A hallowed shrine to the Belle Époque, somewhere held in esteemed reverence by historians, artists, and food traditionalists.
Just off the Champs Élysées, Maxim’s is a cathedral of decadence and gluttony – mainly of the meat variety. A main course starts at 78 euros and climbs to 95 euros. This isn’t a place to take a spendthrift. Nothing is restrained about Maxim’s, from the elderly waiters with perfectly starched outfits who all look as though they are playing the part of servers in a silent 1920’s flick, to the stained glass mirrors which line the room. “So delicate are these windows”, we are told by our host, “that a crack team of cleaning specialists have to come in from the Louvre.”
There are no windows in the main salon. It is the embodiment of a place where the party didn’t have to end just because it got light. Names are reeled off about the famous visitors: “Fitzgerald, JFK, Woody Allen.”
It is almost oppressively warm on this unseasonably sunny April day, yet I am imagine nowhere nicer than in December, surrounded by flowing wine and witticisms, songs and dancing when the tables are pushed back against the walls. It’s a space that seems to mourn the past – no smoke clouds the mirrors and clings to the upholstery; no after-dinner cigars are leisurely consumed; and it all shuts up at a respectable midnight.
Despite its decadent evocation of private dining and the Belle Époque, the vegan food choices were une catastrophe (if we’re going French). I was there as part of a press trip, and they had been forewarned that I had (for France) weirdo dietary requirements. I was first handed a plate of langoustine, to which I just look bemused. While everyone else was eating the crustacean, they hurriedly prepared six trunks of over-cooked asparagus (a miracle as it was done so quickly) with a vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was delicious – tangy and smooth and rich as a runny egg yolk.
Beef was proffered twice for my main, until I described my predicament and they rustled up some vermicelli with mushrooms. To their credit, this was done with incredibly short notice, but the seasoning was totally missing. Absolutely bland. But delicoius mushrooms. Can’t win them all!
This isn’t meant to be a review of Maxim’s, because what they do – classical, rich, decadent French food, looked marvellous, and it was getting lots of praise. But it’s more of a comment on France in general, and how frustrating eating out can be for vegans. You’re looked at like a total freak, and to their credit again, the waiters at Maxim’s didn’t treat me like I was missing the right side of my head but were courteous and accommodating.
I’m sure that with a little more notice they could have come up with something truly evocative of the golden age, only a cruelty-free version.