For 44 years the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel was perched 562 feet above the Champ-de-Mars in Paris, and for 44 years the bird’s-eye bistro was better-known for its view than its veau. Then, in 1981, engineers determined that the weight of the restaurant was causing the tower to sag, so the aerie-cum-eatery was brought down to earth. Restaurants, like fine wines, tend not to travel well, but there are exceptions. Six years and 4,800 miles later, the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel is flourishing at sea level in New Orleans, proving that even comedowns can be uplifting on occasion.
Today the not-so-venerable Paris landmark stands on St. Charles Avenue, every inch of steel in place. Owners Daniel Bonnot and John Onorio have spent more than $3 million to evoke the ambience of a grand Parisian cafe of the ’30s. They serve about 300 meals a night. Reservations are a must. New Orleans restaurant critic Gene Bourg writes: “This is not just a restaurant, but a place where customers are expected to behave like bons vivants out on the town.” Bonnot is shamelessly peddling romance. “People love the restaurant because it’s part of their past,” he says. “I want to bring back memories of being in Paris, being in love.”
Undistinguished though the food may have been at the original venue, the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel has seen its share of history. The world was hurtling toward disaster when the restaurant opened in 1937, but Paris, like New Orleans, can always make room for one more place to eat. Closed after the fall of Paris, it was re-opened to welcome the postwar tourists who thronged its 125-seat dining room, washed in the famous Paris light and boasting gorgeous views of the city.
The restaurant’s journey from the City of Light to the Big Easy began in 1981, when the structure was dismantled. Each of its 11,018 pieces was labeled, numbered and packed in a single gigantic crate. The French businessman who bought the restaurant had planned to reopen it elsewhere in Paris, but eventually dropped the idea and traded it to a barter firm in New York for construction equipment and marketing services. The restaurant arrived in New York in 1982, sealed in a 40-foot-long blue, white and red container and bound for a warehouse.
A year later Onorio and Bonnot arranged for McDonald Stephens, a New Orleans businessman, to buy the crate and planned to become the new restaurant’s minority owners. “He was our sugar daddy,” says Bonnot, 42. “We were going to reimburse him.” In January 1984, the crate arrived in New Orleans by train. Construction began in May, with an early-1985 opening scheduled. Then, on Aug. 1, 1984, disaster struck. “On the night of my bachelor party, we found out that Stephens had died,” says Bonnot.
Onorio and Bonnot embarked on a two-year hunt for new financial backing—in the middle of a downturn in the local economy. They rejected offers from Houston, Atlanta and Miami, preferring to hold out for New Orleans because of its affinity for all things French. “We went to every bank in town. We used the yellow pages,” says Bonnot, a native of France who has worked as a chef in Europe and the Caribbean. Eventually they got a bank loan for $1.7 million, sold limited partnerships to raise another $720,000, and Stephens’ heirs lent them $900,000. Finally they were ready to start reconstruction.
Putting the restaurant back together went smoothly, says Bonnot, because of the meticulousness with which it had been taken apart. Architect Steve Bingler designed the 88-foot-high steel-and-glass polygon that houses the restaurant. “We didn’t want to duplicate the tower,” says Bingler, “but to capture the essence of its setting—the way shadows get cast, for instance; the grace of the steel superstructure.” The original restaurant, encircled by a terrace with an additional 125 seats, stands in a glass structure. “It’s like a gem in a jewelry case,” says Bingler.
The Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel reopened last December with the French ambassador present to toast its new incarnation. Chef Bonnot is concentrating on a French provincial menu prepared with locally grown ingredients. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-born Onorio, 38, who handles the business side, promises to keep prices at their current level. (A typical dinner for two, with wine, excluding tax and tip, comes to $50.) One segment of the clientele gives Bonnot a special frisson. “Bankers who didn’t want to open the door when we were trying to raise money,” he says, “now call for reservations.”