La Tour sans Argent

Mary Donaldson-Evans

True story: My son and his friend walked out of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris after a sumptuous three-course lunch...without spending a single euro.

It happened in the spring of 2001, when my husband and I were in Paris directing a study-abroad program. This was a transitional period for France’s currency, and the franc was still accepted as legal tender. Not that this is particularly relevant, because the kids didn’t spend a single franc either.

As classmates in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in architecture, Andrew and Kelly had both applied for summer grants that would enable them to travel throughout France, studying its architectural marvels and sketching and photographing them. Both were awarded small scholarships. In Kelly’s case, the benefactor who had funded her travel grant flew her to Texas so that he could meet her. She mentioned that she would be spending time in Paris.

“Great!” enthused her benefactor. “You must have lunch or dinner at la Tour d’Argent. Claude Terrail, the owner, is a personal friend of mine. He’ll take good care of you.”

“Does that mean he’ll comp the meal?” asked Andrew, more than a little impressed by the 105 euro prix fixe lunch that was listed on the restaurant’s website. Kelly had invited him to join her, and he didn't want any unpleasant surprises.

“Of course! What else could it mean?” replied Kelly.

“Well, it’s not certain what ‘he’ll take good care of you’ means,” objected Andrew.

“Look, Mr. X knows how that our grants are modest. Would he suggest that I eat at a pricey restaurant if he thought the money would come out of the grant?”

Andrew conceded.

Four months later, they were in Paris, Andrew staying with my husband and me in an apartment on the rue d’Hauteville, Kelly in an inexpensive hotel in the Quartier Latin. They used the phone in our apartment to make lunch reservations, tingling with pleasure at the thought that they would soon be dining in one of the world’s most famous restaurants, and what’s more, a restaurant with a delicious pun in its name, “Tour d’argent” meaning both “tower of money” and “silver tower.”

The following Thursday, they found themselves walking towards a small round table set with sterling silver plates and goblets, candlesticks, cutlery placed with impeccable precision on an ivory linen tablecloth. The tuxedoed maître d’ who had shown them to their table stood discreetly to the side as they settled into the cane-backed dining chairs with blue plush seats.

The menu was presented with a flourish, and they studied it carefully. Having done their homework in advance, Andrew and Kelly knew that the restaurant’s signature dish was its pressed duck, and so, for the main course, they ordered duckling for two, excited to be getting a certificate with the number of their duck. For the first course, they had to decide among caviar maison, foie gras roi des Trois Empereurs, and pâté en croûte: Kelly went for the caviar; Andrew decided on the pâté in a pastry crust. For dessert, Kelly was tempted by the crêpes “mademoiselle” while Andrew went for the baba with Tour d’Argent champagne. The sommelier recommended a glass of crisp Pouilly-Fuissé to accompany the caviar, and for Andrew, a Fleurie for the country pâté. A bottle of Côtes de Nuit Village would be a good pairing with the canard à la presse. Andrew realized that the wine steward was suggesting something that he thought would be in their budget, and in a display of bravado that was not really typical of his behavior, he summoned his best French to say to the man: “D’accord. Mais quel est le meilleur vin pour accompagner le canard à la presse?”

The best wine for this gourmet dish? The sommelier looked at him and hesitated. But he had been asked for a recommendation, and he was only too happy to make a suggestion. He turned the pages of the wine list, as thick as a phone book, and pointed:

Chambertin-Clos de Bèze Grand Cru, € 298.

Andrew gulped, and he felt his face flush. He had imagined something in the 50 € range. But wasn’t Kelly’s benefactor picking up the tab for this meal? This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: why waste it? He also guessed that the wine steward was expecting him to return to the original selection, and he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right.

He nodded. “Très bien.”

The sommelier bowed and left to fetch the wines.

“Andrew, are you crazy?” Kelly asked as soon as he had left.

“Yep!” he said, with such conviction that they both laughed.

Sighing with the pleasure of anticipation, they leaned back and surveyed their surroundings.

Located on the Quai de la Tournelle, the restaurant looked out on Notre Dame, the storied cathedral on the Ile de la Cité, its flying buttresses glinting in the early afternoon sunlight. The Seine flowed noiselessly below their window, and the trees along the quay were just beginning to sprout the tender green leaves of springtime.

When they turned their attention to the other diners, they were humbled. Even in their best going-out attire, they were keenly aware that they looked like students, worse still, American students. Kelly was wearing black pants and clogs, with a pale blue cashmere pullover; Andrew had his best chinos and a button-down striped shirt topped by a navy blazer. If you didn't look too closely, you didn't realize that his black canvas shoes were, in fact, Nikes. Horrors! Sneakers at the Tour d’Argent!

“Are those the only shoes you have?” Kelly had asked when they met at our apartment before heading out to the restaurant.

“Afraid so. Sorry,” said Andrew. “Do you really think anyone will notice?”

“I do,” said Kelly. “But never mind. I don’t think there’s an official dress code for lunch, which means that they won’t deny us entry. That’s the important thing.”

Fortunately, the wine steward and the waiters treated them with such grace and warmth that they put their complexes aside. However, they were more than a little intimidated by the perfectly tailored suits and the stylish dresses of the diners around them.

It wasn’t more than ten minutes before a waiter appeared to take their order. A few minutes later, he approached with a silver tray to offer them a complimentary glass of the house champagne to start off their lunch. Another waiter followed with a green asparagus velouté in a ramekin that was scarcely bigger than a thimble, accompanied by a tiny dollop of creamy goat cheese studded with truffle pieces in a mille-feuilles nest. They were in gastronomic heaven, and they had scarcely begun the meal.

“Too bad we’re only classmates and not a real couple,” laughed Andrew. “You kind of feel you should get engaged, just to do justice to the ambiance.”

Kelly joined in the laughter. As she and Andrew were both in committed relationships with other people, they had no interest in each other except as friends.

“But what a friend,” thought Andrew, as he sipped his champagne and watched as one of their several waiters quietly placed a crusty little French roll on their side plate. They floated through the meal, savored every bite, marveled at the intriguing blend of textures and flavors, noticing how beautifully the wines they had selected with the wine steward’s help complemented the dishes with which they were paired. The duck in its rich dark sauce was even more exquisite when followed with a sip of the Chambertin. So this is what a 300 euro bottle of wine tastes like, thought Andrew.

The service was attentive but not overbearing. Andrew and Kelly were sitting back, feeling more than a little buzzed, when glasses of Sauternes were placed on their table along with a small plate of gourmet chocolates and petits fours. They clinked their glasses and looked at each other, basking in the euphoria of the moment.

For the first time, Andrew noticed that Kelly had a beautiful smile.

Kelly became aware of Andrew’s deep blue eyes.

Over cups of the most flavorful espresso they’d ever tasted, they looked at each other with misty eyes.

The magical moment didn't last because Andrew glanced at his watch and remembered that he’d told my husband and me that he’d be back to the apartment by 3 p.m. It was 2:30. Andrew didn’t have a French cell phone, so he couldn’t just whip one out of his pocket to alert us to the delay.

They lingered a bit longer, uncertain whether they would be presented with the bill or not, confused as to what they should do.

Having completed servicing their table, the wait staff seemed to have disappeared. Few patrons remained in the dining room.

“It seems obvious that they don’t expect us to pay,” said Andrew.

“Well, they certainly aren’t hovering, waiting for us to ask for the bill,” agreed Kelly.

Andrew was the first to dare mention Monsieur Terrail. Putting on his best undergraduate French, he summoned the wine steward and told him that Kelly knew a friend of the restaurant's owner and that she had been asked to greet him.

“Monsieur Terrail?” asked the sommelier. “Mais il est là en ce moment!”

He was actually present in the restaurant? At 83 years of age, a restaurateur would not be expected to supervise his kitchen so closely. Kelly and Andrew were ecstatic.

“Perhaps Mr. X told him to watch out for us,” speculated Andrew.

“That hardly seems likely,” countered Kelly. “After all, the reservation was made in your name.”

Scarcely two minutes had passed when they saw a smiling silver-haired gentleman approach their table.

“Mademoiselle Kelly?” he asked, addressing Kelly.

“Oui,” Kelly gushed, holding out her hand.

And he kissed it! Claude Terrail kissed Kelly’s hand!

What followed was a dream come true. This famous restaurant owner, who had countless friends among the rich and famous, who had personally dined in his own restaurant with Ava Gardner, Jayne Mansfield, and other luminaries, whose historic restaurant had been mentioned in novels by Ernest Hemingway and Marcel Proust, this man, Claude Terrail, invited them to tour his famous wine cellar with him.

Opportunities like this didn’t come along every day. They accepted eagerly, Andrew without another thought for his time constraints. We’d understand: he was sure of that!

 As they walked through the dimly lit wine cellar that prides itself on storage conditions second to none and that boasts of some of the world’s most famous vintages, lovingly described in the restaurant’s 400-page wine list, they were speechless, so awed were they by what they saw and heard. Terrail explained that the better wines had been walled off to keep them from the Nazis during the Occupation. Among the 320,000 bottles of wine lying there, there were trophy wines, wines that had seen events in French history that they had studied as undergraduates, world-famous wines dating back to 1858.

“That’s just one year after Madame Bovary was published,” whispered Kelly.

“Shhhh...!” hissed Andrew, not wanting to miss a word of what Monsieur Terrail was telling them about a Château d’Yquem dating from 1871.

At the conclusion of the tour, Monsieur Terrail accompanied them to the restaurant entrance and wished them a good day. They thanked him warmly for the tour and turned to face the maître d’ and a couple of other uniformed employees standing nearby, waiters they didn’t recognize. They all bowed and smiled and sent them on their way.

“Au revoir, M’sieur-Dame. Merci, M’sieur-Dame. A la prochaine. Bon après-midi!”

The maître d’ opened the door for them.

And they were out! Amazing!

“Do you think we should have left a tip at least?” asked Kelly.

“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” replied Andrew. “But no, I’m afraid they would have found that insulting.”

They looked longingly at the Seine, wishing they had time for a walk along the quays, but Andrew was eager to return to the apartment. Leaving Kelly on the sidewalk, he ducked into a metro.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment on the rue d’Hauteville, the phone was ringing when we returned from grocery shopping on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. We missed the call. However, when we checked our voice messages, there were three, each one angrier and more frantic than the one before.

The calls were made by the manager of La Tour d’Argent, requesting an immediate call-back.

It did not take a rocket scientist to work out what had happened. My husband picked up the receiver and dialed the number of the restaurant.

“Bonjour! Tour d’Argent,” responded a male voice dripping with honey. This was before the era of caller ID.

“Bonjour, c’est Monsieur Donaldson à l’appareil,” replied my husband.

We had always found the French language beautiful, melodious and romantic, and devoid of the harsh consonants to be found in, say, German.

The string of invectives that assaulted Lance’s ear had nothing beautiful or romantic about it.

Something outrageous had happened.

We had dined in the famous restaurant and had left without paying the bill.

This was inadmissible! If the bill were not settled immédiatement, the manager would report us to the police. His words burned with anger.

Lance attempted to explain that we were not the offenders, that it was our son who had dined at the Tour d’Argent, and that he would phone them when he returned. This did not satisfy the manager, who continued his angry tirade.

Lance hung up on him.

Twenty minutes later, Andrew arrived.

“How was lunch?” we asked pleasantly.

Andrew launched into a detailed description of the meal, the service, the ambiance, and the wine cellar tour. He waxed positively lyrical as he tried to communicate the sheer bliss of the entire experience.

“And to think it didn’t cost us a single euro!” he enthused.

As difficult as it was to break the news to him, we couldn’t allow him to labor under the illusion that he’d had a free meal in a two-star restaurant any longer.

“Um...you’ve had a phone call from La Tour d’Argent,” I told him. “They’d like you to call them back. The guy on the phone didn’t sound too happy.”

Andrew blanched. And then, without further delay—did we raise our kids right or what?—he screwed up his courage and made the call.

Andrew’s French comprehension would have been put to the test had he not suspected what the problem would be.

“Excusez-moi,” he said. C’est une erreur. Une faute. Une mis-compréhension.”

“Un malentendu,” corrected the manager.

Andrew explained as best he could why he and Kelly had left without paying, and he promised to return the following day to pay the bill.

Knowing that the cost of the lunch would cut into his and Kelly’s travel money, we offered to pick up the tab. Our offer was accepted with gratitude and apologies. The wine had cost more than the food! They were mortified.

The following day, in mid-afternoon, after the last of the diners had left, the young couple arrived at the restaurant.

The manager was waiting for them.

Having regained his composure, realizing that the delinquent diners were not thieves but simply befuddled American college students and that the whole sorry affair was the result of a misunderstanding, the manager ushered them into a private dining room and invited them to join him at the table. The bill was produced. They added a generous tip and paid in cash.

“Et maintenant, à l’amitié!” beamed the manager as a bottle of champagne and a tray of pastries were produced.

All was forgiven. For their part, Kelly and Andrew were chastened by the experience and more than a tad disappointed. When they had believed that their meal had been on the house, they had laughingly christened the famous restaurant “La Tour Sans Argent,”—The Tower Without Money—but now it had reverted to its old identity, La Tour d’Argent (the Silver Tower). The clear blue skies of their idyllic afternoon had definitely clouded over. Fortunately, the clouds had a fittingly silver lining: Andrew and Kelly learned for themselves the hard lesson that “there's no such thing as a free lunch.” The lesson might not have had architectural significance, but of all the educational experiences that their grants had enabled, this was undoubtedly the most memorable.


About the Author

Mary Donaldson-Evans' creative work has been published by The Lowestoft Chronicle, Boomer Lit Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, The Metaworker Literary Magazine, and Spank the Carp, among others. Her book, Behind the Lines: A Soldier, his Family and the 10th Mountain Division, is in press with Austin-Macauley Publishers, London. She can be reached at marydonevans@gmail.com.