The Wall Street Journal: Paris’s Historic Lapérouse

Historic Left Bank Parisian restaurant Lapérouse recently reopened its doors following a significant facelift by new owners Benjamin Patou, of the French hospitality group Moma, and LVMH ’s Antoine Arnault. With this new chapter the duo plans a return to the institution’s past, when, for two centuries, great writers, artists and politicians dined and drank with Paris’s demi-monde in its clandestine, private dining rooms.

Situated on Le Quai des Grands Augustins, the original Lapérouse encompassed a downstairs bar and a two-story restaurant with grand salons and a rabbit warren of private dining rooms—each with a unique name and theme, and a bell to buzz the waiter. “This is a sleeping beauty,” says Patou, 41, whose first job, 20 years ago, was working in public relations for Lapérouse. “I really made a wish then to one day become the owner of this place.”

First established in 1766 by Monsieur Lefèvre, who was King Louis XVI’s beverage supplier, Lapérouse came into its own in the mid-19th century when it was taken over by Jules Lapérouse. During his tenure he transformed the venue into a grand Parisian restaurant enticing the likes of George Sand, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo. Hugo, who dined there weekly, has one of the private salons named after him. It’s also where Colette reportedly penned her 1933 novella La Chatte, and it’s said that Serge Gainsbourg first clapped eyes on Jane Birkin in one of the smoke-filled salons.

Though it’s been well preserved, recent decades have seen the landmark venue lose its luster—and its notoriety. For the revamp Patou and Arnault recruited the Paris-based interior designer and architect Laura Gonzalez, as well as the Parisian restoration and decoration firm Atelier Mériguet-Carrère to work on the extensive restoration process. “We didn’t want to change the soul of the place, we wanted to respect the history and all of its details,” Patou says of the project. The Mériguet-Carrère craftsmen—who have worked on the Petit Trianon at Versailles and the Élysée Palace— cleaned the original gilded Cuir de Cordoue walls, the boiseries and the centuries-old frescos and tableaus to reveal their luscious pastoral and naval scenes anew.

While much of the completed work has been focused on refurbishment, the top-floor dining room, the Salon Lapérouse, had a complete overhaul. “It wasn’t the original design and it had all heavy wooden paneling, so we opened it up completely and made it a little modern,” Patou says of the space. Once reserved for private events, the grand salon is now part of the main restaurant, with a view overlooking the Seine that stretches all the way to the Pont Neuf in one direction and to the Notre Dame in the other. In this room, Gonzalez’s vision—from the celestial mural on the ceiling by Paris-based contemporary painters Redfield & Dattner, to the graphic, gold leaf fireplace—blends in seamlessly with the rest of the site. “It was complicated to add my style and keep the soul, and the history,” says Gonzalez. “I am a Parisian and this is such an iconic place—everybody has a story with this restaurant.”

Significant landmark details remain intact, like the concealed, boarded-up door in the private Les Sénateurs salon. The door opens to the restaurant’s cellar, which is connected to a secret passageway that once led all the way to the French Senate—over half a mile away. Since the Belle Époque, politicians and members of the literati have discreetly wined and wooed their mistresses here. The original mirrors in these private salons also remain untouched. Objects of great urban legend, they are etched with engravings and initials of women who wanted to verify the authenticity of the diamonds they were gifted by their paramours.

To do over these rooms, Gonzalez brought in 18th century chandeliers sourced from flea markets and replaced the tired red velvet sofas and worse-for-wear carpets with whimsical Pierre Frey fabrics; but still, a louche mood remains. “The biggest challenge was to not make it too shiny, because we don’t want it like Versailles,” she says. “It’s an evening venue, we wanted to keep it a little bit disused.” Fittingly, Patou has changed the tagline on the logo to “Maison de Plaisirs”—“House of Pleasures”; it sits above the new logo designed by Cordélia de Castellane, artistic director of Dior Maison, who also designed new monogrammed tableware.

In the 20th century Lapérouse found further fame as an emblem for French gastronomy: In 1933 it became one of the first restaurants to be awarded three Michelin stars. The kitchen retained this status (with a brief period of demotion to two stars) for much of the next 30-plus years. Now, Patou has tapped Michelin-starred chef Jean-Pierre Vigato, of the Paris restaurant Apicius, to create Lapérouse’s dinner menu; it includes oysters and foie gras to start, followed by pigeon, veal or lobster for a main course. “It is cuisine Bourgeois —not modern, or fusion—just very French,” Patou says. The pastry chef Christophe Michalak is behind the dessert menu. “It is very gourmand. For example, we have a profiterole, but it’s a sexier version of a profiterole because it has both ice cream and cream,” he says. Downstairs, the wine cellar is stocked with one of the most extensive offers of Burgundy wines in the country, including bottles of 2002 Petrus at €9000 a bottle.

Despite the all-star line-up, reclaiming a nod from Michelin is not at the top of the to-do list. “There can be a polemic when you lose your stars; it’s too much pressure,” says Patou, who plans next year to take the brand beyond the original site and open Cafe Lapérouse—an all-day café and traditional tearoom in the majestic Hôtel de la Marine on Place de la Concorde. “The real star is Lapérouse.”

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