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Maxim’s: Mirror of Parisian Life

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Wednesday Sep 21, 2011

This article is from the October 2011 issue of EDGE Digital Magazine.

In the greatest of the world's cities, there exist certain restaurants that become larger than life, serving as theaters for that city and its more flamboyant players.

For years, supper clubs such as El Morocco and the Stork defined the joie de vivre of a New York night. Before them was Delmonico's, and later, there was Elaine's and also La Goulue, and of course, 21, the former speakeasy on 52rd Street, notable for its lawn jockeys, its ceiling of antique toys, and its haute hamburger.

In Paris, however, there has always been only Maxim's. Of course other Parisian restaurants such as Tour d'Argent, Taillevent, and Grand Vefour are widely recognized for their culinary excellence, but for the sheer theatricality of Parisian life, Maxim's has been the ne plus ultra.

Opened in 1893 on rue Royale by Maxime and Georges Gaillard, Maxim's was almost immediately "discovered" by a stunning Parisian beauty, Irma de Montigny, who vowed to launch the little "bouchon" with her stylish friends, thereby establishing a pattern that has repeated itself through the decades. Throughout its more than 100 years of operation, Maxim's tony clientele has included Jackie O and Liza, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Aristotle Onassis, Marlene Dietrich, Marcel Proust, Grace Kelly, Princess Caroline, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jean Seberg, Barbra Streisand - and nearly every other boldfaced name who has ever set foot on French soil.

In Jean-Pascal Hesse's recently published "Maxim's: Mirror of Parisian Life" (Assouline, 2011), scores of full-page black and white photos capture the serendipitous nature of a night at Maxim's when counts and dukes elbowed Hollywood stars, while toasting and smoking with politicians and financiers. Interspersed with holiday menus and illustrations by Maxim's resident artist, Sem, the book lovingly examines the restaurant's storied history. Sem's renderings of the restaurant's fabulous clientele are as tongue in cheek as the work of cartoonist Peter Arno who, for years, astutely captured that same rarefied strata of New York society in the pages of the "New Yorker."

A repository of Art Nouveau décor, Maxim’s has long served as a beacon of Belle Époque style - and perhaps nowhere more lovingly than in Vincente Minnelli’s film "Gigi," scenes of which take place in the restaurant. Courtesans such as Gigi were an integral part of Maxim’s early success and Hesse insures that their contributions are not overlooked.

During the Great War, when much of France was shuttered, Maxim’s soldiered on, serving the aviator heroes of the day - as well as Mata Hari. And though German officers commandeered the restaurant during World War II, Maxim’s flourished throughout the Forties entertaining the likes of columnist Elsa Maxwell, who spread the word about the restaurant to her many loyal readers.

By the Fifties, Maxim’s was more chic than ever, thanks to luminaries such as Maria Callas, and the Windsors - and it was perhaps inevitable that in 1981, Pierre Cardin, who owned a share of Maxim’s, would make an offer to purchase the restaurant in toto.

As Cardin writes in the book’s foreword, "...we do not notice our own aging... Maxim’s is there, in our past, our present, our actor and a mirror of Parisian life. Year after year, Maxim’s remains the prestigious symbol of a certain way of life."

Clothbound in burgundy velour with gold lettering (Maxim’s signature colors), Hesse’s book beautifully chronicles the progression of a small bouchon on rue Royale into one of the world’s more illustrious locales. And the addition of an entire recipe section devoted to some of Maxim’s more famous dishes (gloriously photographed) offers readers the opportunity to create a bit of Maxim’s in their very own kitchens.

Pop the bubbly and toast to Maxim’s, a restaurant that exemplifies Parisian joie de vivre.

DETAILS: 9 x 11 4/5 " • 23 x 30 cm • 192 pages • hardcover • ISBN: 9782759405312
PRICE: $85 - €65 - £55

A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.


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