The Café de Paris in Paris was in its day, during the Jazz Age, world famous. It was undoubtedly the most salubrious, the most expensive and the most admired restaurant in Paris. A landmark for the gourmets and fashionables not just of Paris, but worldwide, it became part of a mini-gastronomic empire of four exclusive venues.
It is thought that there were three incarnations of the Café De Paris in Paris. The first opened at the corner of rue Taitbout and the boulevard des Italiens, on 15th July 15, 1822, in the luxurious salons of the Demidoff’s residence and was founded by Messrs Angilbert and Guerez but closed on 12th October 1856. There was seemingly a short, second lease of life between 1856 and 1878 at an unknown location, since the attested third incarnation opened in 1878.
It was this third incarnation, owned and constructed by a M. Jolliveau, located at 41 Avenue de L’Opera at the corner with Rue Louise le Grand, opening in late 1878, that became the most enduring and famous Café de Paris. It was sumptuous construction inside and out created by the architect M. Lecocquiere. The grand entrance featured a pair of green caryatids (sculpted female figures) and an elaborate lintel with a green sphinx spreading its wings – all the work of the sculptor and artist M. Godebski.
Walking through the vestibule there was a large reception counter under a vast chandelier. In the centre of the restaurant was a sort of buffet covered in delicacies. To the right opened a long room that was the restaurant and on the left was another long room that was the café just for drinks. Both rooms featured elaborate drapes, bronze fauns and ornate pillars with soft velvet seating and there was also an immense and marvellous beer fountain. Both areas were airy with high ceilings, decorated with a ‘dazzling luxury’ of ‘pure renaissance’ the ornamentation replicating what could be seen in some of the mansions in the Bois and Fontainebleau, all created by M. Godebski. One of the ceilings was a representation of the seasons. It would appear that the kitchens were in the space between the restaurant and the café and in the basement.
There was another entrance on Rue Louise le Grand that provided separate access via a large staircase to a series of twenty-two salons and rooms on the first floor for private dining and functions described as ‘Salon particulars.’ Adorning this staircase were two remarkable tapestries representing on the left L’Escapolette by Fragonard and on the right, Watteau by Colin Maillard. All of the rooms and hallways were beautifully decorated with paintings by Couratier and Salard, upholstery by M. Parant and the bronzes created by M. Domange.
There was also a thriving ‘scene’ on the sidewalk in front of the Café de Paris following the typical French tradition and it immediately became the meeting place of high society and artistic and literary Paris including many great journalists. For a very long time, several tables in the café section of the Café de Paris were reserved for Alfred Edwards, who had just founded Le Matin but other luminaries included Des Houx-Morimbaud, Charles Laurent, Canivet, Moro, Ordonneau, Thamin, Albert Dauriat and many others.
Desiring that the service of Cafe de Paris should be perfect, Jolivieau secured the services of well-known hotel masters: Milon who later became owner of the Cafe de Paix, the famous Frederic of la Tour d’Argent and then Julien who, later, founded a restaurant opposite the Cafe Americain, which was long famous.
However, things did not go too well and the restaurant lost money and so in 1883, M. Jolliveau sold out to Leon Hirsch, who seemingly was a banker and became known as just Leon. At some point (perhaps in 1890) M. Vidal from the Café Anglais took over the Café de Paris but in January 1898 Etienne Leopold Mourier became the owner and chef.
After a promising career in regional restaurants in France, Mourier arrived in Paris in 1880 and in 1883 became a chef at Maison Maire and then head chef in 1886. By 1890 he had succeeded Nicolas Foyot as the premiere chef in Paris and in 1891 he acquired the Foyot restaurant and then the Café de Paris in 1898. In 1900 he became owner and chef of the Pavillon d’Armenonville in the Bois de Boulogne and then acquired the Pre-Catalan in 1908 and in 1910 he opened the ‘Fouquet’ restaurant on a prominent corner on the Champs Elysees. Mourier was of the old school and believed that the business required his personal supervision and he certainly succeeded in his aim because within twenty years, he had created a rather lucrative, Parisian gastronomic empire.
However, equally important in the history of the Café de Paris was Louis Barraya, who had come to the Café Paris with Vidal in 1897. Originally from Nice, Barraya had very humble beginnings, but he had worked his way up through all the levels of his profession. Barraya began his career as a cook and at one point cooked for Mrs Langtry and while in her service often prepared breakfast for the Prince of Wales, later Edward V11. He was once head waiter of the Café de Paris before establishing himself as one of the most influential and capable personalities of the Parisian culinary scene.
In 1930 Aux Ecoutes described Barraya as ‘a very Parisian figure’ with an even kindness. He maintained the traditions, that made the Café de Paris the very model of its kind and the first in the world. He was the friend of everyone and made politicians, ministers, diplomats, high barons, financiers, actresses, artists, men of letters, royalty and simple gastronomes feel at home. Barraya was recognised for his mastery of the entire art of good cheer and conviviality.
At lunch the Café de Paris was quite decorous and in the evening the restaurant opened until the small hours and many people arrived late after the theatre. From the earliest days some kind of ‘entertainment’ was staged at the Café de Paris but only in the evening. For example, in late 1886, Mlle Richard (from the Opéra) sang accompanied by Mlle Marcelle Julien on the piano. Of course, the Café de Paris always had an orchestra too and prior to 1894 Joseph and Augusto Borgo’s Hungarian orchestra was in attendance and at the same time Joseph was the maître d’hotel.
In 1901 a court case against the Café de Paris by the impresario M. Roses, who had supplied a Tzigane or Hungarian Gypsy band, sued the proprietor of the Café de Paris for damages and breach of contract. This case revealed that a Tzigane band was not necessarily composed of gypsies and disclosed the mystery of their earnings. The band – led by M. Peder Moller (a Dane) – played from 1898 to 1899 composed of two Spaniards, two Italians, one Swede and one German. The musicians played from midnight to 4pm and received 35fr per night and the proceeds of the plate (or tips). Between February 1898 and June 1899 these ‘tips’ amounted to over 76,000 fr and it was this sum that had not been paid to M. Roses.
Various orchestras were featured thereafter, and in late 1905, for example, there was a double orchestra that featured Spanish guitars and French violins. Another interesting feature introduced by Mourier in late 1899 was ‘Five O’Clock Teas’. It was described as a ‘charming spectacle’ staged with Mourier’s usual distinction and brilliance for his fashionable clientele. The tables were decorated with flowers and satin napkins in different colours, the delicacies of the hour were provided along with tea or chocolate and Boldi’s orchestra provided discrete, soothing music. Mourier’s aim was to render homage to his American and English clientele, with whom the Café de Paris had become a favourite rendezvous.
In addition to providing music and the occasional singers to enhance evening festivities, M. Mourier and M. Barraya had to give way early on to the passion for their clientele to see dancing attractions at dinner. So, at some point, in the early 1900s, they began to add ‘dancing entertainment’, described as a sort of dessert, to proceedings. They were not the first to do this of course, since Maxim’s had already staged a cabaret in 1900 with dancing acts taken from the Folies Bergere. The Café de Paris did not stage a cabaret as such but did book dancing acts to perform.
When this started and who were the acts is not clear, however in December 1909 M. and Mme Jean de Reszke, famous Parisian socialites, gave an elegant soiree at their home that featured the dancing of Maurice and Mlle Leona who were described as the ‘dancers from the Café de Paris’ and were applauded as ‘real little artists filled with grace and skill.’ Maurice (Maurice Mouvet) was to become world famous within a short space of time and can be clearly credited with becoming the first true star of ballroom dancing. Prior to 1909 Maurice had made his name dancing first in Paris, then Vienna, Budapest and Monte Carlo during the period 1905-1908.
Following Maurice’s season in Monte Carlo in early 1908 he was given an introduction to Barraya at the Café de Paris and it is very likely that Maurice and Leona made their debut at the Café de Paris in May 1908. By mid-1909 Maurice was making a big impression and was even noticed by Variety. Thereafter, they toured France and other European capitals but always returned to Paris and the Café de Paris. But in May 1911, Mlle Leona died and Maurice took a new partner Madelaine d’Arville and eventually accepted an offer to dance in New York in October 1911.
It is interesting that only Maurice was mentioned as dancing at the Café de Paris during the period 1909-1911 but there must have been other dancing acts that were featured. More than likely it was Maurice who created more of a sensation.
The next named couple to appear at the Café de Paris in the early part of 1912 was an American duo called Dazie and Andrea, described as ‘apache dancers’, who returned to New York around the beginning of April 1912. The next named act was The Castles – or Irene and Vernon Castle – who commenced an engagement around the 12th April 1912. Vernon had been in a show at the Olympia, but his engagement in March 1912, only lasted for two weeks, suggesting it was a failure but had been given the opportunity by Barraya to perform at the Café de Paris. The Castles were on the ascendance to become a premier dancing couple that vied with Maurice and his new wife Florence Walton for some years to come.
Irene Castle had a hugely inflated sense of her own self-importance and in later books and interviews was adept at exaggeration and creating misinformation, particularly about Maurice whom she clearly despised. It is interesting to note that many of her falsehoods have been taken as fact by more recent writers without due scrutiny. Her antagonistic attacks on Maurice must stem from this time and she clearly did not like the fact that Maurice was always one step ahead of her and had already achieved considerable fame at the Café de Paris before her performance there in 1912.
After great success in New York Maurice and his new wife and partner Florence Walton arrived in Paris at the end of April 1912 and opened at the Olympia music hall on the 5th June. According to Irene Castle, before this engagement, Maurice and Walton also danced at the Café de Paris since Barraya had promised Maurice that when he returned to Paris from New York, he would be welcome. But, having two sets of dancers must have been rather problematic for Barraya and there was clearly tension and acrimony between the two dancing teams.
Irene Castle claimed there was an altercation with Maurice and that he was rude and ‘ill tempered’ because the audience gave the Castle’s more applause. She also claimed that eventually Barraya sacked Maurice. Many years later Florence Walton refuted all of Irene’s claims saying Maurice was a ‘gentle, loveable man’ and that they were not dismissed by Barraya but left the Café de Paris in order to open in a show in London in July 1912.
Perhaps the boot was, on the other foot. In fact, in June 1912, an American report said ‘the lively fashionables sup at the Café de Paris, where the famous dancer Maurice has made a fortune. In and out among the tables in Apache dances and valse chaloupes, Maurice spins his girls like a top.’ In another report from the New York Herald on the 4th July 1912, it was noted that for the Independence Day festivities at midnight at the Café de Paris there would be a brilliant soiree featuring numerous attractions in addition to Maurice and the charming dancer Florence Walton. There was no mention of the Castles even though seemingly they were still performing there in early July 1912, before Irene Castle departed for New York arriving 19th July.
Thereafter, in October 1912 the American dancers, the Carbrey Boys appeared at the Alhambra in Paris and doubled at the Café De Paris and in February 1913 the American dancing team of Jack Clifford and Zaro also performed. This latter team were so successful that their contact was extended until 4th July 1913. The Castles also returned in the summer of 1913 and 1914 and Irene said of the Café de Paris ‘it had an air of true graciousness about it, an elegant gaiety… it was not a place, it was a social convention.’ On each occasion Maurice was elsewhere. Despite the fact the Castles believed they were unique and superior to everyone else they were not and many other acts were also performing at the Café de Paris and enjoyed the same level of success.
At some point in late 1914, the Café de Paris was closed for urgent transformation of the dining room and services and re-opened on 27th November 1914 with a new diversion of ‘tea at the Café de Paris’. Allegedly, because of the war, that commenced in July 1914, bright tea rooms were scarce as Parisians returned to the capital from the country. Parisians needed a place where they might forget the gloom of the war for at least an hour during the day. And so, the Café de Paris opened its doors for afternoon teas with tables accommodating 250 with each table having fresh flowers and artistic pink tea covers. It swiftly became a very fashionable rendezvous in late 1914 and from 7th October in 1915 the Café de Paris repeated the exercise. However, many reports claimed that the Café de Paris had never been a rendezvous for tea before the war when in fact the same thing had been done in 1899 and possibly at other times thereafter.
By the 1920s the Café De Paris was a well-established Parisian institution that had become a major landmark. It was recognized as one of the best and the most expensive of Parisian eating places of the wealthy both among Parisians and foreign visitors and ‘the gilded haunt of the idle and the new rich.’
Regarded as one of the most attractive places of its kind in the world the chic clientele of the Café de Paris went to eat, drink, socialize and to see others, to be seen and amuse themselves. Everyone was interesting on account of what they have done or what they possessed. Famous actresses rubbed shoulders with princes, American financiers and distinguished or wealthy foreign visitors. The most beautiful clothes, costliest diamonds always vied with the expensive food and the sparkling champagne. The atmosphere was as sparkling as its champagne. One anecdote suggested that if you lunch or dine regularly at the Café de Paris you must have been born with a golden spoon in your mouth.
Following World War 1 and throughout the 1920s the Café de Paris became a magnet for showcasing, international, exhibition dancing acts, jazz bands and other entertainers. Lewis Thomas and his partner Nancy Leslie appeared in January 1921; Samya and her partner Wheeler in April 1921; the American Jazz Band ‘Oliver’s American Orchestra’ direct from Broadway made its appearance in September 1921; Billy Arnold’s jazz band in June 1923; Bernard and Floriante in April 1924; Joan Pickering and Danny Fer in November 1925; Harry and Dennis Dufor in May 1926; the American dancer Mary Corday in November 1926 and in September 1928 the virtuoso Lucien Paris followed by the Tom Waltham’s dance orchestra appeared.
Following the death of M. Mourier in March 1923, his will expressly gave Louis Barraya an option on purchasing all four of the restaurants (described as ‘gourmet temples’): the Café de Paris, Pavillon d’Armenonville, Fouquet’s and the Pre Catalan. Instead, Barraya decided to form a syndicate and associate himself with M. Eugene Corniche and M. Chauveau in the purchase with the creation of a new limited partnership by shares which would assume the operation under his sole direction.
This company, was called Etablissements Mourier, Le Barraya et Cie and had a fixed capital of 3,100,000 fr in shares of 500 fr, all subscribed in cash. In addition, 2,000 profit shares were allocated to Mr. Barraya in renumeration of contributions. The members of the first supervisory board were MM. Frances Girbon, Joseph Gremo and Remy Robinet. It is not known what happened to Cornuche’s shares in the company when he died in April 1926.
In the summer of 1930 rumours began to circulate that the Café de Paris might close. Aux Ecoutes claimed that the lease on the building was coming to an end. Indeed, other reports in late 1931 and late 1932 confirm that it was threatened with permanent closure due to enlargement plans of the bank that owned the lease. There was clearly quite a furore against this because the Café de Paris had long been celebrated for its food, its cellar and its air of hospitality. Indeed, Aux Ecoutes stated plainly that the Café de Paris could not disappear and should be classified as a monument.
Thankfully, the Café de Paris was saved and in the summer of 1932 it closed for major repairs and renovations. The re-opening on the 28th September 1932 was a huge success and the new décor by M. Maurice Chalom was a triumph.
A system of indirect lighting was installed as well as discreet colour effects. When the tango was being played the light was entirely suffused in blue, while other shades would create the appropriate atmosphere for the waltz, the foxtrot, the rumba and the yo-yo step. The dance floor had been cunningly fashioned in rosewood and was a delight to the eye. The wall mirrors were treated in a new manner that reflected a sunburn glow.
There was a handsome new interior for the main dining room that was described by one observer as ‘brilliant plumage of seagreen walls broken with immense mirrors’. Another description claimed the colour to be robin’s egg blue with crystal tubes of sapphire and emerald around the mirrors which clearly created the seagreen effect. The lights were subdued by the cornice of the ceiling that represented an esthetic and economic adaptation to modern requirements. In the vestibule there was a charming dark blue lacquered bar forming a pleasing contrast to the lighter blue beyond in the dining room. In addition, the décor was complimented by the use of Japanese gardens and trees. A little later a ventilation system was also installed.
Musical diversion was given by the George Kocens Jazz band and the Costia Berliaza tzigane orchestra (who played discretely during dinner) and the singing of Mlles Lillea Estina and Alina de Silva.
During the Spring 1933 season it was noted that the Café De Paris continued to attract the same notable clientele and well-known society people. The entertainment was totally unique and everyone was much amused by the performing parrot known as coco whose singing antics ranged from high to low and Jazz and the Classics that were uproariously funny.
Then in early June 1937 Louis Barraya died. The company he had set up in 1923 called Etablissements Mourier, Le Barraya et Cie was re-organised in August 1937 and called Etablissements Louis Barraya, Maurice Drouant et Cie. Presumably Louis Barraya’s widow took charge and re-organised the company with a new partner – Maurice Drouant. The capital was reduced from 9 million to 8,100.00 francs by the reimbursement of a sum of 50 francs to each of the 18,000 shares, the nominal value of which was also reduced from 500 to 450 francs.
The Café de Paris under this new management continued through the war and the first half of the 1950s. After an illustrious and full-life the Café de Paris at 41, Avenue de L’Opéra, was sadly demolished in October 1955. As a valuable and treasured Parisian institution this was, in my humble opinion, pretty shocking.
Histoire et Geographe Gourmandes de Paris by Rene Heron de Villefosse
Paris with the Lid Lifted by Bruce Reynolds
The Gay City by Arthur Phillips
Paris A La Carte by Sommerville Story
Where Paris Dines by Julian Street
Castles In the Air by Irene Castle
My Husband by Mrs Vernon Castle
My Crystal ball by Elizabeth Marbury
The Night Side of Europe by Karl K. Kitchen
The unpublished biography of Maurice (Maurice: The First Star of Ballroom by Gary Chapman)
Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution by Eve Golden
Shall We Dance: The True Story of the Couple Who Taught the World to Dance by Douglas Thompson
Monde Illustre 17/8/1878
Le Figaro 19/1/1884
Le Gaulois 25/12/1886
Gli Blas 24/5/1888
Le Petite République 25/5/1888
New York Herald 23/12/1894
Le Figaro 21/1/1898
La France 21/1/1898
Le Figaro 15/11/1899
New York Herald 19/11/1899
New York Herald 11/2/01
Le Matin 8/2/01
La Verite 9/9/05
Le Figaro 30/11/05
Le Figaro 12/12/09
Dancing Times May 1911
Indianapolis Star 30/6/12
Sporting Times 17/5/13
Le Figaro 25/11/14
NY Herald 8/10/15
NY Herald 6/10/15
New York Herald 1/1/1921
New York Herald 7/4/1921
New York Herald 16/9/1921
L’Ech National 20/3/23
New York Herald 16/4/1923
New York Herald 4/6/1923
La Journée Industrielle 11/7/23
Le Petit Bleu de Paris 25/9/23
New York Herald 24/4/1924
New York Herald 27/11/1925
The Paris Times 6/5/26
New York Herald 23/11/1926
New York Herald 27/11/26
Chicago Tribune 20/9/28
Aux Ecoutes 5/7/30
Le Ruy Blas 1/11/31
Chicago Tribune 16/7/32
Chicago Tribune 24/9/32
Chicago Tribune 28/9/32
Reading Times 24/10/32
The El Reno Daily Tribune 25/10/32
Chicago Tribune 8/4/33
Chicago Tribune 25/9/33
Le Journal 10/6/37
La Journee Industrielle 10/8/37
Le Temps 13/1/40
New York Times 8/2/59