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It's the place to be Seine

Published 4 December 1994
Style Magazine
75th article

Thomas Quinn Curtiss and Claude Terrail at Tour d'Argent (Alastair Miller)

It's a bit posh for me, because I'm a country boy at heart. . . I once took a photograph of an American couple I was having dinner with at the Connaught Hotel and the staff got ever so excited. The worry was that in the background there could be a man with a lady who was not his wife! Even though I'm a bachelor and ever faithful, I can understand that. Photographing people in restaurants is dangerous.

I recall my friend the film director Lewis Gilbert (Educating Rita, Alfie, some Bond movies) going quite hysterical in La Bonne Auberge in Antibes. His wife Hylda fancies herself as Annie Leibovitz and she was taking a picture of us one Christmas. "Put that camera down, Hylda," Lewis hissed in repressed fury. Later, in the peace of Holland Park, he looked at the photo. "That's a good one," Lewis remarked. "Good?! You nearly killed your wife at the time," I said. "I hate them being taken, but I like them when they come out," said Lewis. We often feel silly taking photos, but we're usually glad we did. Except when the focus dot has gone through to the wall behind and those we wished to capture so perfectly are somewhat blurred.

The photo I most regret not taking was at Tour d'Argent in Paris in 1980. I was by the window, with the incredible view of Notre Dame and the island it sits on and the River Seine. At a centre table, eating his lunch, was Salvador Dali with a dark-haired woman. I only had a Polaroid with me, but to photograph Dali! I remember him, his fingers shaking a bit, as he studied and pointed at the dessert trolley. I never took the photo, but whenever I go into Tour d'Argent I see Dali sitting there. Of course, the middle of the room is not the best table. There is only one place perfect for that staggering view and that is on the bend of the window. At night the tourist boats glide by, lighting up the cathedral and the lovely old buildings either side of the Seine.

I always get the best table, not because of my incredible charm, but because I invariably go to Tour d'Argent with my girlfriend (who doesn't help get the table at all) and a wonderful old man called Thomas Quinn Curtiss, who does. Tom has lived in Paris for years. He first came there in 1922. He's an American, a writer about films and plays for the Herald Tribune, and a great raconteur. He saw Sarah Bernhardt on the stage in Glory in Paris when she had a wooden leg and played her role in a chair; he's seen John Barrymore's Hamlet in New York; and he lives in an apartment just underneath the restaurant, crammed with books and cats. He is a friend of the owner, Claude Terrail.

Claude looms over the restaurant like an elegant Jacques Tati, watching the ducks, all numbered, disappear into the mouths of his wealthy clientele. It has three Michelin stars and five red crossed forks, which is as high as you can get. It's a bit posh for me, because I'm a country boy at heart, but I always find it most agreeable. The menu is silver and the print is small, but if you've got 20-20 vision and can read in very low light you will make out caneton Tour d'Argent, caneton Marco Polo, quenelles de brochet Andre Terrail, crepes belle epoque and other delights. I recently had some lobster bisque (superb), sea bass with red wine sauce (lovely), nicked a bit of somebody else's salade langoustine (a taste experience) and ended up with a souffle Valtesse (major). I watched the wine waiter, a nice lad from Sutton called David Ridgway, glide around with the skill of a chubby surgeon. He told me my 1982 Chateau Lafite, which sits in my hall at home in crates, is best drunk in the year 2000, but he's started to drink it already!

My only disappointment was that the downstairs bar, normally most elegant, has been visually demented by some new, gaudy yellow covering on the sofas and new tables that look as if they come from a do-it-yourself kit. The downstairs area was attacked by a left-wing mob in 1981 when Mitterrand got in. If Monsieur Terrail had those awful yellow sofas then, the mob would have run out screaming. But the place survived as one of the world's most legendary eating places. What's more, even I like it.