Paris' No. 15 Quai de la Tournelle has been home to the legendary restaurant Tour d'Argent for more than two centuries and a place of hospitality even longer: It is said that King Henry III of France's first encounter with the dining tool we call the "fork" occurred here in the 16th century, and soon, everyone wanted to be seen with a fork. But the man currently carrying the torch, André Terrail, is just 35 and looks a decade younger—which he was when custodianship of the iconic eatery fell to him in 2006 after his father Claude died.
But the Babson College–educated Terrail is not interested in merely watching over a cuisine museum in the Regency-style space looking out on the Notre Dame. Earlier this year, Terrail brought on a new head chef, Philippe Labbé, previously of the Shangri-La Hotel Paris and the Chèvre d’Or, part of an explicit goal to recapture a second Michelin star. In May 2016, Terrail raised nearly $830,000 in a wildly successful auction of old stemware, tableware, art, rugs, Cognac and other relics of Tour d'Argent history that don't have a place at the table in the 21st century (it also recently lost the article prefacing its name, though Parisians still call it "La Tour"). New menus put a fresh spin on the kitchen's classics, and the wine list is making more ambitious forays into the less traditionally vaunted regions of France. "We certainly do not believe that we have arrived," Terrail says.
Terrail is the third in his line to guide the restaurant, which the family bought in 1911. Its cellar now boasts 350,000 bottles and 14,000 selections—nearly the highest count among the roughly 3,600 restaurants around the world that hold Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards—with some vintages dating back to 1788. The Tour has received Wine Spectator's highest honor, the Grand Award, every year since 1986. Its influence on cuisine can be seen in kitchens around the world; young chef Eric Ripert would go on to the prestigious Le Bernardin in New York and says working at the Tour "was a pivotal time for me, not just for my résumé but for the training I received there."
Terrail spoke with editorial assistant Samantha Falewée about growing up at one of the world's great dining destinations, the evolution of wine and food at his famously traditional restaurant, and what his simplest comfort meal is.
Wine Spectator: Your father wrote in his memoir that he agreed with Raymond Thuillier, the founding chef of L’Oustau de Baumanière, when he said, “Even for a baby, lay the table.” You lived at No. 15. What was your childhood like?
André Terrail: Actually, the restaurant scared me. It was very vivid; there were plenty of people and customers. It was a very scary circus going around me, with those precise methods. And the kitchen was so lively—in the past the cooks used to scream much more than they do today. But at the end, my father made it a very fun place, and we spent a lot of time with him.
By my father’s side I had the opportunity of not only traveling France but tasting the very best food available at restaurants. Everyone has things they don’t like, but I like everything. I love to try, love to taste.
WS: What was your education in culinary service and dining?
AT: I really learned a lot in the restaurant. I went to business school in the United States at Babson College, and after that and during the summers I spent a lot of time training. It’s a job that you really have to learn on-site. It’s hard to teach the experience of welcoming guests or tasting with a chef in a school.
WS: Exceptional hospitality is one of the things Tour d’Argent is known for. Have you seen changes in the perception of hospitality in the dining industry?
AT: It’s definitely our biggest challenge to remain prestigious but maintain an atmosphere that is extremely welcoming, if not fun. Luxury goes very well with fun. It’s the key to the future. It’s where we’re going.
The expectations of the customers change constantly. We want to make sure we have an almost theaterlike experience, where things are a bit surprising and there are new things in the food, the wine, even the discussions with the maître d’hôtel. Every moment counts, and every moment is an experience. Otherwise, we’re just going to be taken over by these food-delivery companies!
WS: What change have you seen in the clientele you have today versus 20 or 30 years ago?
AT: We get young customers who are "food geeks" who are there to try the new chef and the latest dish; they’re great customers. One out of every two customers is French. Other places have grown in significance, whether it’s Africa, South America, Russia, China or Japan.
WS: What is it like to work in one of the world's most expansive, impressive wine cellars with wine director David Ridgway?
AT: I’m always impressed with David and the level of his expertise. I don’t know of many restaurants that, just in terms of Champagne, have such an amazing collection of old magnums: Krug, Roederer, Clicquot. There’s so much mystery around those bottles.
WS: Do you and David have plans for the wine list in the next five to 10 years?
AT: David is going to buy a lot of the 2015 vintage. We have to keep the diversity going. Wines from southern France are becoming more interesting, and in the Loire Valley there are many small vineyards and regions that still have a lot to offer. Around 40 percent of our direct sales come from the wine cellar.
WS: Tour d’Argent recently hired chef Philippe Labbé. What are the best qualities he brings to the Tour?
AT: His creativity and his understanding and respect for tradition and heritage. He is very relaxed with his know-how and doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything anymore.
WS: What changes is he bringing to the menu?
AT: We’re keeping the classic menu but tweaking it, especially the presentation. Aside from that, we will have a five-course duck menu. The idea is to go back to our roots. We’re renaming the [signature pressed-duck dish] “Caneton de Frédéric Delair,” for the name of the owner of the Tour before my grandfather and the one who codified the recipe.
WS: Is there one meal that never fails to satisfy after a long day?
AT: Simple, good pasta. If you prepare it correctly, with a very good sauce—it’s ridiculous, but yes!
WS: Can you tell me about some of the most memorable guests you’ve met at Tour d'Argent?
AT: One day we had two customers who had biked for four days from southern France to Paris and dropped off their bicycles outside the Tour for lunch. Another time, there were two women having lunch and one of them had beautiful long hair. The other woman told me, “My friend had very bad cancer and went through chemotherapy, and I said, ‘Once you get over it, I’ll take you to the Tour d’Argent.’ And she got through it.” Some of these stories are very touching. The Tour d’Argent is a meeting place—a place of celebration and a place of happiness, and we’re happy to keep this going.