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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Dining at Les Mille Colonnes

Colin Gravois, a dear friend of Beauford, was the person who first told me about the restaurant called Les Mille Colonnes in Montparnasse. It was located at the address now occupied by Hôtel Le M, where Beauford's first commemorative plaque was recently installed.

Hôtel Le M façade
© Discover Paris!

Les Mille Colonnes plaque
© Discover Paris!

Colin graciously contributes this brief memoir of the restaurant and the meals that he, Beauford, and other friends shared there:

When I first arrived in Paris in 1968, Les Mille Colonnes (one thousand columns) was the restaurant of choice for people with small or next-to-inexistant budgets living in the Montparnasse area, and it remained our eating place for many years, most often for dinner. It got its name from the outside décor: faux columns in bas relief painted white, with the rest of the outside wall a light blue. The picture below conveys the idea, although the columns were not painted white at the time it was taken. Unfortunately the building was razed in the 1970s to build a hotel.

Les Mille Colonnes circa 1900

The restaurant was only a five-minute walk from the American Center* on boulevard Raspail, where many of us congregated in the afternoon or early evening, and many of the Center’s denizens eventually found themselves there sometime between 6 and 10 PM nightly. Just couldn't be beat!

Mille Colonnes was a huge place, seating at least 300, and it had a gaggle of waiters who scooted around as if on roller skates; we were always impressed how they carried large platters of food with one hand and with all the bustle around them, nary a fall. Another thing that amazed us was how, when exiting the kitchen with a platter of food, they had to stop by a lady at the register and count off the dishes one by one, which she would record under each waiter’s account. (This was to prevent them feeding their friends for free!) That procedure was done so quickly and with such dispatch that it was a sideshow in itself.

We were always impressed by the wait staff. They carried a pencil to write down the order on the paper table covering as you called it out, and then at the end they’d total it all up right before you.

Colin Gravois in front of his portrait painted
by Beauford Delaney (circa late 1960s)
Photo courtesy of Colin Gravois
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Of course, another reason it was a favorite was the prices. Considering the very reasonable cost, the menu was quite varied, with at least 10 or more choices of main dish. The quality was exceedingly high for a restaurant of its kind (at least to our young palates, as someone recently reminded me).

The menu came printed on mimeographed pages - a new one daily - in purple and pinkish ink. I can still remember the exact prices. For slightly less then one dollar you could get a full 3-course meal : hors d’oeuvres and dessert were 0F90 and the mains went for 3F50, totaling 5F30. With the dollar then trading at 5F50, it was quite a deal! If you felt like “splurging,” a ¼-liter carafe of wine was 0F90.

Beauford Delaney lived a few blocks south of the restaurant on rue Vercingétorix, so when he had a few francs to spare he’d usually come in around 6 o’clock. Oft times when we arrived we would find him alone at a table, and we joined him if there was a place for all of us, or asked him to move to our table if we were a larger group. He always was so happy to see us, and many times we’d chip in to pay his dinner. (Beauford wasn’t exactly rolling in cash.) Some times he’d join us afterwards for a coffee at the Raspail Vert* or the Café Select, but mostly he would return to his place. He’d say old people like to go to bed early.

*The Raspail Vert was located at 232, boulevard Raspail. It was down the street from the American Center for Students and Artists, located at 261, boulevard Raspail. Both are now closed.

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