For those of us ever seeking to find the legendary portal to the Paris of bygone times, the one portrayed in the sultry black and white photographs of Robert Doisneau, heard in the recordings by Josephine Baker, depicted as scenes by the Impressionist painters, and written about by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, only a historic hotel will do. When I booked a stay at InterContinental Paris Le Grand, I knew it would fit the bill. After all, this hotel, which encompasses an entire city block across from Opera Garnier in the glamorous 9th arrondissement, was built to impress.
Designed in the grandiose and eye-popping Second Empire (Napoleon III) Baroque-ish style (think: gilded wood, glass skylights, innovative shapes, iron framework, and sumptuous fabrics aplenty), it so bedazzled Empress Eugenie that she said it felt like home — which meant it matched up to her Loire Valley castle abode, Château de Fontainebleau. (It’s been recently renovated by Pierre-Yves Rochon with a nod to its old school elegance, but with state-of-the-art everything.) Sarah Bernhardt descended the grand staircase here, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo sipped absinthe in its still famous Café de la Paix, Charles de Gaulle took repast in its dining room the night Paris was liberated, and any number of glitterati from actresses to kings have slept in its beds. Its restaurant even shows up in the Disney classic movie, The Aristocats for those with a penchant for cartoon history.
During our stay, my daughter and I moved about the hotel like princesses. It’s that sort of place. Le Grand inspires you to become part of its stylish family, to channel your inner Marlene Dietrich during your time there. Our ample premium room showed the Opera nearly close enough to touch through our window, and we were nearly happy enough to relax in our room all day, but for the fact that we love Paris so much and have an insatiable passion for immersing ourselves in its virtues. This simply meant that returning to the hotel (after logging miles on cobblestoned streets, in museums and shops, walking along the Seine, and gallivanting inside verdant parks) felt like dessert for a day well traveled. And that dessert, the grand return, took effect each day, the moment we walked through the ornate front doors, passed the gallant doormen, and walked into the lavish lobby, shopping bags in tow. The ubiquitous feeling of being pampered at Le Grand grew stronger in the bar with a flute of Champagne (n’est-ce pas ) or when submerged in our room’s oversized bathtub. Dinner at Café de la Paix (oysters, lobster, foie gras, and sole meuniere) simply sealed the deal. What else can I say? We were characters as fetching as Doisneau’s subjects, our wine glasses poised to clink, those vintage paintings as our backdrop, the gilt accentuating the Parisian glow on our faces.
I was beyond pleased with my premium guest room, an extravagance of textures and coddling. But those celebrating a special occasion or willing to splurge should upgrade to one of Le Grand’s mind-blowing signature suites. For my money, I’d choose La Parisienne, envisioned by interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon to reflect a “typical Parisian apartment.” Typical? It’s more than that, the suite has custom-made furniture, fashion-centric wallpaper, private balconies and views of the Eiffel tower — even from your bed.
Seriously, you have to have a meal at Café de la Paix. It defines icon. To slip into a short story or a painting by Guy Buffet, dine here. To be sated, dine here. To moan loud enough for the next table to hear you, dine here. Every night. Serving typical Parisian food (the reason you came to Paris, perhaps?), the restaurant has been doing it on a stellar level for more than a century and a half. Also of note, La Verrière, beneath an atrium in a classic winter garden at the hotel’s heart, satisfies with a simpler, more casual menu.
For those planning large gatherings or parties in Paris, the Le Grand’s Salon Opera will more than suffice — it will wow. Extensively renovated to the tune of nearly $6 million, and refreshed by a team of 50 of the region’s top craftspeople, the historic room enjoyed a redo that included such extravagance as 70 kilos of new gold leaf, restorers from glassmakers to trompe l’oeil artists plying their trade, as well as updated modern advancements from acoustics to electricity. Today, it reigns as one of Paris’ top hotspots for events.