Rue de Mont Blanc, Geneva
For the past 92 years, a charming little Cafe at #26, Rue de Mont-Blanc, just a short walk across the Rue de Cornavin from Geneva Central Station, (today wedged between a Starbucks, a Five Guys hamburger joint and a McDonalds), Café de Paris has been serving a simple dish with a complex secret, one that has seen it become an institution in Geneva and it fame and fortune all over the world.
In 1981, the American novelist, Paul Erdman, wrote in ‘The Last Days of America’: “We went to a restaurant near the station, the ‘Café de Paris’ in Geneva, which has the best butter steak of all places you can eat on earth. “
In 1930, whilst the owner of ‘Restaurant du Coq d’Or’, Mr. Boubier created his unique butter sauce, made with herbs, spices, and many other ingredients, to enhance his grilled beef. Mr. Boubier then gave this recipe to his daughter and her husband.
As well as being Mr. Boubier’s son-in-law, Arthur ‘Freddie’ Francis Dumont was the owner of the ‘Café de Paris’, a sort of micro-brewery/pub at the time, he decided to turn it into a restaurant, offering one unique dish: beef rib steak topped with his father-in-law’s astonishing butter sauce. The restaurant -with its single main dish- was an instant success, the sauce a sensation, its ingredients quickly turning into a closely guarded family secret.
Geneva’s unique composition as a global city, a center for international finance and diplomacy and the home of numerous international bodies and organizations, saw the legend of the ‘Café de Paris Butter’ begin to spread out to other cities, countries, and continents, and very soon, no visit to Geneva was complete without a visit to Café de Paris to try Mr. Boubier’s remarkable butter sauce. It was on everyone’s itinerary and so, Arthur Dumont presented the recipe at the National Exhibition in Lausanne in 1964, at the Universal Exhibition in Montreal in 1967, and even traveled to Iran to prepare the dish for his Highness the Shah.
Chez Boubier’s Café de Paris in Geneva has changed little in almost a century; from the red leather banquette, the little terrace of tables out on the walkway to the 1930’s Paris Brasserie chic décor, it oozes nostalgic charm and authenticity.
The set menu consists of a green leaf salad with a mustard vinaigrette, unlimited house-made fries, and an entrecote steak with the famous ‘Café de Paris Butter’, served on a platter over a candlelit burner, so that the butter sauce begins to melt as you begin to dine. The main course is followed by an impressive selection of desserts to choose from. In fact, there is only a wine list and a dessert menu, for your main course the only consideration is whether you prefer your steak bleu, saignant, À point, or bien.
Today, there are several Franchises of the famous Café de Paris, with restaurants scattered across Switzerland, Spain, The United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
Venice in the 17th Arrondissement
The Gineste de Saurs family of wine producers has lived in southern France since the fourteenth century, the family château is situated in Lisle-sur-Tarn 50 kilometers northeast of Toulouse, and was built from 1848 to 1852 by Eliezer Gineste de Saurs.
In 1959, Paul Gineste de Saurs was looking to develop an assured outlet in Paris for the wines from his struggling family winery; taking his inspiration from the Café de Paris in Geneva, he purchased an Italian restaurant in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, near Porte Maillot.
The Inn was named Le Relais de Venise and without changing anything inside nor out, Gineste de Saurs commenced with the almost identical set menu of green salad, desserts, and an entrecote steak with his own version of the famous ‘Café de Paris’ butter sauce. Seeing no reason to change a perfectly good neon sign he simply added another smaller one with the words, ‘Son Entrecôte’ underneath the original one.
Throughout the next 60 years, no one has seemed to mind that the little Italian trattoria with the Venetian name served a decidedly French ‘Prix fixe’ menu, built around a single main dish. The restaurant has a no-reservations policy and has become famous for its long queues outside of people waiting patiently for a table.
Following the death of Paul Gineste de Saurs in 1966, three of his children carried on in the business. One daughter – Hélène Godillot – took control of the original restaurant Le Relais de Venise – L’Entrecôte at Porte Maillot, and her branch of the family subsequently opened additional locations under that name in Barcelona (in 2003) and London (in 2005). A second daughter – the same Marie-Paule Burrus who heads the family’s Château de Saurs winery – established her group of restaurants under the name Le Relais de l’Entrecôte in the 6th and 8th arrondissements of Paris and in Geneva. And a son – Henri Gineste de Saurs – opened his group of restaurants outside Paris, under the name L’Entrecôte, in Toulouse (in 1962), Bordeaux (in 1966), Nantes (in 1980), Montpellier (in 1990), Lyon (in 1999) and Barcelona (in 2019). The founder’s grandchildren are now taking an increasingly active role in the business.
From 1979 to 2014, the Relais de l’Entrecôte in Geneva occupied premises that originally housed the ‘Bavaria’, a brasserie established in 1912, which became a favourite place of international officials during the early years of the League of Nations. In his 1959 novel Goldfinger, Ian Fleming mentions the Bavaria as a place visited by James Bond. The Relais de l’Entrecôte succeeded the Bavaria in 1979, but the rue du Rhône neighbourhood evolved through the years and the street was transformed into a strip of luxury boutiques. The restaurant’s landlord started converting its own ground-floor, retail space into high-end boutiques and by 2006 it sought to terminate the Relais de l’Entrecôte’s lease. After eight years of legal wrangling, appeals, and court decisions, the landlord won and the restaurant was closed on the 23rd of June 2014, reopening some three weeks later, just two streets away.
In attempting to thwart the landlord’s desire to terminate her restaurant’s lease, Marie-Paule Burrus obtained registered heritage status for the premises, encompassing not only the wood paneling and banquettes, ceiling joinery, fittings, and other interior architectural details, but also the original furnishings. As a consequence, and being under the legal obligation, the landlord could only lease the space out to another restaurant and in 2015 a restaurant named, ‘Le 49 Rhône’, opened offering a similar menu of steak-frites and desserts.
Some years ago the newspaper ‘Le Monde’ revealed what it claimed to be the secret ingredients to Le Relais de Venise – L’Entrecôte’s butter sauce. Mme. Godillot, the owner of the Paris location, denied Le Monde’s claims, telling The Independent newspaper, “Our secret remains intact.”
At Khema restaurants in Cambodia, you may try their own magnificent version of the famous ‘Café de Paris butter’ sauce, served over a generous cut of beef, cooked to your liking, and presented on a platter over a burner in the traditional manner. They tell me it is by far their bestselling dish and it’s easy to see why, with a tender, juicy steak, divine house-made fries, and the rich, complex, balanced butter sauce its universal appeal only continues to grow, whilst the mystery itself continues to enchant.