Designer Pierre Cardin died this week and compelled me to visit the Beijing restaurant he opened in 1983–Maxim’s de Paris. Maxim’s is still operating, in all of its Art Nouveau glory, on the second floor of the Chongwenmen Hotel. (Maxim’s bakery is on the first floor next door.)
A restaurant that seemed a miracle at the time–Cardin was quoted by New York Times as saying, “If I can put a Maxim’s in Peking I can put a Maxim’s on the moon!”–though its spot atop the pecking order, as a see-and-be-seen venue for local and visiting celebrities and power brokers, faded long ago.
Most of the decor is “as is”–like going into a time machine. The Art Nouveau design, the sprawling layout (supposedly for 400 guests), the stage (where Cui Jian used to rock), the dishware. The waiters, polite and efficient, don black tie though there is no napkin spreading or pepper grinding. That’s DIY.
The lunch menu is terse, with a handful of salads and mains and a trio or so each of soups, sides and desserts. The wine list is, too, ranging from 160 for Dragon Seal to 21,800 for Lafite, although nothing by the glass. (Yealands Baby Doll Sauvignon Blanc looks a good option at rmb290.) I settled for pastis.
But the atmosphere, starting with photos at the entrance of musicians, actors, designers, writers, artists, politicians and more who wined and dined here, was warm, backed by an Edith Piaf-esque soundtrack and buzz from diners at the surrounding tables.
I tried to imagine the Beijing of 37 years ago, when finding coffee was near impossible, when craft beer bars were a generation or two away, when any foreign restaurant at all was a rarity. Tried to imagine how hard it would be to open such a place–as Cardin said: next stop, the Moon. But he did it. And they came. Jet Li and Gong Li. Elizabeth Taylor and Oliver Stone.
Such thoughts often make me tear up. I imagined someone who saved every kuai, mao and fen back in the 80s to treat a loved one to a meal. And those people still remembering it today, 30-plus years later. “Remember that time you saved all your money to treat me? Remember that night, darling?”
Overcoming the odds. Doing the daring. Inspiring memories. That’s power, whether wielded by a globally known designer or someone fiercely struggling for a better life.
Then I left, absorbing the restaurant glow as I slowly walked the soft colorful carpets, with my own memory safely in mind, and exited to Beijing’s winter blast.
(My Maxim’s experiences are mostly tied to the former Solana branch, host of our first Grape Wall of China wine contest, with consumers as judges, in 2009. And where I met Cardin during the Beijing Olympics, on the very first day, arriving after watching beach volleyball nearby in Chaoyang Park to shake his hand. Impeccably dressed — of course — he had already imbibed a bottle of wine and looked ready for more. RIP Pierre Cardin.)
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