Le Grand V'efour, Paris

It is perhaps the most beautiful restaurant in Paris; it is also one of the oldest. Napoleon dined there with his Josephine, Jean-Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir. Other regulars have included Victor Hugo, George Sand, Colette and Jean Cocteau (who brought along Greta Garbo). Many of their names adorn plaques adjacent to the tables where they held court.

Established in 1784 as the Café de Chartres on the north end of the arcaded, columned Palais Royal, which would soon become a focal point of the French Revolution, the restaurant was taken over by Jean V'efour in 1820. He gave the café his name, which it has kept ever since.

There are two small dining rooms--the restaurant seats about 50--and it truly doesn't matter where you sit. The decor throughout is breathtaking: chandeliered ceilings of painted silk, richly colored rugs, wood carvings and walls of painted silk behind glass. The banquettes are plush burgundy, the chairs classic Directoire. Strategically placed mirrors allow patrons facing the walls unfettered views of the room.

The restaurant is owned by the Taittinger Champagne Group, and it and the chef, Guy Martin, provide a wonderful dining experience that is just short of a Parisian three-star such as Robuchon but well worth its Michelin two-star rating. Martin loves to combine unusual flavors in interesting, harmoniously balanced ways. The menu during my visit included a pyramid of fromage blanc with eel and coriander seeds, and a roast breast of quail surrounded by chopped escargots. A recent menu included a cold asparagus soup with tiny bits of cucumber; a baked combination of Beaufort cheese and artichoke, wrapped in bacon and presented with a perfectly poached egg in mustard; and a flawlessly cooked piece of salmon with aromatic edible seaweed as an exotic complement. For the less adventurous there are the classic Grand V'efour dishes, like raviolis of foie gras with crème truffée and roast Bresse chicken coated with toasted hazelnuts.

The pricey wine list has more than 300 selections, among them a 1902 Château Lafite-Rothschild for about $3,500, a 1961 Château Margaux for about $1,750, a 1971 Grands Echezeaux de Domaine de la Romanée Conti at about $1,700 and a 1961 Lafite-Rothschild for about $1,350.

Cheese and desserts stand out. The former focused on Martin's home area of Savoie. The latter explores restaurant standards including intense sorbets and a mille-feuille, and for chocolate lovers, the unforgettable "d'eclinaison sur la thème du chocolat": three thick, rich, intensely dark essences of bittersweet chocolate, each covered with a thin slice of edible gold leaf. One has the flavor of beer, the second of green tea, the third, and strongest, of Ethiopian coffee. Order a fine, powerful cup of French coffee--which comes with tiny pastries and yet another chocolate sweet--and perhaps an eau de vie.

Cigars get special attention here. Maitre d' Christian David, his face reflecting delight at the opportunity to demonstrate his specialty, will arrive with the restaurant's humidor, open it gracefully and present for your choosing a selection of the best Havanas, among them assorted sizes and shapes of Cohibas and Montecristos. A Cohiba Robusto was impeccably humidified, gently soft to the touch. The maitre d' will ask if you wish him to prepare it, and if you say yes he will make a precise cut and slowly light it with a long wooden match. Once finished with the lighting, he will either hand it to you or place it ceremoniously in Le Grand V'efour's signature ashtray, cupped hands of pristine white porcelain, designed for the restaurant several decades ago by none other than Cocteau.

As you leave through the Palais Royal, you will most certainly not be in the mood to imitate Camille Desmoulins, who in 1789 in that very square was reputed to have urged the citizens of Paris to attack the Bastille. But then, Desmoulins had not just dined at Le Grand V'efour.

-- Mervyn Rothstein

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.

Le Grand V'efour
17 rue de Beaujolais
Phone: (33) 1 42 96 56 27;
Fax: (33) 1 42 86 80 71
Dinner: $150 to $200 per person