Overlooking the Seine on the Quai de la Tournelle, in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris, is La Tour D’Argent, the city’s, if not the world’s, oldest fine dining restaurant. It opened its doors for the first time in 1582 and, apart from the four years of World War I, has not closed them since.
La Tour D’Argent takes its name (silver tower in English) from the light grey stone of the Champagne in which it is constructed. Little is known of its first decades but by the 1600’s La Tour d’Argent had become the most desirable restaurant in Paris. Duels were fought by patrons desperate to secure tables! The centuries have not diminished its reputation or its popularity and prospective diners will often wait months or even years for place – unless of course they happen to be celebrities!
La Tour d’Argent has always been the haunt of the rich and famous. Henri IV ate in and also out, ordering slices of Heron Paté delivered to his palace. King Louis XIV and his courtiers from the Château de Versailles dined at La Tour D’Argent. Le Duc de Richelieu treated his guests to a whole ox prepared and served in over 30 ways. When theatre suppers were introduced in 1720, Philippe D’Orleans, began to frequent the restaurant always in the company of a different Parisian beauty During the Second Empire Le Duc de Morny entertained here. The Countess Le Hon held assignations at La Tour D’Argent and once had to be disguised as a pastry cook to avoid being discovered by her husband. Since then Statesmen, Royals, Rock stars and Millionaires have graced its tables.
La Tour D’Argent has been the birthplace of many innovations and traditions. The fork came into use here. Much of the table etiquette followed in France today was established at La Tour D’Argent. Coffee was served for the first time in France here. Then of course, there were La Tour D’Argent’s signature plats or dishes. The most famous of these was Canard au Sang, (pressed duck or bloody duck)
Just as famous Canard au sang itself is the ritual now attached to it. It originated in the 19th century when the then owner, Frederic Delair decided that every duck prepared at La Tour D’Argent should be numbered. In 1890 Edward VII Prince of Wales ate number 328 and in 1921 Thomas Rockefeller devoured number 51,327, number 100,000 was sacrificed on the 6th May 1929 to an anonymous appetite, number. 500,000 was launched from the roof with a tag on its leg that offered the finder dinner for two. Roman Polanski enjoyed number 554, 711 in 1979 and more recently Bill Gates consumed number 1079006. The millionth duck was eaten in 2003. The count continues!
In 1910 Andre Terrail purchased the Tour d’Argent from Frederic Delair. He modernised the interior and the facade and in 1936 he added a sixth floor to give his patrons an even better view of the Bateaux Mouches and the barges on the Seine. He also added to its menu. Most importantly, he established Tour D’Argent’s legendary collection of fine wines.
During World War I, La Tour D’Argent closed its doors for the first and only time in its long life. Although it remained open during World War II, it cellar was sealed shut to protect the precious wine collection.
In 1947 the restaurant passed to Andre Terrail’s son Claude. Although his dream had been to become an actor he accepted his destiny at La Tour D’Argent “I’ve been chained to this ‘Tower’ since I was born” he claimed. Under Claude Terail the legacy of the Tour d’Argent continued, so did expansion, not just of the restaurant but of the “brand”!
In1953 Le Petit Musée de la Table, a museum of gastronomy and also a pleasant spot for a pre-dinner aperitif, was established on the ground floor of the building. Four grand receptions marked the 400th anniversary of the restaurant in 1982 and in 1984 La Tour D’Argent, Tokyo opened in the New Otani Hotel. In 1985, Les Comptoirs de la Tour d’Argent, a boutique dedicated to the Arts of the Table and Gastronomy, opened across the street from the building on Le Quai de la Tournelle.
When Claude Terrail passed away in June 2006, his son, Andre Terrail, took control of the La Tour D’Argent. While he has upheld all the traditions laid down over its long life, he has also introduced 21st century technology, with cameras and screens monitoring the preparation of the dishes and their progress through the kitchen and up the floors to the dining room.
Even after 431 years the table looks set at La Tour D’Argent for an equally long future in fine cuisine, good wines and numbered ducks.
Tour d’Argent, 15-17 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005 Paris Ile de France France