It’s telling that Vincent Price was so careful, when writing about Restaurant Lasserre, to contrast it with iconic Parisian locations. In a few short sentences, Price invokes the charm of Place du Tertre, Bois de Bologne, and the very concept of workingman bistros and the slightly grubby back streets and alleys so intrinsic to the Bohemian image of Paris. By contrast, Lasserre is lavish. It is opulent. And, like Paris, it exists outside of time, a classic, unblemished by short cuts or cut corners.
So perhaps, to better understand Lasserre, to place it properly, we should look at the Parisian tropes Price used to define it: the amazing collection of ponds and parks in Bois de Bologne, the streets full of painters and cafes in the Montmartre square, Place du Tertre, and the slew of cafes and bistros where the workers of Paris take their coffee and cigarettes.
A Tale of Two Cities
Chicago and Paris seemed to coexist in many ways. Both cities were growing significantly from 1830 to 1900 with an explosion of building. Around 1830, both cities began exploring the idea of well designed public parks with Chicago laying down the formations of the idea for their city between 1830 and 1869 when Lincoln Park began to take shape. Paris was ahead of Chicago, creating the magnificent Bois de Bologne in 1858.
The Bois is similar to Chicago’s Forest Preserves (which run from downtown Chicago 36 miles west into the suburbs, ending at the summer home of the Orchestra, Ravinia). Much of it is forest land (bois means wood) and remains wild (King Dagobert hunted bear and deer in the forest that became the park). When the Bois was finally completed, it contained an English landscape garden with a cascade, a zoo, an amusement park, two horse racing tracks, a complex of greenhouses with over 200,000 plants, and a tennis court still used today for national opens.
The idea both cities wagered was that by salting their city with parks both vast and small, they would offer their citizens a constant reminder of nature, improve property values, and invoke a pastoral state of mind, perhaps even preserving pedestrianism and parasols.
I haven’t been to Paris. But I live in Chicago and I can tell you even the smallest park refreshes the mind’s eye whether you are strolling down Damen or racing down Racine. A flurry of green, of depth, of life, relieves the monotony of brick and mortar.
Where You’re Thinking About when you Think About Paris
When you’re thinking about the three flats and terraced apartments where the great artists and writers hung out in the early 20th century, you’re thinking about Place du Tertre. Picasso and Salvador Dali lived here. As did Modigliani, Monet, and Van Gogh. This is where modern art was born and this is where absinthe flowed like a verdant hallucinogenic river through everybody.
Perhaps I should be fair and zoom out. Place du Tertre was the center of Montmartre, the hill of the 18th arrondissement on whose sides all these insane artists and writers and poets and captains of industry got their groove.
Throughout Paris, there are bistros and cafes offering good French food at reasonable prices. These are neighborhood places, run a by a guy who loves to feed his neighbors and his friends. He’ll keep a table free even when it’s busy in case someone he knows shows up hungry. He’ll stand out on the sidewalk while the joint is weeded and smoke cigarettes with his neighbors and tell jokes. The postman will leave a package at the bar for someone who isn’t home. These are great places, the heart of Montrematre, and the point Price is making in bringing all this working man’s landscape into the picture is to contrast all the picturesque down-and-outedness of the seedy underbelly of the Paris of our dreams with its fraternal twin, a stones throw from Champs de Elyses, across the street from the palais, and a short walk to the Seine, the gold-plated cut-velvet opulence of restaurant Lasserre.
How Francos al Fresco Beneath Starlight and Doves at Lasserre
There are two distinct qualities of Lasserre not associated with their menu, for which the restaurant is revered: the retractable roof, and the doves.
There are only a handful of restaurants with retractable roofs:
The Godfrey in Chicago has a rooftop terrace with a removable glass ceiling. In the winter, it offers a chilling, though warm, view of the city.
Istanbul’s Nopa features vertical gardens and a glass roof of retractable glass panels that fold into each other like a futuristic convertible.
The Salinas in New York’s Chelsea district hand cranks their roof open in the summer, an arduous task I am certain falls to the newest busboy.
Union Rooftop, Minneapolis’s James beard nominated rooftop bistro offers a glass enclosure that folds like an accordion.
Selfridges offers an unusual take with their “On the Roof With” series of annually rotating restaurants located on their roof which protects diners with glass panels that slide open to let in the London fog.
Lasserre’s roof opens to allow a narrow view of the stars. I have heard some reports the view is amazing, but I can’t see how that is possible, since there doesn’t appear to be any access to the open roof. I assume the people making those reports had consumed waaaay too much absinthe and merely floated roofwise for a peek.
In its past, Lasserre would open the roof and release snow white doves into the restaurant (after service) which, according to Price, was less preferred than just seeing their image emblazoned on everything from the menu to the carpet. I suppose getting a little dove in your coffee would be less than palatable. Maybe that’s why the doves, today, are in the lobby, not flying around like it’s a Goddam Nicholas Cage movie.
Lasserre is pricey. Their roasted seabass with blonde morels and buckwheat is $168.00. That’s for that dish, not a week on the beach. Much better to go for the paired tasting menu at only $283 bucks. A fucking bargain. But you’ll be dining among the elite, people who rarely dine shoulder to shoulder with the truck drivers and the butchers of Montrematre. More likely people who rub shoulders with movie stars and banking magnates. A who’s who includes Jennifer Lopez and whoever else has ever been there because once I say Jay Lo why even bother?
It also once included Vincent and Mary Price so if you visit this gilded gastronomic altar, raise a glass.