The World's Table
In 1939, folks in Flushing Meadows, Queens, were eating smoked reindeer meat from Finland; shish kebab and kadin boudin (ground-lamb meatballs) from Turkey; arroz con pollo and "Perla" cocktails (fresh pineapple, orange and lime juices, rum, a whole egg, and a dash of grenadine) from Cuba--and that's just for starters. At the World's Fair--which celebrated "Building the World of Tomorrow" even as the country teetered on the edge of war--visitors could either feast on good old hamburgers and hot dogs for 10 cents a pop or expand their palates along with their minds at the dozens of international restaurants on site.
The best and by far the most influential of these was Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France, organized and staffed by a culinary dream team that had been handpicked from France's top bistros and cafes. Its opening-night meal, served to 375 VIPs in an elegant, glass-walled dining room, set an extremely high bar for gourmands, then and now: Dinner began with a crystal-clear chicken consommé topped with twisted cheese sticks and moved on to lobster in cream sauce with rice, medallions of lamb with potato balls, and stuffed artichokes and cold capon in tarragon aspic, among other courses, before wrapping up with strawberries, ice cream, and petit fours.
Over the next six months, Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France served a grand total of 136,261 meals--and introduced America to haute cuisine. "French food had been available in this country at the time but was completely exclusive--only the few had access to it or even knew or cared about it," says former chef Patric Kuh, author of The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants. "But now you had this restaurant that was not doing a dumbed-down version, and yet the volume was huge. So you suddenly have the meeting point of two principles: the exclusive nature of this incredible food and the completely inclusive, egalitarian belief in the U.S. that your social background could not and should not prohibit you from any experience."
"It" spot. With the very best of French dining--from the kitchen staff and ingredients to techniques, presentation, and service--the restaurant quickly became one of the country's first "it" eateries, with a waiting list that stretched on for weeks. This success came despite the fact that prices were steep: Soups ran between 60 and 80 cents (the price of a complete fried-chicken dinner elsewhere); main courses included souffle Palmier for 90 cents, coq au vin and salmon for $1.60 apiece, and duck for two for $3.50. Pierre Franey, who worked as an assistant fish cook, believes the cuisine was a great bargain, nonetheless. The prices "seem quaintly low ... at least for so ambitious a kitchen," he writes in his autobiography, A Chef's Tale.
After the fair, the restaurant's imperious maitre d'hotel Henri Soule stayed on in New York and founded Le Pavillon at 5 East 55th Street. It promptly became a huge success in its own right. The cooking was "done in the classic way of kitchens in 1930s and '40s in France," recalls Jacques Pepin, who worked there as an assistant in charge of vegetables and, later, fish. "It was very large--like 30 people--and it was all structured, with an area for the sauce, for the fish, for the rotisserie, and so forth ... the ingredients were certainly extraordinary, with a great deal of imported food from France: truffles, gooseliver pate, and even fish."
The man to see. Le Pavillon was almost wholly defined by its proprietor, who always wore a blue suit at lunch and a tuxedo in the evening and was given to declaring, "Le restaurant, c'est moi." He ruled the seating in his dining room with an iron fist, saving the seven best tables nearest the door for high-profile guests like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and Joseph Kennedy.
Le Pavillon closed several years after Soule died in 1966. Yet its legacy continues even today, through the customers who were indoctrinated into the finer points of French dining but also the many employees who passed through the establishment. Alums would go on to open a slew of influential restaurants of their own, including La Caravelle and La Grenouille, which, like Soule's other restaurant, La Cote Basque, further shape American notions of haute cuisine to this day.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.