The reopening of the La Tour d’Argent in Paris signals a new chapter in a spot with a very long and storied legacy.
The mythology around one of Paris’s most famous restaurants, La Tour d’Argent, is legendary and far-reaching. The restaurant in the 5th arrondissement overlooks the Seine River and the Notre Dame Cathedral, and is often described as “the oldest restaurant in Paris” with a history that dates to 1582. It is famous for its signature duck dish, which is prepared theatrically in the dining room, and its 300,000-bottle wine cellar.
If the restaurant’s claims are to be believed, it’s here that King Henry III picked up a fork for the first time and popularised its use in France.
Its reputation has attracted a long list of powerful and influential diners throughout history, including Queen Elizabeth II, Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, as well as Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dalí, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The 2007 Pixar animated film Ratatouille was also inspired in part by La Tour d’Argent.
So when the restaurant reopened in August 2023, after a 15-month renovation, it caused a major stir among the city’s gastronomic glitterati, most of whom wrote glowingly about its renaissance, which now includes a ground-floor bar, luxury hotel suite, rooftop terrace and an open kitchen in the dining room.
But it also presents a renewed opportunity to reexamine some of the lore associated with the restaurant, which media reports have repeated unchallenged for decades – much to the wrath and indignation of some food historians.
The last time La Tour d’Argent closed for renovations was in 1936, when then owner André Terrail moved the restaurant from the ground floor to the sixth floor of the building on Quai de la Tournelle where panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows offered sweeping views of the city. More than 85 years later, his grandson, also named André, has spearheaded a new chapter in the restaurant’s long and storied legacy.
“Our number one goal is to extend the Tour d’Argent experience,” the younger Terrail said in an interview in the restaurant’s new Bar des Maillets d’Argent, a polo-themed cognac bar in honour of his father and predecessor Claude, who was captain of the Paris polo team.
In the restaurant’s “hall of fame”, a selection of autographs and photos of some of the restaurant’s most illustrious guests includes a small illustration of Ratatouille signed by director Brad Bird, who spent days at the restaurant sketching the dining room (Terrail recognised the lamps, cheese trolley and maitre d’s outfit in the film as their own).
An electricity bill for the Notre Dame Cathedral from 1955 also tells the story of how Terrail’s father Claude paid for the landmark’s lighting bill at a time when the cathedral remained dark at night, in order to give his guests a nocturnal spectacle.
During my visit, Terrail was stopped regularly by diners who greeted him by first name as though they knew him personally, and he reciprocated with the graciousness of a host who had been groomed to enter the hospitality business his whole life. Until the age of 30, Terrail lived in the building and was a fixture: as a child, every Sunday he and his parents would sit at the corner table and tuck into a simple roast chicken lunch – a family ritual that held deeper meaning.
“My father would take me around, greeting the guests and would make sure I got a feel for what was awaiting me later,” said the third-generation owner.
Because as much as the restaurant is a Parisian landmark, it’s also a family affair. Like the polo-themed bar for his father Claude, the new 150-sq-m, €8,900/night luxury suite, L’Appartement, honours the memory of his grandfather’s hotelier roots, Terrail said. Along with the restaurant, the elder Terrail helped open the hotel George V, now the luxury Four Seasons George V. It was also where his grandmother Augusta Burdel lived for a time.
In the upstairs dining room where chef Yannick Franques conducts his brigade in the new open kitchen, the signature dish, canard au sang (which translates to bloody duck) is prepared the same theatrical way the restaurant’s former owner, Frédéric Delair, made it in the 19th Century.
In keeping with tradition, the seared duck is held aloft with a fork and filleted tableside, and must not touch the plate as it’s carved, the way Delair did it. The carcass is then crushed in the famous duck press, and the “bloody” juices reduced with cognac and port wine into a rich and dark sauce.
The numbered ducks
A Frédéric Delair tradition that remains unchanged is the numbering of every duck served at the restaurant, a clever business concept that was ahead of its time for conveying the idea that every meal is one of a kind. Guests leave with an embossed certificate bearing the duck’s unique serial number as a souvenir. Franklin D Roosevelt reportedly consumed duck number 112,151 in 1929, while duck number 328 can be traced to 1890 and the dinner plate of Prince of Wales, future Edward VII. By the end of October 2023, more than 1,117,800 ducks had been served.
Perhaps equally important as the canard au sang is the restaurant’s 300,000-bottle wine collection, which includes a few historical pre-Revolution wines valued at more than €25,000. During World War Two, Claude famously saved his wine cellar from the Nazis by erecting a brick wall to hide the bottles.
It’s tales like these that have helped build up the mythology of La Tour d’Argent. But two major claims – both of which have been central to the restaurant’s fame – have been called into question by historians.
The first sticking point is the oft-repeated title of La Tour d’Argent as the oldest restaurant in Paris.
“That’s a tall tale, it’s not true at all, it’s wrong,” said Patrick Rambourg, a researcher at the Université Paris Cité and author of History of Gastronomic Paris, from the Middle Ages to the Present Day. “The notion of a restaurant as an establishment in the 16th Century doesn’t work,” he said. “From the sources I’ve seen, I don’t see any mention of the Tour d’Argent until the 18th Century.”
For starters, Rambourg points out that the Western restaurant as we know it today (historians say the the world’s first restaurants actually popped up in China as early as 1100 AD) only made its first appearance in the 1760s and takes issue with the semantics often attached to the brand: the Tour d’Argent can’t be the oldest restaurant in Paris because there was no such thing in the 16th Century, he said.
In a 1969 interview on French TV, Claude Terrail addressed this discrepancy and described the site as an inn or tavern when it opened in the 16th Century, as “restaurants came along a lot later.”
But that still doesn’t satisfy experts in regards to their second point of contention: the claim that Kings Henry III and Henry IV were patrons and that it was here, in its iteration as an inn or tavern, that Henry III introduced France to forks for the first time.
As Claude Terrail tells it in the same 1969 interview, Henry III was fed up with seeing members of his royal court soil their clothing and high collars, or ruffs, after every meal – an unavoidable consequence of eating with their hands. So he ordered a silversmith to make a dozen forks (already in use in Italy at the time) and hosted a dinner at the Tour d’Argent, where he introduced wider France to the fork.
But Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, points out that inns and taverns were patronised by travellers like religious pilgrims or merchants who had no other food options – not the elite and much less French royalty. “It wasn’t a luxurious experience,” she said.
For Rambourg, the story also fails to hold up for similar reasons. “Why would a king from that time stay at an inn or hostel in Paris when they had their own royal residences and palaces in the city?” he asked.
Furthermore, Spang points out that the restaurant claims to have opened during the French Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants (1562-1598), when millions died during major upheaval, and questions the likelihood of French royalty staying in an unprotected rustic inn at this time.
For his part, the current owner André Terrail stands by the claims, saying that the writings in their possession date the building – whether it was a hostel or an inn – to 1582. “Sometimes, history is transferred by word of mouth,” he said. “But there’s probably as much chance that it’s true as it is false.”
But Hélène Pietrini, managing director of the fine dining guide and global restaurant ranking La Liste, dismissed the focus on authenticating dates and superlative titles.
“I’m not on a museum tour. I’m eating a piece of French history and gastronomy,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to look at how many centuries a restaurant has existed, but instead what they represent in France’s culinary heritage. And the Tour d’Argent is timeless.”
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