One afternoon in 1960, the Kennedy clan gathered at Le Pavillon on Park Avenue and 57th Street to discuss John’s presidential bid. Per usual, the family sat at Le Royale, as the best table at the esteemed French restaurant was known, but they were soon disturbed by a photographer who had snuck into the establishment. Joseph called over the manager and asked that the shutterbug be removed. The request made the restaurant’s hotheaded, 5-foot-5-inch tall proprietor Henri Soulé furious.
“You’ll do no such thing. At Le Pavillon, only Soulé decides who is or isn’t accepted in the dining room,” cried the restaurateur, who often referred to himself in the third person. “The campaign has not even begun, but some people already think they are running the country.” The Kennedys quit dining at the restaurant and instead began frequenting nearby La Caravelle, where many former Pavillon employees worked.
Before there was La Grenouille, the Four Seasons or Frenchette, there was Le Pavillon. Opened in 1941, the Midtown restaurant brought a new level of French food and sophistication to New York City — and became the blueprint for see-and-be-seen hot spots to follow. The Kennedys, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Windsors, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio all frequented its elegant dining room, while a number of would-be notable chefs, including a young Jacques Pépin, spent time in the kitchen.
“Unquestionably, Henri Soulé trained an entire generation of French chefs and New York restaurant owners,” Paul Freedman wrote in “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.”
Daniel Boulud didn’t pass through the storied restaurant’s kitchen, but he’s continuing its legacy. On Wednesday, he will open his own Le Pavillon at the base of the mega development One Vanderbilt.
Despite its name, the new version is more Modern American than French, and it doesn’t try to bring back stuffy old service rituals or dress codes. Still, Boulud isn’t discounting its storied lineage.
“I like the fact that it was a long time ago, and yet it wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t be connected to people and stories from that era,” Boulud has said.
A few weeks ago, Boulud invited 85-year-old Pépin to speak to his employees. Pépin worked at Le Pavillon for eight months in 1959 and 1960, and he talked about the unique formal service style, with dishes presented on silver platters and carved tableside. He also gifted Boulud a set of silverware from the restaurant.
“The dining room was much more important than the dining room is today,” Pépin told The Post. Nearly every dish — from a roast chicken served with a Champagne cream sauce to striped bass braised with white wine, shallots and mushrooms — was carved and plated tableside by Soulé himself, who reigned in a navy suit and gray tie at lunch and a tuxedo at dinner.
In 1939, Soulé brought 60 kitchen staffers and 38 maîtres d’hôtel, captains, wine stewards and waiters — among them a young Charles Masson who would go on to open La Grenouille in 1962 — over from France to work in the country’s pavilion at the World’s Fair. “They were quartered below decks in third class,” recalled James H. Heineman, a publisher who happened to be on the boat with Soulé’s crew. It was a “terrible journey.”
On May 9, the restaurant opened at the fair, with a meal for 375 and dishes such as capon in tarragon aspic and chicken consommé with cheese sticks. Diners were wowed by both the food and the service. “It wasn’t as if New York did not already have French restaurants,” wrote Freedman, but “the advent of Prohibition had meant the death of an older generation of luxury establishments of the more-or-less French sort.”
After the start of the war, Soulé and his chef, Pierre Franey, remained in the US as refugees. In October 1941, they opened Le Pavillon at East 55th Street, and it was an immediate success. “I remember suddenly feeling for the first time an unquestionably great restaurant had opened in America,” socialite Elaine Whitelaw said at the time.
The food was as luxurious and French as could be found in America at the time, although some common Gallic ingredients, such as wild mushrooms and certain Mediterranean fish, could not be had. The cellar was filled with an enviable inventory of wines from Bordeaux. Flowers, which Soulé spent roughly $20,000 per year on, were carefully arranged throughout the dining room. Diners were sat by status and looks; those in the possession of one or the other would get a prominent table, those who were lacking were banished to a dining “Siberia.”
“The highest ingredient was the clientele,” the younger Charles Masson, 66, who fondly recalls his father’s stories about the place, told The Post. “It sounds elitist, but if you throw a party and people don’t show up, it’s not a party.”
Soulé was such a stickler about seating people according to his whims, he refused his landlord, Henry Cohn, a good table — even after Cohn threatened to raise his rent. Instead, in 1957, he relocated Le Pavillon to a new location, the Ritz Tower on 57th Street, at an estimated cost of $400,000. Cohn died the following year, and Soulé later rented the old space from Columbia Pictures and opened a more casual restaurant there called La Côte Basque. “A man may take his wife to the Côte Basque and the other lady to Pavillon,” Soulé quipped.
Ferdinand Metz, who worked in the kitchen for three years in the early ’60s, recalled an obsession with quality and details. “Creamed spinach, most people would think it was an ordinary thing, but not at Le Pavillon,” Metz, 79, who later served as the president of the Culinary Institute of America, told The Post. It was made fresh for each order — the only advance preparation was that the vegetable might be prewashed. There were no recipes, although cooks might refer to Auguste Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire.”
Although he was exacting, Metz recalled Soulé quite fondly. “He understood what an elegant dining room should be all about,” he told The Post. “If a gentleman came in with his mistress, he would gently usher him to a table not in view of where his wife was having lunch with her friends.”
Soulé’s unique talent for hospitality was also on display in what became known as “the Pheasant Incident.” A party of six had ordered an elaborate dinner in advance that was to feature caviar, a consommé, roasted pheasants and some special wines. The birds were brought out on a silver platter and shown to the diners and placed on a small table, which a clumsy busboy then knocked over.
As everyone scrambled to scoop up the food, Soulé turned to the captain and cried, “Quick, tell the kitchen to send out the other pheasants.” He, of course, knew full well that there were no other pheasants that could be quickly prepared. Back in the kitchen, staffers reassembled and re-garnished the meal and brought it back out to the customers, who were none the wiser and would say it was the best bird they’d ever eaten.
The cocktails were also, of course, notable. Bartender Andre Gros-Daillon, who worked at the restaurant for 26 years before retiring in 1967, claimed to be the only one in the city (and maybe the entire US) who could make a martini that remained perfectly icy cold for 20 minutes. “It’s all in the shake,” he told the New York Times.
Pépin remembers Soulé less fondly, as an “autocratic” man who wasn’t especially generous. In his memoir, “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,” Pépin wrote that Soulé treated head chef Franey with “no more respect than he accorded to the mostly recently hired pot scrubber.”
And, while Soulé was quick to comp high-profile guests caviar or Dom Pérignon, he was stingy when it came to paying cooks. Franey left in 1960, and Pépin intended to organize the cooks to follow him. But two large Italian men from the union showed up and pinned him against a wall. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying in English, but I understood the meaning of it,” recalled Pépin. Such tactics averted a walkout, but Soulé was still short on cooks and had to close for a couple weeks due to the labor issues.
Soulé died of a sudden heart attack at age 62 in 1966, and it soon became apparent why he was so solicitous when it came to his clientele’s extramarital affairs. For years, he had a dalliance with the woman who ran the coatroom, Henriette Spalter. When he died, it came to light that he also had a wife in France. She claimed her inheritance and sold Le Pavillon to some investors, but it was never the same without Soulé. There was music and sometimes a TV in the dining room, and, “worst of all,” Freedman wrote in his book, “the lemon quarters served with the salmon had not had their seeds removed.”
In 1971, Le Pavillon closed without fanfare. Nine years later, a young Daniel Boulud first arrived in New York City.
Masson, who recalled his late father and Soulé hugging and crying when La Grenouille opened, and who has his own restaurant in Majorelle, applauded Boulud for opening a Pavillon of his own.
“It takes a lot of courage to open a restaurant,” he said, “and ever more so to try and follow in the footsteps of a giant.”