The Parisian Institution of Maxim’s Restaurant

One of the most important additions to the Parisian landscape in the late Nineteenth Century was the legendary Maxim’s restaurant. It has continued to shine as a beacon of excellence for over a century and has become a symbol of Parisian elegance and chic.

The interior of Maxim's restaurant, Paris in 1907

The interior of Maxim’s restaurant, Paris in 1907

One morning on the 14th July 1891 a young Parisian called Maxime Gaillard, who worked at Reynold’s bar, stood at the corner of the Place de Concorde and saw a crowd of angry citizens smashing up the shop of an Italian ice cream seller called Signor Imoda at 3 Rue Royale who had mistakenly displayed a German flag. Gaillard bought the wrecked shop with his savings and gained help from friends to open a simple bistro with the aim of providing a cheap meal in the centre of the city. At one point he tried to form a company with Georges Everard but this did not work out. However, his relationship with Gustav Cornuche proved much more fruitful. Gustav was the brother of the famous Eugene Cornuche and son of a wine merchant who had been a waiter at Chez Durand.

One day, a charming young Parisian, Irma de Montigny, visited the bistro and fuelled with enthusiasm went back again and again with many of her friends and admirers, and soon Maxime’s bistro was filled with a fashionable and elegant clientele. But, unfortunately the bills often remained unpaid. Thus the business faltered and closed and then re-opened as Maxim’s in June 1893. But when Gaillard died of cancer in 1895 the business was taken over by the Cornuche family and they turned it into an Art Nouveau masterpiece. It swiftly became the headquarters of the gilded youth of La Belle Epoque and the rendezvous of international rich society and all the languages of the world could be heard within its walls.

Like the Café de Paris, Maxim’s was not a big place, but it was smartly decorated with rosy light from hundreds of shaded lamps which shone upon the tightly packed rows of tables adorned with gleaming tablecloths and glass and silver dishes. The first maitre d’Hotel of note was Hugo, who joined Maxim’s in 1900 and stayed until 1918 and helped make the place the institution it became.

One entered through revolving swing doors into a bar or antechamber which was one of the few places on the Continent where a real whisky and soda could be obtained. Then into the dining room that was full of light, laughter and noise. The décor was lavish and everybody would be eating, drinking, laughing, flirting and dancing and enjoying themselves. The waiters were French ‘because a good French waiter is the best in the world’ and the simplest things to eat were served up exquisitely and beautifully cooked.
‘Maxim’s has succeeded because it has realised that the world that sups does not consider music and frivolity a sufficient excuse for an ill-cooked kidney and a bad champagne.’

Maxim’s was the haunt of the gourmet for luncheon and dinner and the pleasure seeker who made it his club after the theatre. It was supposed to close at 2am but the dancing and jollity usually carried on well into the small hours.

One of Cornuche’s marketing ploys were his lovely courtesans. Cornuché was accustomed to saying ‘An empty room… Never ! I always have a beauty sitting by the window, in view from the sidewalk.’ In this way he received the elite of French society.

George Goursat, also known as Sem, frequented the flourishing Maxim’s restaurant in Paris during the turn of the century, where he sat for hours drawing the ‘goings on’ of the well-known society and celebrity patrons. Visitor’s to Maxim’s read like a roll call of international celebrity. Here are just a few of the more regular guests: Liane de Pougy, Loie Fuller, Nellie Melba, Mata Hari, Andre de Fouquieres, Miss Campton, Boni de Castelane, the Aga Khan, Elizabeth Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), Fanny Ward, James Gordon Bennett, Gordon Selfridge, Elsa Maxwell, Edward VII, Leopold II, Alphonso XIII and the Maharajah of Kapurthala.

A sketch of the interior of Maxim's restaurant, Paris (1914)

A sketch of the interior of Maxim’s restaurant, Paris (1914)

It may have been the impromptu performances of stage stars that planted the seed of providing an entertainment with supper. In the late 1890s for example, Belle Otero would jump up on to a table and go into a writhing fandago so sensual that every man in the room felt she was making love to him. Sem the cartoonist, said ‘I feel that my thighs are blushing.’ Cornuche, realised that she was such a drawing card, never restrained her performance and perhaps because of this decided to stage proper cabaret shows in order to increase trade.

By late 1900, Cornuche was working with the Folies Bergere and drew acts from the show to form a cabaret programme that performed later in the evening. This included Manello and Martinez (acrobats), Chinko (an English juggler), Les Hulines (musical clowns), Madame Bonaparte (in a ballet – pantomime), Le Professeur Thereses (a comic magnetic act), Baggessen (a comic juggler) and the famous Hengler Sisters from America. At the turn of the century May and Flora Hengler were child protegees of society who became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for their singing and dancing act.

This new experiment for a restaurant must have been one of the first examples of a true modern cabaret show in an environment that provided food and drink and enabled public dancing. Cornuche had clearly planted the seed for a concept that would grow and become a world-wide phenomenon.

Later, Maxim’s regularly engaged the services of a young, suave dancer called Maurice Mouvet, who was destined for great things. After a tour of Vienna he met his first partner, a French girl called Leona and introduced the Viennese Waltz to Parisians at Maxim’s which became known as the Maurice Waltz. They also introduced the Apache dance in the summer of 1908 that was to accelerate the trend and demand for exhibition dancers performing in supper clubs.

In 1907, a musical comedy show provided Maxim’s with a huge amount of international publicity. The Merry Widow with music composed by Franz Lehar was produced first in Vienna in late 1905, then London in June 1907 at Daly’s Theatre and then at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York in October 1907. Significantly, the third act of the play took place at Maxim’s. This certainly put Maxim’s firmly on the map. At the height of the Merry Widow frenzy, in late 1907, the Cornuche family sold Maxim’s to a group of wealthy English business men for £40,000 with considerable backing from American investors and it continued to thrive with ‘Merry Widow’ waltz dances being staged every evening to great success.

Imitations of Maxim’s were created in Vienna, Berlin and London and in Mid 1908 Georges Everard, who had been working at the Plaza Hotel, New York as maitre d’hotel announced he would startle New York with a restaurant similar to Maxim’s in Paris which he was going call Caprice’s. He erroneously claimed he originated and once owned Maxim’s in Paris. But his excitement never materialized and instead it was left to Julius Keller to open Maxim’s in New York in

With all the publicity from the Merry Widow some thought that Maxim’s in Paris was no longer the jolly place it had been. It was observed that it had become frequented by sightseers and tourists and much of the old atmosphere had been destroyed. In fact one visitor in 1914 felt that a fond illusion had been shattered and that Maxim’s was in fact merely a small and tawdry joint. One writer was even more strident in his criticism ‘I abominate the place, not because it is gay or seductive, but the reverse – a brazen, fake, over-advertised, ogling, odoriferous; a nightmare of champagne and smoke, champagne and banality. Its art nouveau mural decorations are vertiginous and terrible, and the people beneath them are worse – pudgy, purple men, trying to purchase happiness in iced bottles and solitary sirens trying to look gay and alluring… The rest are onlookers who might better have remained away.’

Despite these criticisms Maxim’s continued to draw and in the summer of 1920 the management converted the private dining rooms on the second floor into a dancing space and opened Les 40 a smart Parisian club to take advantage of the ever growing dancing craze.

Maxim’s allure never diminished.

 

Sources:

Chicago Tribune. Le Figaro, the Graphic and the New York Times.

Days and Nights in Montmarte and the Latin Quarter by Ralph Nevill (1927)
Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance by Julie Maling
The Gay City by Arthur Phillips
I Am Going to Maxim’s by HJ.Greenwall
The Night Side of Europe by Karl K.Kitchen, (1914)
Programme from 1900

The website for Maxim’s in Paris
http://www.maxims-de-paris.com

 

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