It’s my lover, my wife, my best friend,” boasts Claude Terrail, zealous standard-bearer of La Tour d’Argent—one of the best, and surely the most celebrated, three-star restaurants in Paris. After the Eiffel Tower and Folies Bergère, it is a de rigueur pit stop for any well-heeled tourist yearning for a taste of haut Paree. There, from his top-floor dining room overlooking Notre Dame cathedral, the 63-year-old Gallic gastronome has been pleasing palates since he inherited the eatery from his father, who bought the building in 1916.
This fall marks the 400th anniversary of the original Tour d’Argent, dubbed the Silver Tower in the 16th century because its mica content reflected the sun. Terrail is honoring the occasion with special “memorable dinners” that will thicken the waistline and thin the pocketbook of gourmets. So popular is the fare that some customers write to reserve tables months in advance, and Terrail seems merely amused that more than 14,000 ashtrays (valued at $1 each) are taken as souvenirs from his tables each year. Effervescent as the vintage champagne nestled in his renowned wine cellar, Terrail happily serves up historical tidbits that have sustained the La Tour legend.
Financier J.P. Morgan luxuriated in the cellar’s rich wine selection (130,000 bottles which Terrail calls “my Fort Knox”), once leaving a blank check in place of a purloined bottle of 1805 Napoleon brandy. It has been the culinary choice of kings from Henry III in the 16th century to Prince Gustav Adolf of Sweden, who in 1948 stopped his Mediterranean-bound train in Paris just to dine at La Tour.
Patrons approach by gilded elevator to the sixth floor dining room. The room is aglow with pink linen, buffed silver, fresh flowers and blue menus (dinner for two averages $80 without wine, but prices are given only to the host). With a cornflower sprouting from his lapel, Claude is ever the punctilious caretaker, planting kisses and marshaling his staff of 85 into unobtrusive service. “There is nothing more serious than pleasure,” he observes.
The house spécialité, canard au sang, is pressed duck served with a card bearing its number. More than 611,000 have been consumed since the tradition began in 1890 with onetime owner Frédéric. The secret, confides Claude, is that the ducklings, nurtured on his own farm in Vendee, are no more than eight weeks old, fattened their last 15 days, then strangled to retain their blood and served on the very day of their demise. Emperor Hirohito ordered seconds—50 years later; but Terrail shrugs off any suggestion that the beautifully served portions are too small. “If you’re really hungry,” he observes, “you’re better off going elsewhere.”
Like much of his clientele, Terrail was born suckling a silver spoon. His father, André, transformed La Tour from a 16th-century hostelry to a three-star monument. “I wanted to be an actor, lawyer or diplomat, but never a restaurateur,” says Claude, who was educated at boarding schools until age 17 when he, too, fell in love with La Tour. To prepare himself, Terrail enrolled in pastry school and had baked his way up to cook by World War II, which for him involved six weeks imprisonment by the Gestapo, followed by soldiering in General LeClerc’s Free French division.
In 1947 Terrail became proprietor of La Tour. He moved the restaurant from the ground floor to the top, transformed the second floor into his apartment (“So neighbors don’t see what time I come home”). “I have three disciplines,” he notes, “work, sport and leisure,” all of which he has pursued with unbridled abandon. He has squired Jane Fonda, Jayne Mansfield and Ava Gardner, with whom he lived in the early ’60s. His only marriage, to the daughter of movie mogul Jack Warner, lasted three years and produced one child, Ann, an aspiring actress, now 23. His current inamorata is former Finnish model Taria Rasanen, who manages another Terrail Paris restaurant, La Guirlande de Julie, and by whom he has a son, Andre, 2. “Now my contract is filled,” Claude says. “There is another André Terrail to take over.”
On Mondays, when La Tour is dark, Terrail can be found rubbing elbows with the haut monde at private clubs, but he is clearly most at home catering to the privileged. On one recent evening, he noted with amazement that he had not eaten in three days. Then, with a flourish, he charged into his kitchen. Terrail’s feast for one: two fried eggs and a stub of leftover cheese.