Being First at the Westin Paris
Overheard on the coat-check line at the Louvre, one
American woman to another: “Let’s lunch at Le First.”
It had a ring to it; one of the rare times a sentence
sounded better in English than French. Still, the eponymous (albeit
bi-lingual) Le First is as Gallic a dining room as one can get. With an
entrance under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, it is virtually around
the corner from the exquisite Place Vendôme, its elegant boutiques,
perfumeries, jewelry shops, and Caesar-like statue of Napoleon atop a
144 foot column that looks out over the 18th century buildings and
byways of the first arrondissement. The splendid Tuileries Gardens that
bank on the southern side of the Seine and extend from the Louvre to the
Place de la Concorde are directly across the street from the restaurant.
In a few months, it would be April in Paris; chestnuts would be in
blossom. On a January afternoon, however, when we settled into a
window-front table at Le First, the Garden's grassy expanse and
children's carousel were covered with a fine layer of snow -- a rare
sight in the City of Lights.
From our vantage point, the Tuileries appeared like an
extension of Le First whether spied through a clear windowpane or viewed
through a mist of sheer white curtains. The carpeting was patterned with
golden vines, and mirrors reflected the wintery scene across the way.
If, as the old song says, the weather outside was frightful, within all
was delightful as seated in plush sofa-like seats of deep purple velvet,
we drank a deep and mellow Burgundy and feasted on escargot de
Bourgogne, entrecote and pommes frites -- a classic brasserie meal
courtesy of the well regarded Chef Gilles Grasteau.
|“The cuisine at Le First may be classic
French, but it has a modern twist,” said Marie-Paule Vande Velde
who had joined us for lunch. Petite, blonde, and ebullient, the
general manager of the Westin Paris, of which Le First is a part
was quick to point out the distinctiveness of a new menu. “It is
coordinated with the Westin’s wellness theme which focuses on
health and well being," she told us. "Chef Gilles Grasteau adds
new herbs and other ingredients to these familiar dishes that
are conducive to the diner's well-being, to making one feel
better, more energetic. And his commitment to using organic
ingredients and the freshest seasonal products fits so perfectly
into the Westin vision. You'll see that at our Breakfast Buffet,
we list specific the benefits that apply to different foods. And
when the weather permits, we do calisthenics in the park before
our Sunday brunch."
Marie-Paule Vande Velde
|This contemporary focus on health and
well-being is being greeted with enthusiasm in a hotel that
dates back to the time of the Second Empire and was built on the
site of a medieval monastery. The five-story gabled building
takes up an entire square block and, from the outside, looks
very much today as it did when it debuted as the Hotel
Continental in time for the World Exhibition of 1878. Guests
back then were often members of the aristocracy; they would
arrive in horse-drawn carriages that proceeded through the main
entrance of the hotel on the arcaded rue de Castiglione, passing
between a pair of splendid bronze candelabras into a large open
courtyard in the center of the hotel.
The candelabras are still there. So is the courtyard,
albeit transformed. To come from the darkness of a winter's night into
the brilliance of a glass-enclosed square in the center of the building
where illuminated green and golden snowflakes are suspended in an
enormous glass globe is enough to make the heart stop.
"This is our fantasy Christmas ornament," said Conor
Cushnahan, front office manager, who greeted us at our arrival. "The
inspiration is from Disneyland Paris and by the designer who creates
special effects for Cirque du Soleil. There's always been a Christmas
installation in the courtyard, but this year we wanted to do something
|Conor is from Belfast, and there seemed
something of the Irish poet in him. "The snow globe with the
beautiful lights is perfect," he told us. "By the summer, this
place will be transformed into an outdoor gardened restaurant
with a fountain in the center. But we are thinking of keeping
the ball through Valentine's Day. We'll replace the snowflakes
with hearts and roses. On their arrival, guests will be
presented with a glass of champagne and the vision of the
Like the other members of the team, Conor
appears to be smitten with this property which did not become a
Westin until late 2005. And understandably so. There is so much
history behind it, a whole galaxy of historic figures and
events. How easy it is to let your fancy run free in one of the
three grand salons, all of which retain their original palatial
sumptuousness from the period just after Napoleon III. How
intriguing to imagine Victor Hugo celebrating his birthdays,
Charles de Gaulle presiding at a crowded press conference, a
young Yves St. Laurent presenting his ground-breaking haute
couture collection in a setting resplendent with glittering
chandeliers, marble surfaces, gilded pillars, and richly
|Predictably, such a place is landmarked, its
edifice, interior walls, ballrooms all protected. Since becoming
a Westin, it has undergone considerable renovation and
refurbishment but always within the proscribed boundaries. Today
every one of the 438 rooms has been refreshed and brought up to
date, replete with luxurious marble bathrooms, the incomparable
Westin beds, the myriad of communication technologies modern
travelers require. But as the Westin Paris is hardly your
standard hotel, as each floor and every room is different, the
process was not without its creative challenges.
First-floor rooms have high ceilings. Fifth-floor
rooms are equipped with French doors that open to little balconies where
guests can sip their café au lait while looking down on the Place
Vendôme and the arcaded corridors across the way. Fourth-four rooms have
little alcoves under the eaves which have become cozy reading nooks. In
some rooms, there are antique chandeliers; others have curio cabinets.
There are those with fireplaces topped with marble mantles; some have
interior chimneys. All remain, undisturbed, adding an eclectic
19th-century ambience to a 21st century hotel.
our lunch with Marie-Paule, she dwelled on the word "First" in the
restaurant name. “Of course it refers to the arrondissement we are in,”
the Belgian-born general manager told us. "But it also refers to what we
aim for. Our goal is to be the first in everything: food, service,
comfort – all the things a hotel can offer.
"This is a new challenge for me," she added. "I was
with Starwood (the parent company and manager of Westin) for 23 years,
but all the properties were in Brussels and all of them were big. It was
my dream to run a boutique property, a small jewel. Then, two years ago,
I came to the Westin Paris.
"I am running a big jewel. And I like it. I like the
people, the staff, the guests. I have a passion for my work. I wake up
in the morning happy, even with the big challenges. I love living in
Paris. There is so much life in the city."
She paused and smiled. "This weekend there will be a
full moon. To see the full moon with the Eiffel Tower in the background
-- who could ask for anything more?"
The Westin Paris
3 rue de Castiglione
75001 Paris, France
Phone: +33 (0) 1 44 77 11 11
Photos by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights