One of the people Apple invited to his birthday party—Charles Eisendrath, a former Time magazine correspondent who’s now a journalism professor at the University of Michigan—summed up Chez L’Ami Louis in his toast as “that divine imitation cheap restaurant.” It’s on a street that’s just a notch above an alley, not far from the Place de la République. It has a simple storefront, with a red-checked curtain halfway up the window. Inside the one rather narrow room, plain brown walls look as if they’ve had, over the years, several dozen coats of varnish. Although there are coat hooks—in fact, you might say that coat hooks constitute one of the principal design elements—it’s customary at Chez L’Ami Louis to store coats on the slatted racks above the coat hooks. Waiters take a customer’s new Armani coat, roll it lengthwise, and toss it from the middle of the room onto the rack. It looks foolhardy, but I suspect that they miss the rack about as often as those legendary fish slingers at the Pike Place Market, in Seattle, overthrow a halibut. The restroom is downstairs, reached by a narrow stairway that has a banister made of heavy rope. According to one of the legends about Chez L’Ami Louis, a Michelin inspector told Antoine that his restaurant could never get a star without improving access to the bathrooms, and Antoine asked, in a more direct way than I’m putting it here, whether people come to a restaurant to eat or to go to the bathroom.
For the birthday evening, tables had been given names of places where R. W. Apple, Jr., had hung his hat—his hometown of Akron, for instance, and London, where he was once the Times bureau chief. I was seated at Nairobi, among a group of what appeared to be pretty hearty eaters. Apple, in his characteristic checked shirt, announced that we had gathered from eight countries and a half century or so of friendships. We were to choose one of three main courses being offered—chicken or pheasant or beef. As for the first courses and side dishes, both served family style, one of the guests later offered this explanation that I found persuasive: “It’s my understanding that Apple has simplified what could be a terribly difficult choice by telling them to bring everything.”
That included both foie gras and pata negra ham, served with the house’s customary sliced baguettes; snails that we thought we were consuming at a respectable pace until Apple stopped by our table to say that in his prime he had once downed three dozen of them at this very restaurant; scallops with parsley and roasted cloves of garlic; mountainous plates of shoestring potatoes; and Chez L’Ami Louis’s signature pommes Anna, made with garlic and goose fat, which got my vote for dish of the evening. I had expected the dinnertime conversation to be similar to the table talk at some particularly fancy wedding, where, after the obligatory remarks about how lovely the bride looks, everyone gets down to the question of how much the whole affair must have cost—or maybe a variation of such a conversation that included not just how much the whole affair must have cost but how Apple was going to manage to lay it off on The New York Times. Having heard no such conversation at the Nairobi table, I thought about telling Apple that the absence of speculation on what would have been the grandest Apple expense-account legend of all was a sign of his guests’ sincere affection and appreciation. Then it occurred to me that they might have simply been too busy eating to talk.
Charlie Eisendrath’s after-dinner toast, the first of the evening, had to be read by another guest, since Eisendrath had remained in Michigan. “Just thinking about Apple’s 70th birthday dinner gave me a heart attack,” he wrote, referring to a real but fortunately mild infarction. “On evenings like this, there’s something to be paid. This is to tell you not to worry: I settled that part of the account for everyone.” Some guests toasted Apple for his generosity of spirit and his appetite and his zest for life, and the birthday boy replied with a speech that reserved particular thanks for his wife, Betsey, and for the current proprietor of the restaurant, Louis Gadby, who gave a rather lengthy speech of his own in French. After celebrating Apple as a journalist and thanking him for his loyal patronage for so many years, the incumbent Louis was moved to say that if Apple held his 80th birthday party at Chez L’Ami Louis, he, Louis, would furnish free aperitifs. For a French innkeeper, I thought, that was rather forthcoming.
A week or so later—a week during which some of the guests, if their morning-after vows are to be believed, spent consuming nothing more than dry toast and tea—reports started drifting in about some of Apple’s post-party eating. Peter Kaminsky, a food writer I know, e-mailed me that on the day after the party he’d had a large lunch with the Apples and some other people at a bistro called Le Dauphin, which specializes in the substantial food of southwestern France. I also heard that the Apples had gone from Paris to “eat their way through Austria” and then make their way to the three-star Auberge de l’Ill, near Strasbourg.
Not true, Apple said, when I checked my information with the great man himself. It was Alsace that he and Betsey ate their way through. The Auberge de l’Ill part was accurate, he said, and so was the lunch at Le Dauphin, where he’d been quite pleased with the oysters followed by pig’s cheek. Although the birthday meal may have provoked some guests into launching rigorous diets and may have given Charlie Eisendrath an anticipatory heart attack, the feeder whose birthday was being celebrated had treated it as an hors d’oeuvre.