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Cuisine History Paris

The Silver Tower : the oldest French restaurant

In Paris stands La Tour d’Argent ( the Silver Tower ), a restaurant considered to be the oldest in France and amongst the first European restaurant. Between myth and reality, La Tour d’Argent has received some of the most influential people of the last centuries, served millions of meals and offers a stunning view on the Seine river and Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The legend says that La Tour d’Argent was first founded in 1582, in the middle of Henri III’s reign and near the end of the Wars of Religion. It was a time when Paris was far from being the shinning city it will become, when many streets were not yet paved, alleys and paths were dirty, smelly and often flooded.

According to the restaurant’s own history, L’Hostellerie de la Tour d’Argent was created by a successful and renowned chef named Rourteau. Soon after its creation, the restaurant found in the new King of France Henri IV a recurrent customer who came to savour the result of his hunting game such as the heron paté. However, these claims are part of the legend around La Tour d’Argent has no official documents can prove or refute it.

With the King of France as customer, it is only normal that the popularity of the place grew quickly, attracting more and more people at its tables. Henri IV’s grandson, the Sun King Louis XIV is said to have come more than once with his entire court ! His principal minister, the famous Cardinal of Richelieu also enjoyed La Tour d’Argent where he could eat a goose served with prunes.

Still according to the restaurant, the place became the most famous table of France attracting crowned heads, the finest aristocrats and the richest merchants until the French Revolution where the building was almost destroyed. However these stories are not verified by historians, according to official documents the streets were not paved until 1650 and no restaurant was recorded in the street ( 15 Quai de la Tournelle  ) before 1860 when ” a small, cheap but well kept hostel ” was open according to the Guide Baedeker of Paris.

In 1890, a chef named Frédéric Delair bought the building at the 15 Quai de la Tournelle and opened the Canard Tour d’Argent  ( Silver Tower Duck ). As the name suggests, the culinary specialty is the duck. Delair started a ritual which still surviving today where they give a number to each duck served. The ducks, raised in the Vendée region, are prepared into breasts in front of the customer by a specialist and the carcasses pressed to make a sauce with cognac or lemon. What is left of the duck such as the legs are served later. This meal became known as the Canard Tour d’Argent.

21 years after Frédéric Delair opened his restaurant, the place is bought by André Terrail but the First World War and the mobilization of men interrupts his life as a chef. Surviving the war, the restaurant re-opened in 1918 and Terrail manages to make his business prosperous. He employed the Egyptian King’ own chef, bought some adjunct building and opened hostels elsewhere in Paris. In the 30s, the restaurant is awarded a third star by the Michelin guide and welcomed some prominent people of the time such as Marcel Proust.

Once more, the restaurant is not spared by the war and in 1940 the Nazis established their head-quarters in the Silver Tower. André Terrail’s son, Claude successfully walled up the gigantic wine cave thus saving nearly half a million bottles of the finest wines from being looted. Claude Terrail exiled himself and served in the famous Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division leaving the building to the Nazi administration.

After the Second World War, Claude returned and re-opened the Silver Tower. For the next fifty years the business flourished, opening new buildings, exporting its name abroad, welcoming some of the most famous personalities of the XXth century like President Kennedy, actor John Wayne, the future Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom or Hirohito the Emperor of Japan.

However in 1996, the Michelin Guide took a star off La Tour d’Argent on the ground that the restaurant has not evolved for half a century and relies too much on its reputation to make its prices seem acceptable. In 2006, Claude Terrail lost another star due to the avian influenza crisis and he passed away in June of the same year. Today the one star restaurant is in the hands of Claude’s son, André Terrail. Despite loosing two stars, La Tour d’Argent remains one of the most famous restaurant in the world due to its long existence and its impressive collection of wines. Some of the finest bottles it has served were inherited by André Terrail ( the first ) from his father-in-law’s famous Café Anglais , destroyed in 1913 and which had served some of the most prestigious persons of the XIXth centuries such as the Russian Czar Alexander II, his son and heir the future Alexander III, the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor von Bismarck who all dinned together in the Café Anglais in 1867.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France