Tour d’Argent: Paris’ Oldest Restaurant
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
As one of the world’s capitals, Paris never ceases to amaze. From grand museums with priceless art collections, historic architecture to iconic monuments — the city has it all. But best of all, at least for us, is that Paris features thousands of marvelous restaurants, from the humble corner café to the 3-star Michelins. Food is a kind of art for the French and Paris showcases these consumable masterpieces like no other place.
Among the city’s many noteworthy establishments is one of the most revered — La Tour d’Argent (Silver Tower). Located just across the Seine River from Notre Dame, this storied restaurant is a must for any visitor, as there are a number of elements that make the place truly remarkable.
In 1582, the first incarnation of La Tour d’Argent opened as an inn. Kings and princes frequented the site, because it was one of the few safe places available to dine out. The tower is located on the river, very near the king’s palace (which today is the Louvre Museum). Royalty could make a quick retreat if unsavory guests arrived. It was tough eating out back then!
Later, as things became a bit more civilized, Henry IV introduced the first fork at the restaurant. Only a few Italian establishments made use of the utensil at the time. Henry was so enamored of his fork, he wore it around his neck.
In the 18th century, The Duke of Richelieu, nephew to the notorious Cardinal, hosted a dinner at La Tour d’Argent for 40 guests. The menu featured beef cooked 30 different ways. And another first, small cups for coffee to finish off the meal.
Perhaps one of the most memorable dinners was served in 1867, when four Emperors were seated at the same table: Alexander II, Czar of of Russia; the Czarevitch, Alexander III; William I King of Prussia; and Prince Otto Von Bismarck of Germany. For this illustrious dinner, the chef prepared five starters, six main courses and four desserts. For many years after, a glassed-in table was set at the entrance of the restaurant with the original place settings and glassware from that noble night.
A few years later, Frédéric Delair worked his way up from a position as headwaiter at La Tour d’Argent to owner. He then went on to establish the restaurant’s most celebrated recipe: Canard à la presse (Pressed Duck.) Delair was so confident of the success of his new recipe that he began issuing every duck he served a number. To this day, if you order “Le Caneton Frédéric Delair” you’ll receive a certificate with the number of your duck — at this point, well over a million numbers have been issued. (You do not want to be a duck in Paris.)
In addition to its astounding history — and fabulous canard — La Tour d’Argent has many other pleasures:
At night, when Notre Dame is lit up, you feel as if you could almost touch her. And to sit at a table with such magnificent views of the Seine River and Île de la Cité is incredibly romantic — a moment that stays with you forever.
Another magical element is the elegance of the Tour d’Argent dining rooms and the exquisite service provided by the staff. Wearing two-piece suits, white gloves and bow ties, they move gracefully and professionally among the diners. It’s regrettable that some of the foreign tourists who visit La Tour d’Argent sometimes underdress, as if they’re picnicking at the beach.
Once the Sultan of Brunei and his retinue of a dozen or so people were seated next to our table. They were, of course, beautifully dressed, as you’d expect of one of the world’s wealthiest men and his best friends. You never know who’ll turn up at La Tour d’Argent.
Of particular interest to us, of course, is the wine list. One of the largest collections in the world, the restaurant offers well over 15,000 wines in a 400-page book. The cellar, guarded around the clock, contains more than 300,000 bottles, whose value is conservatively estimated at some $30 million. The collection even survived the Second World War when the Terrail family, current owners, walled in the cellars to hide them from the Nazi invasion.
But the main attraction at La Tour d’Argent is the cuisine and, accordingly, the restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star. “The soul of La Tour d’Argent has moved with the times, and its menu, a veritable palimpsest reinterpreted by MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) Chef Yannick Franques, has preserved the memory of several decades of French haute cuisine.” (Michelin Guide)
In more pedestrian prose, I’ll simply add that we’ve always had remarkable experiences at La Tour d’Argent. During our last visit, we booked a lunch. The mid-day menu is not as wide-ranging as the dinner offerings, but the service is still superb, of course, and the value is excellent. We enjoyed the following: an amuse bouche of salmon, red beets, crème fraîche & mushrooms. Starters were asparagus with an almond milk “snowfall” & shrimp as well as a Pike Quenelle with a crawfish gratin.
Our main courses were Skate with Menton Lemon, capers, almonds & hazelnuts followed by roasted duck with spices, an emulsion of licorice and balsamic, a side of stuffed turnips and roasted baby onions. For dessert, caramelized Millefeuille, Tatin-style, with vanilla ice cream, iced fromage blanc & apple juice salt.
Trying new restaurants in Paris is always a treat. We have a long list of favorite spots, as well as places we’re eager to sample. But dining in this ancient tower, steeped in history, with views of the city’s monuments is something apart altogether. Paris is famously known as “The City of Light.” It all began with Louis XIV, the Sun King and the Age of Enlightenment, around 1715….when La Tour d’Argent was already 133 years old.