PARIS — Claude, who is 82 and hungry, wonders if six oysters apiece will be enough. "Maybe we should each have nine," he offers. I agree. He thinks for a moment, squinting at the small, separate shellfish menu we have been given along with the regular carte .
"And maybe we should have some bouquets roses , too," he adds, referring to the delicious little rosy-pink prawns that are so abundant in France this time of year. I agree again.
The waiter appears. We order six plump Belons, the pride of coastal Brittany; six Belondines, similar but raised in fresh water; six salty, smooth-shelled plates from Holland; and what an American Midwesterner might well have described as a "mess" of the rosy-pink prawns.
The waiter leaves. But Claude holds onto the shellfish menu and looks at it again with a not-quite-satisfied grimace. There are still, after all, the clams, the mussels, the cockles and the winkles--not to mention half-a-dozen kinds of oysters that we haven't ordered. . . .
Before he can suggest a mess of something else, the waiter reappears with a couple of complimentary appetizers--a plate of those winkles, bigorneaux , which taste like slightly sweet and briny snails; and one of crevettes grises , the bouquet's baby brother, which aficionados eat shell and all. Claude smiles a tight little smile, as if to say, "Well, now we'll have enough."
We taste our Chablis, and dig in. "You know," he says, "when this place opened back in 1927, I was one of the regulars at La Rotonde, across the street. We were very loyal to the place, and all the guys swore they would never come visit this newcomer. But the boss gave such a great opening party, with everything for free, that most of us snuck over here anyway.. . ."
We are sitting at La Coupole on the boulevard du Montparnasse, easily one of the most famous restaurants in Paris, and probably the world. It is also one of the most influential--a place whose floor plan and decorative style and, insofar as possible, spirit have been parodied and copied a thousand times around the world.
La Coupole was not the first Parisian brasserie--not by a long shot. But, through a combination of location, quality, ambience (to use that word correctly for once), and probably blind luck, it became the quintessential brasserie--the definitive gathering place and watering hole and canteen of bohemian between-the-wars Paris--a veritable commissary for the Moveable Feast.
La Coupole was opened by a couple of Auvergnats named Rene Lafon and Ernest Fraux. The pair had been managing another brasserie nearby, Le Dome, with an option to buy it. They made the place so successful, though, that Le Dome's owner reneged on the deal and bought them out instead. With the money, the pair moved half a block away and built La Coupole (its very name a take-off on their former bailiwick--a cupola near a dome).
On opening night, they are said to have welcomed 1,500 people and poured 2,500 bottles of champagne and wine. Everybody came, sooner or later--James Joyce, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Man Ray, Matisse and Leger, Soutine and Giacometti, Cocteau, Hemingway, Eisenstein. It was the original Spago--casual, vaguely frantic, with good food, illuminated by human starlight.
I once saw Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lunching there--and Anais Nin, I think, sharing afternoon coffee with some acolytes. But somebody else is even more emblematic of the place to me: I used to see a tall, elderly gentleman (I never learned his name) at La Coupole quite often, late in the evening, always wearing white tie and tails. He would dine alone, pausing occasionally to exchange conversation with a passer-by, then pay his bill, get up with some effort, and move slowly across the room in the approximate direction of the door--stopping whenever he saw a pretty girl, bowing to her, and wishing her a pleasant evening. Then he would disappear into the brassy darkness outside. I remember thinking, as I used to watch him, that there must be worse ways to spend one's final evenings of life.
Ernest Fraux spent the final evenings of his own life there in 1960. Lafon continued to run the place alone until last year, when, approaching his own twilight, and without heirs who wished to take over the establishment, he sold La Coupole to Jean-Paul Bucher--a brasserie-loving entrepreneur who has made a career of buying up and restoring famous but faded Parisian eateries. (Brasserie Flo, Julien, Le Vaudeville, and Boeuf sur le Toit are among his other properties.) Bucher closed La Coupole for about nine months for extensive renovation. Claude and I had lunch there just after it reopened, to see what he had wrought.