Between 1770 and 1789 hundreds of restaurants opened in Paris, and, by 1825, it was claimed there were some nine hundred of them in the city. The word restaurant was for many years specific to Paris. However, by the late 1700s, the word had come to represent any eatery and could include an inn, cookshop, or eating house. Despite this blurred and uncertain meaning, some of the best places to eat in the 1800s were Palais-Royal restaurants, a place once owned by the Princesse de Lamballe‘s brother-in-law, Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans.
Among the most popular of the Palais-Royal restaurants of the 1800s were three, the Trois Frères Provençaux, Véry’s, and Véfour’s. The Trois Frères Provençaux was founded in 1786 by three young men born in Provence named Barthélemy, Manneilles, and Simon. A description of the restaurant at the time of its opening follows:
“[T]he furniture was exceedingly modest, the tables were covered with oil-cloth, the salt-cellars were of wood, silver-plate was rare … the wine there was unadulterated, and the vaults were rich in vintages of good years and good growths, the cooking was highly esteemed.”
In the late 1700s, General Napoleon Bonaparte and the French politician Paul Barras supposedly patronized the Palais-Royal restaurants with Les Trois Frères Provençaux being one they dined at regularly. However, the restaurant did not take off financially until Napoleon decided to invade Spain and troops passed through Paris in 1808. That was when officers chose Trois Frères Provençaux as the spot for their “junketings.” According to one historian:
“The receipts were not less than twelve or fifteen thousand francs a day (some $2400 or $3000). The Trois Frères Provençaux also saw, with all the then famed restaurants, the fortunate days of 1808 reproduced in 1814 and 1815.”
The Pall Mall Gazette was particularly pleased with the restaurant’s excellence and wrote:
“Their specialité is the suppers regardless of expense, where it is the supremest chic to throw the dessert to the coachmen in the street, and pelt the rakish attendants with napoleons. Accidents may happen in the best-regulated establishments, but as a rule nothing of that sort was tolerated at the Trois Frères.”
One of the dishes served at this restaurant (and many other French restaurants) was à la Marengo. There was a dish also called à l’Austerlitz. However, such dishes did not necessarily have a historical or political connection as they were a “reference to garnishes and ingredients … [and although] a menu might be thick with exotic place names, they alluded to cooking methods, not military campaigns … even the most skilled artillery officer could not count on his tactical knowledge to tell him whether he would prefer his poultry à l’Austerlitz or à la Marengo.”
In 1836, Trois Frères Provençaux was sold to the Bellenger brothers, who kept it about a year before they sold it to M. Collot. (One interesting side note is that a butler named Lionnet who started when the restaurant originally opened in 1786, had his same position for forty-eight years and only left because he retired.) The restaurant remained in business until 1872 when London’s Pall Mall Gazette noted its demise stating:
“The latest obituary announcement from Paris is the demise of the Trois Frères Provençaux. … We know that occasionally a great Parisian restaurant collapses in the effulgence of seeming success, with a crash that must shake the crystal in the salons of its compeers. … The Trois Frères has grown from small beginnings into an international institution. …. It has fallen draped decorously in its mantle, and we fear its fall is ominous of the general struggle for existence in luxurious Paris.”
Another of the popular Palais-Royal restaurants was Véfour. It was named for its founder Jean Véfour. He bought the building that had previously housed the Café de Chartres, which had opened in the 1700s. Véfour completely refurbished the three-floor building: He installed a kitchen, moved the main entrance to the carriage entrance off the rue de Beaujolais, and redecorated the building in luxurious fashion.
Véfour was intent on beating out his competition, the Véry, which was also located at the Palais-Royal, and he did win out over Véry’s. In fact, Véfour received a praiseworthy review written by Grimod de la Reynière, a man who led a gastronomic lifestyle:
“[T]he old Café de Chartres, after many various fortunes, is at present one of the best-frequented houses of Paris. M. Vefour brought the crowd back … [It is] particularly renowned for its breakfasts. Nowhere can you find a better served up sauté, a fricassée of poulet à la Marengo or a Mayonnaise de volaille. The wines are of good quality … The salons … are encumbered by five o’clock by a crowd of diners. … The fish and the game are remarkable for their freshness … [It] is a place where you meet good cheer at moderate prices.”
Among the Palais-Royal restaurants Véfour probably achieved the greatest success. It was so astronomical, Véfour retired after three years in business and sold it to his friend Louis Boissier. He maintained Véfour’s stellar reputation, and business remained so profitable that he in turn sold the business to the Hamel brothers in 1827.
A third of the popular Palais-Royal restaurants at this time was Véry’s. It was initially established by Monsieur Véry in 1805 in the gardens of the Tuileries, but business was good enough he moved into the Palais-Royal in 1808 and reigned supreme for a time. During the Napoleonic era, dozens of dishes were offered that included fish, beef, or mutton. Reynière thought it the finest restaurant in France, and the well-known French novelist and short-story teller Honoré de Balzac was a regular patron at the restaurant. Moreover, an American visitor to Very’s in the 1830s noted the restaurant was the perfect spot to satisfy a person’s appetite and noted:
“Véry’s is by far the most elegant of the Parisian restaurants. Upon entering the saloon, you might, at first glance, imagine yourself introduced into one of those formerly splendid apartments of the Royal Palace, adorned in the style of sumptuous costliness, that marked the taste of its building, the despotic Richelieu.”
Not everyone was as complimentary. One American honeymooning bride wrote that she preferred Trois Frères Provençaux to Véry’s after dining in one of its private rooms. Apparently, “she did not find it a very ‘novel’ experience and wrote to her mother that she far preferred the main salon … ‘as the number of people was greater and of course more amusing.'”
During the time that Very’s was popular it was a great hit, and “its cookery … quoted from one pole to the other.” At least that was the case until the arrival of Véfour in 1820, which Reynière noted in a rather humorous way:
“[Very’s] great reputation has not, however, preserved for him the popularity which he formerly enjoyed. His magnificent salons are scarcely frequented but by some few accustomed guests. The cuisine of M. Véry is nevertheless always good; his wines particularly are of an excellent quality; but who can explain the caprices of fortunes? The crowd goes elsewhere; … the many will say to this ancient sanctuary of cuisine, ‘Thou art not what thou wert!’”
As Very’s was dying, Véfour was experiencing its own problems. In September of 1839, an incident at Véfour grabbed newspaper headlines. A gentleman by the name of Alphonse Robert invited another man to dinner at the restaurant. At the end of the meal Robert had no money to pay the 11 francs and 70 centimes owed. Robert told the owners he could pay the next day, but his offer was refused as the Hamel brothers did not know him. Robert became so upset, he seized a decanter, “dashed it into the middle of the handsomest looking-glass in the salon [and the most expensive]. The pieces fell by hundreds upon the neighbouring epicures, and the terrified dames du comptoir rushed out in quest of assistance.” The meal for Robert proved to be extremely expensive because he ended up before a judge, who ordered him to pay an additional 6,000 francs to cover the cost of the broken mirror.
The Hamel brothers sold Véfour in 1852 to the Tavernier brothers and they renamed it Le Grand Véfour. It was at that time that Mornay sauce, a classical sauce made from Béchamel sauce and grated Gruyère cheese, was introduced by its chef. His name was Joseph Voiron, and, perhaps due to his chiefly skills, Le Grand Véfour remained popular and profitable enough that in 1862, Véry’s became part of Le Grand Véfour.
Unfortunately, after Le Grand Véfour purchased Véry’s, it waned in popularity for a time, but near the end of the Second Empire, it regained its popularity. Part of the reason for a renewal in popularity was that it began to cater to such well-known clients as the novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo, the leader of the Orléanists the Duke of Aumale, the statesman and historian Adolphe Theirs, the literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and the politician and Marshal of France, Duke of Magenta.
-  Putnam’s Monthly v. 3 (New York: G.P. Putnam & Company, 1854), p. 387.
-  ibid.
-  Pall Mall Gazette, “The Trois Frères Provençaux,” January 27, 1872, p. 1.
-  Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 187.
-  Pall Mall Gazette, p. 1–2.
-  The Foreign Quarterly Review (London: Treuttel and Wurtz, 1827), p. 174.
-  Hezekiah Hartley Wright, Desultory reminiscences of a tour through Germany, Switzerland, and France (Boston: W. D. Ticknor, 1838), p. 293.
-  Spang, p. 209.
-  The Foreign Quarterly Review, p. 173.
-  Ibid., p. 173–74.
-  Morning Advertiser, “An Expensive Dinner,” September 19, 1839, p. 1.