Maxim's and Tour d'Argent, the two most famous restaurants in Paris if not the world, are headed for a new and different competition, not based this time on gastronomic star rating.
Revolving around a club idea, it's a duel that has some piquant and very Gallic features. Maxim's started first with its men-only (MBC) (or, Maxim's Business Club, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year). Now, Claude Terrali, owner of the Tour d'Argent, is coming up with a women's club but his theme and approach are totally different.
Both restaurants have considerable prestige and a history as long as your arm. Maxim's goes back to the turn of the century and the naughty Belle Epoque clientele of kings, princes and plain rich idle men whose main, and seemingly only, pastime was chasing women. Those were the days when a man's mistress was his status symbol and Maxim's the place to show her off. [It still is.]
That's where Russian grand dukes drank champagne in the slippers of opera dancers while boulevardiers played Russian roulette, spinning around divinely attractive and ghoulishly greedy cocottes.
Those days are gone and one of Maxim's main attractions today is its very Parisian lunch hour which has been put into orbit by the MBC. Founded at the suggestion of publicist Andre Tarbes, the club has three other presidents: Patrick Guerrand-Hermes (whose family owns the Hermes store), publisher Paul Dupuy and Prince Jean Poniatowski.
Through his public relations office, Tarbes, whose career included a spell at Patou and other luxury firms, was in close touch with a cross-section of Paris young lions who would one day come into big business, mainly via their families. He came up with the idea of forming a club, whose headquarters could be Maxim's, in those days all but deserted at lunch.
"The legend of Maxim's was always to have rich men taking out good-looking girls for dinner," a spokesman for Maxim's said, "but the idea of the business lunch just was not done."
The main attraction for the members was a smaller and simpler menu at a very low price -- for Maxim's that is. It started at 45 francs in 1968 and is now at 130 (without wine), which is still modest by the house's standards where lunch for two can easily run up to 700 francs.
This whole thing obviously is not aimed at anybody but rich to very rich young men (one of the conditions of admission is to be under 45) and the added attractions of the club are along the same order -- safaris, trips to China or Polynesia plus genuine forays into business such as seminars and visits to factories.
Without question, the MBC with 748 members and a waiting list, is now a success and Maxim's, otherwise known as the Canteen, is full every day. What's more, the section of the restaurant that was allotted to MBC, the previously non-chic Omnibus, between the main dining room and the winter garden area on Rue Royale, has now become the center of attraction. So much so that older and richer men, who would normally rate the main room (with its Table Royal -- once occupied by Edward VII) now want to be around the MBC's tables that are invariably young and animated.
The Tour d'Argent can also hold its own when it comes to anecdotes. One of the most ironic is that it has attracted every president of the United States in the last few decades except President Carter but that, in France, with the exception of the late President Pompidou, a noted gourmet, no French president has ever dined at La Tour. That has not kept out such people as Queen Elizabeth II, Gromyko, Henry Kissinger and Emperor Hirohito. The latter came to the Tour in 1971, and asked for the number of the duck he ate there 50 years ago. The answer, provided by ever-so-perfect host Terrail: 53211.
Terrail also likes to remind you that the Tour d'Argent is the oldest restaurant in Paris (it dates back to 1582) and claims that it is where the fork was first introduced in France. King Henri III, a fussy eater, according to Terail, gave 12 of them to his missions, sick and tired as he was of seeing them wiping their greasy hands on their ruffled collars.
Anyway, Terrail, who had led a playboy's life on the side besides being a perfect restaurateur, now has the idea of pushing a women's club, because, he said, "It's about time."
"I seriously feel women are being discriminated against," he said. "While men have all kinds of clubs to go to, women are still treated like second-class citizens. If they arrive together, or worse, alone, at some restaurant, they are looked down upon. Yet, I feel their time has come. Ther's an awful lot of smart businesswomen around plus a great number of housewives who are no longer chained to their homes and are organized enough to take time out for lunch.
"Besides, I'm surrounded with women: Notre Dame (whose view is one of the major attractions of La Tour) on one side and Saint Genevieve (who saved Paris from the Huns) on the other."
In a press release, Terrail pays full, somewhat embarrassing homage to women who, he claims "know how to love, which means how to live. Men live in the future when they are not crying over their youth, both of which are ways of running away from themselves. Women are always living the moment . . . That's why I owed it to them to give them a place where they could meet, talk business or trade ideas, secrets and the thousands of mysteries by which they make life what it is, a miracle, and Paris an enchantment."
Terrail recently hosted for lunch Princess Ira de Furstenberg and Betina Graziani, both of whom have been associated with the international jet set.
While Terrail gallantly insisted he was there just as a guest, he kept monitoring the debate. First hurdle: the name. "Club de La Tour d'Argent" was rejected as too severe. "Les Dames a La Tour d'Argent," well, maybe, but sort of dull. Somebody suggested "The Gold Diggers a La Tour d'Argent" (hoping the pun on gold and silver would save the day) but that went nowhere.
The budding committee also had to decide whom to ask, and how many. Bettina suggested that women such as Baronne Guy de Rothschild, who lives across the river, and Princess of Beauveau-Craon, who recently moved nearby, would be very desirable because they would not have far to go. Both have great social pull, especially the baronne, who is considered the queen bee of Paris society.
The number of women was set at 100 and it was decided that the honorary committee would have no more than 12. Among the names tossed around were Princess Grace, Paloma Picasso, Brigitte Bardot and Mrs. Jacques Chirac (wife of the Paris mayor). The tour's club plans to let each woman bring in two men.
But if they all do it, won't that make it, in the end, a man's club? "That," Graziani said, "would be the day."