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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 - click to enlarge
   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 special."

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 globe."

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 detailed frescoes.

Conor Cushnahan - click to enlarge
Conor Cushnahan

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.

During 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?"

Indeed.

The Westin Paris
3 rue de Castiglione
75001 Paris, France

Phone: +33 (0) 1 44 77 11 11
Web: http//www.westin.com/paris

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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