I just re-read the late A. A. Gill’s vicious and incredibly funny take-down of Chez L’Ami Louis that appeared in VANITY FAIR in April of 2011. In it, after eviscerating every aspect of the place, he called it “the worst restaurant in the world.” Quite a distinction.
I have a very different assessment. In fact Chez l’Ami Louis (“Louis’s friend’s place”), located on a dreary side street in the Marais District of Paris at 32 rue du Vertbois, is my favorite restaurant in the world. I have eaten there more than twenty times over the years and, in a very costly display of hubris, I took over the entire place for a big birthday and invited fifty-two of my nearest and dearest.
Chez L’Ami Louis was opened in 1930 by Antoine Magnin a chef who lacked finesse and classical skills, but who had an uncanny eye for the best meats and the finest produce. His little restaurant – it has only twelve tables – became known for its exceptional robust rustic Burgundian food.
Magnin died in 1987 at the age of 86. He cooked in his tiny kitchen until a week before his death. He had, however, sold the place two years before, stipulating that the new owner was not to change a thing. And so the coffee-colored walls, stained from decades of Gauloises smoke, remain. The tiled floor worn by the feet of thousands of culinary pilgrims and the brass luggage racks that line both sides of the small, narrow room into which, in cooler weather, coats – even a floor-length sable – are casually tossed. The team of servers is commanded by a small, imperious man, Louis Gadby, who rules the reservation book and the door with tyrannical authority. (I once saw him deny entry to Roman Polanski because he was too early for his reservation.)
In the rear is the small kitchen with its wood-burning oven and its window into the dining room. Below stairs is the catacomb-like wine cellar which contains an extraordinary collection, favoring Bordeaux, but quite comprehensive. It is, like the food, shockingly expensive.
And what about the food? Keep in mind when ordering, everything is oversized. The feast begins with pink slabs of foie gras accompanied by stacks of grilled bread to spread it on. Next the snails. You’ve never seen escargots this huge. They arrive hissing and bubbling, bathed in melted butter flecked with parsley and garlic. The bonus is being able to sop up the remnants with the crusty bread.
Now the chicken. Allegedly, it’s for two but actually it’s big enough to feed four hungry adults. It’s moist, rich and loaded with flavor. But that’s not all. There are two quails cooked with grapes and foie gras, there’s duck confit, there’s a veal chop smothered in cream and mushrooms and a huge hunk of beef for two which, at my most recent visit, fed a family of six. Not to be missed are pommes béarnaise, a cake of potatoes crisped in goose fat and topped with chopped parsley and garlic. If it isn’t served to you, ask for it.
Now the question of prices; the prices are ridiculous. Here are a few examples from May 2018: foie gras -$75; 12 escargots – $56; chicken – $115; veal chop -$75. Actually, the extreme cost is not a deterrent for me and neither, apparently, for the hundreds who are clamoring for reservations.
By Anthony Dias Blue