|Conran’s Alcazar . . . looks like London, tastes like Paris
by Malcolm Curtis | Paris Free Voice | January 1999
|After taking the London restaurant scene by storm, is Sir Terence Conran preparing to conquer Paris? Conran, 67, has wowed the British capital with several swanky “gastrodomes,” large eateries inspired by the French capital’s famously grand brasseries, but with a twist. Instead of fin-de-siècle decor from the last century, the millionaire entrepreneur has imposed his with-it design, while retaining a sense of the French flair for large, busy places to eat.Now, he has brought the formula back to Paris with the Alcazar, a refurbished former cabaret not far from La Méditerranée, at place de l’Odéon, where he humbly worked 45 years ago as a dishwasher. Serving mostly classic French cuisine, heavy on traditional seafood with a few surprises like sashimi and fish and chips thrown in, the two-level restaurant incarnates Conran’s image of a brasserie for the end of the 20th century.It’s a novelty the likes of which Paris hasn’t seen before.No art nouveau or art deco flourishes here. The look is spare, clean, bright, Scandinavian. Diners under a factory skylight can watch cooks toiling behind glass in an atmosphere reminiscent of Quaglino’s, one of Conran’s most successful restaurants in London.A long zinc counter dominates the upstairs bar across from a glass-walled private salon, which can be booked for groups of 15 to 28 people who want to be seen but not heard.With controversy marking the restaurant’s first couple of weeks, the jury’s still out as to whether le tout Paris is taking a shine to the British knight’s penchant for la vie moderne.Just the idea of a Londoner teaching the French a lesson or two about fine dining is shocking enough in some quarters.Conran has hired a hot, 30-year-old chef, Guillaume Lutard, formerly with the three-star Taillevent restaurant, to ensure the food is beyond reproach. But he rubbed some locals the wrong way by complaining, in an interview with Elle magazine, about arrogant, rude service that “pollutes” Paris restaurants, while noting the blue-shirted staff at the Alcazar have been trained to be friendly and polite.Conran also took a poke at the Parisian bureaucracy, which required a multitude of permits for the restaurant. In a listed historic building, it was once the site of Europe’s largest printing plant and more recently home to a transvestite nightclub.
“It is a hundred times easier to open a restaurant in London than in Paris,” he huffed. If other restaurants in Paris had to respect the rules imposed on the Alcazar, he said, not a single establishment in the city would be open for business.
Le Figaro newspaper reported various competitors outraged over Conran’s comments. “It’s not polite,” said Jean-Paul Bucher, head of the Flo chain of brasseries. “When one is invited to a place, one offers a bouquet of flowers to madame and one says ‘it’s nice’ even when it’s not the case.” But Guy Savoy, owner of several bistrots, said Conran’s ideas are right for the times. “In Paris we are very conservative. Yet in the final analysis after time, marked strongly by Bucher and his brasseries, then by the bistrots of chefs, we finally have a new generation of restaurants. Let’s welcome them!”
“Trop cher,” was the terse assessment of Michel Priop, Le Figaro’s restaurant critic, commenting on the menu, aimed at the mid-price market. Dinner fare features a seafood platter for 260F, 50 grams of caviar for 490F and at the bottom end of the scale frites maison for 30F.
British fans of Conran living in Paris welcomed the new brasserie though some were disappointed with its location, judged too far from other trendy nightspots. “I also think it’s a mistake to serve traditional French food here,” said one Londoner who has visited the Alcazar several times, “rather than the Pacific Rim fare found at his other restaurants.”
Time Out Paris championed the Alcazar as “stunning” in a rave review. “The main menu and wine list are on the pricey side but a separate bar menu … offers the chance to join in the fun without breaking the bank.”
Certainly, the multi-talented Conran is not an easy man to write off. Educated as a designer, he learned enough about restauranting as a plongeur in Paris to found an empire that now includes 16 restaurants in London and a newly opened gastrodome in Manhattan.
He already has achieved success in France as the founder of Habitat, the furniture chain, which he later sold to Ikea. He’s kept his hand in the furniture and design business with the Conran Shop, which has a Paris branch on the rue du Bac. The upscale furniture and home furnishings chain plans to open another Paris outlet next spring on the boulevard des Capucines, next to the Olympia music hall.
Friend to British prime minister Tony Blair, Conran has developed a reputation as an ambassador for British style, consulting on retail, office, product and graphic design projects around the world.
He disavows any intention to open more restaurants in Paris, calling the Alcazar a “coup de coeur,” an attempt to showcase to Parisians a restaurant that’s big and bustling like La Coupole but with an ambience that’s of our time rather than of a bygone era.
“My belief is simply that if reasonable and intelligent people are offered something that is well made, well designed, of a decent quality and at a price they can afford, then they will like it and buy it. This is the abiding principle to which I hold, whether as a designer, retailer or restaurateur.”
L’Alcazar, 62, rue Mazarine, 6e, tel: 01.53.10.19.99. The ground floor dining room seats 200 people; the upstairs bar, where you can order drinks, snacks or a full meal, accommodates up to 90 people. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
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