On a street corner in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Allard has been a quintessential Paris bistro ever since it opened, in 1932. A few weeks ago, though, these two tiny sepia-toned dining rooms lost something of their permanent Édouard Boubat aura with the installation of a shiny new overhead décor of beautiful soldered-and-fitted ductwork and high-tech air filters and fans that was created to ensure an air quality on par with that of a hospital operating room.
Or so I’d been assured by the woman who called to invite me as a food writer to an intimate family-and-friends lunch with chef Alain Ducasse. This meal would debut a new marvel of high-tech engineering intended to reassure gourmets that it’s safe to dine indoors again at their favorite Paris restaurants and cafés since the French government allowed them to reopen on June 15. Previously, Paris restaurants could serve only outdoors and with scrupulous social distancing.
Ducasse has owned Allard, a favorite of everyone from Juliette Gréco and Jean Gabin to the previous Aga Khan and Jane Russell, since 2013. Among his 13 restaurants in Paris, Allard is the highest grossing per square foot, which is why it was selected for the pilot installation.
As I arrived for lunch on a sunny day, someone I didn’t recognize at the door greeted me and said, “Alec, you can take off your mask now and go inside.” Suddenly, I stalled.
The idea of removing the thick black cotton mask with a round plastic filter plug that I’ve been wearing in public since March 15 brought on a reeling social panic I hadn’t known since I arrived for a pool party at Calvin Klein’s villa on Fire Island on a Fourth of July weekend in the early 80s. The cabana boy who’d opened the wooden gate gave me a thick melon-colored towel, escorted me upstairs to the deck, rolled a rubber bracelet with a numbered token dangling from it onto my wrist, and said, “O.K., I’ll take your clothes now.” But there was a huge difference between overriding the prudishness of my New England upbringing in extremis and possibly putting my life at risk by recklessly relying on a newly technical and very complicated system I understood almost nothing about during a plague. But finally, I jumped in, again.
Inside and barefaced like the other guests, a glass of champagne helped, and then Paris-based interior architect Patrick Jouin, who’s designed many of Ducasse’s restaurants, including Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Louis XV in Monte Carlo, both with three Michelin stars, offered a fascinating explanation of how this project was born.
“Alain called me on April 24 at four p.m. and said, ‘O.K., we’ve got to do something. We can’t just sit here and let French gastronomy die.’ So I had sketches ready for him for a new anti-covid décor for Allard the following afternoon,” Jouin explained.
Doctors Thomas Similowski (head of pulmonology, intensive medicine, and resuscitation) and Jerome Robert (head of bacteriological medicine and hospital hygiene) from Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, in Paris, and architect Arnaud Delloye joined the team, whose goal was to create an aesthetically pleasing high-performance system that purifies air and limits its movements to reduce the potential risk of aerosol transmission of the coronavirus. “We’d all seen the drawings of the restaurant in China in The New York Times, which showed how traditional air-conditioning systems are dangerous,” Jouin added.
While listening to Jouin, I found myself thinking about how restaurant décors often mirror the mood and mores of a given era in the society that patronizes them, which was why the message conveyed by Allard’s new industrial décor was so hopeful: science and technology will deliver us—eventually—from the coronavirus. On June 5, the independent technical team that had rigorously tested the efficacity of the new $56,000 system at Allard agreed in a report which confirmed it “very strongly reduces the possibility of aerosol contamination by the Covid virus.”
When we sat down for lunch, Ducasse extolled the new technology his team had invented for helping to “save a vital part of l’art de vivre à la française [the French way of life], which is the conviviality of sharing a meal with other people in a restaurant.” He also offered himself wily congratulations for holding the patent on a new system that could soon become de rigueur in French restaurants.
For my part, the ricocheting laughter and repartee at my first restaurant meal in three months reminded me of why I’d fallen head over heels in love with Paris and its restaurants when I’d first visited the city as a teenager. It was for their food, of course, but as importantly for the social spectacle of the dining room and the pleasure of sharing a meal with other people.
So, in the end, I was perfectly happy to be one of Ducasse’s guinea pigs. I enjoyed the ecstatic succulence of my escargots and roast Challans duck with green olives at Allard a lot more than I did bobbing around naked in Calvin Klein’s swimming pool 40 years ago, too, because risk and reward is an idea that evolves in every life as time goes by.
Alexander Lobrano is a writer and restaurant critic. The second edition of his Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants is out now