The first guests through the door of Laurent in Paris foretold all about the night to come. Their faces were bright, they were laughing, and everyone was ready to have a good time. They were flying high with energy. Over the next 45 minutes, more than 160 men and women from the four corners of the world, dressed in elegant black tie and fancy evening gowns, entered the restaurant's lobby, ducking out of a typically damp late-autumn evening in the City of Light into the extraordinary warmth of the gala Dinner of the Century, a charity event hosted by Marvin R. Shanken and Cigar Aficionado magazine. Six hours later, they walked out just as happy.
From the first sip of Dom Perignon 1982 served from magnums, each hour of the night somehow surpassed the one before. Dinner was scheduled for 8:30. But it was after 9 by the time people broke away from the high-spirited cocktail hour to find their assigned seats at tables identified by large photographs of cigar bands. The first course arrived: a stunning jellied consommé with caviar and cauliflower cream prepared by Joël Robuchon, one of France's top-rated three-star chefs. Waiters poured a Louis Latour 1990 Corton-Charlemagne to accompany the next course, prepared by Laurent's chef, Philippe Braun, a lobster and cèpe mushroom dish served with a cheese-coated pasta.
The first of the evening's special cigars was finally served—a Trinidad, which is a 7 inch by 38 ring gauge cigar manufactured exclusively for Cuban president Fidel Castro to present as a diplomatic gift. Two other cigars followed during breaks in the dinner service: a Cohiba Pyramid, a torpedo-shaped cigar, and a Cohiba "A," which is modeled after the Montecristo "A." They were made exclusively for the dinner by Cubatabaco and have never been sold commercially.
After the first cigar, the evening's presiding chef, Alain Ducasse, who oversees the stoves at the three-star restaurant Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, served a dish of game birds with black truffle sauce. The accompanying wines included a 1978 Château Lafite-Rothschild and a 1924 Château Lafite-Rothschild, the latter showing an incredible amount of youthfulness, given its 70 years in the bottle. The game-bird dish was followed by a perfectly aged vieux comté cheese, which was served along with one of the great Ports of the twentieth century, a Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963.
Throughout the evening, Shanken invited some of the guests to the podium to share their personal thoughts. Film director Francis Ford Coppola described helping a Parisian friend with an angry landlord by buying two bottles of his wine from the Niebaum-Coppola winery at the Hotel Ritz. The next day, Coppola got a call from his winery saying, "Francis, you wouldn't believe it, some maniac paid $500 a bottle for two bottles of your wine at the Ritz." Pierre Salinger, press secretary to President John F. Kennedy and former ABC News correspondent, said he's often considered a left-winger, yet he found himself sitting at a table with famous right-winger Rush Limbaugh: "We can get together because we smoke cigars." Cuba's ambassador to France Raul Roa Couri summed up the feelings of many guests that night: "The best Cuban ambassador is a Cuban cigar."
Up to the dessert course (another remarkable creation of Alain Ducasse's—a small chocolate pastry with an almond crust), there had not been a moment of silence. The room was filled with boisterous laughter, and people floated from table to table chatting with friends, making new acquaintances and enjoying the camaraderie.
Believe it or not, the best was yet to come.
At about midnight, an auction began of the evening's special cigars—the Trinidad, Cohiba Pyramid and Cohiba "A." Each of the 14 boxes of 50 cigars had been signed by Fidel Castro. All net proceeds of the charity auction were designated for Cuba's Medical Relief Fund, a humanitarian organization that sends medicine to needy Cubans, and CapCure, an organization that funds research for prostate cancer. The bidding, at the time, seemed aggressive; the first box of Trinidads sold for $8,000. It was the least expensive box of the night.
The price of the second box, 50 Cohiba Pyramids, began to skyrocket. The bidding finally closed at $12,000. And then the first box of Cohiba "A" was auctioned, suggesting the tenor of things to come: it sold for $22,000. A pyramid humidor donated by Michel Perrenoud, the Swiss-based humidor maker, sold for $6,000. The next three boxes of cigars—one each of the Trinidad, Cohiba Pyramid and Cohiba "A"—brought in more than $15,000 each. A special lot of two boxes of Trinidad, added at the last minute, brought in $24,000.
But still, the best was yet to come.
The final lot, called the King's Ransom, consisted of six boxes, two each of the evening's special cigars. The opening bid finally silenced the room for a few seconds: $50,000. In $10,000 increments, the bidding quickly topped $100,000. By that time, only two bidders were left. The guests stood up on chairs to get a better view of the bidders. The two men kept upping the ante; at $150,000, one bidder seemed about to drop out, but just before the gavel hit, he again upped the price by $10,000. After that, the bidding continued in a room that alternated between silence and hoorays as each new bid was made. At $180,000, Shanken upped the asking bid to $200,000. That's where the gavel finally came down—$200,000, or more than $700 per cigar in the lot. The total proceeds of the auction came to $324,000.
The evening was hardly over. Although it was after 1 a.m., small groups of men and women sat or stood or walked around talking with each other or enjoying a final quiet smoke with a glass of Cognac. By the time the restaurant emptied out at 2:30, there was little left to do except smile and wonder whether the 1995 Dinner of the Century, to be held in London, could top the evening in Paris.
The next morning, the guests dispersed to the four corners of the world, taking their limousines out to Charles DeGaulle airport to catch flights for Hong Kong, Mexico, the Middle East, North America and all across Europe.