maxim's had a period when it invited guest chefs to take over for brief periods in turn, as bad a way to develop a great kitchen as employing a series of guest conductors is to develop a great symphony orchestra. These antics are not consistent with the maintenance of a great cuisine, and I have the impression that, in addition to these long-scale variations of quality, Maxim's can also be uneven even from meal to meal or, perhaps more exactly, from dish to dish. Perhaps the help loses interest if you refrain from ordering sole Albert, lobster Newburg, chartreuse de perdreau or the like, along with caviar by the ladle-full if you can afford it. The food editor of Le Monde, operating on the theory that a really great restaurant should do everything perfectly, even the humblest dish, once put the three-star restaurants to the test of starting a meal in each with salade de tomates (which in France is simply sliced tomatoes, no lettuce). He gave the worst mark to Maxim's, for the poorest dish at the highest price.
Of course, Maxim's is not the place to go if your mouth is watering for sliced tomatoes. You should eat and drink consistently with the general atmosphere, and you can do so very well. If I do not rate it as high as some others, at least I place it among the top score of restaurants in Paris. Maxim's does not let it go at snob value, as some luxurious restaurants do. It comes very close to the heights, and it has a notable cellar, which is especially meritorious since it has the sort of clientele which seems not to know that there are other wines than Champagne. If you are one of those who prefer Bordeaux or Burgundy, Maxim's can provide precious bottles for you.
Evening dress is obligatory at Maxim's on Fridays. This concentrates the dog-paddlers of the social swim there on that day, which they imagine, because of this rule, must be the right time to be seen at Maxim's. Thus room is left for the upper crust (Maxim's style) to frequent their favorite restaurant on its really chic day, which is Tuesday (many people do dress on that day, though there's no rule about it). The prices are no higher Tuesdays and Fridays than any other day, but how could they be? In this respect, at least, Maxim's is tops. After all, somebody has to pay for an orchestra able to play the latest hits from Frou-Frou.
LAST-MINUTE: Because so many Parisians nowadays spend their weekends in the country, Maxim's may shortly shift its obligatory formal-dress evening to Tuesday, serving on Fridays an early "country dinner," where tweedy customers can eat before taking off. So check before you dress.
Very expensive. Closed Sundays. Service until well after midnight. You must reserve. English spoken.
Goodbye Maxim's. Goodbye Belle Epoque. I almost wish I missed you.
©1997 John Whiting, Diatribal Press