La Maison Lapérouse was founded in 1766 by Lefèvre, beverage manufacturer to the King, who purchased this former hôtel particulier from Forget, ‘Master of Water and Forests’ for Louis XIV.
Lefèvre’s business blossomed after he converted the establishment into one of “Marchand de vin” (wine merchant), and after the demolition of the Couvent des Grands Augustins across the street, and the construction, in its place, of the Marché de la Vallée, specialized in the sale of poultry and game. The establishment rapidly gained notoriety for the quality of its food as well as the presence of a curious turnstile that indicated how many bottles should be brought up from the glorious wine cellar.
The setting of many a blow-out and joyful drinking sessions, the restaurant was also frequented by merchants from the market as well as their employees and clients.
Due to the high rate of criminal activity of the period, Lefèvre made the servants’ rooms on the second floor available to his customers as a practical and secure place for them to do their books in total discretion. Thus were born the famous ‘petits salons’ of Lapérouse.
Around 1850, at the peak of its success, Lapérouse was the meeting place of the literary, political and artistic, as well as romantic ‘Tout-Paris’. The second floor rooms were popular with figures like Georges Sand, Alfred de Musset, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert. With regulars such as these, Lapérouse became the meeting place of writers and intellectuals, all of whom held the new proprietor, Jules Lapérouse (a coincidence of homonym with the navigator), in high esteem and manifested their friendship by advising him on the decoration of the highly prized petits salons.
Later, Auguste Escoffier, “cook of kings and king of cooks”, took the reins in the kitchen, and it was at that time that Lapérouse, by itself, came to symbolize the highest level of French gastronomy.
In 1870, the disappearance of the Marché de la Vallée at the time of the construction of the Halles Baltard in the center of Paris, could have brought about the end of the restaurant. But just the opposite occurred. The existence of the wine dealer and his petits salons was discovered by figures from the printing industry, businessmen, publishers and authors.
Deviating from their original purpose, little by little, the petits salons became a privileged place for romantic encounters. Indeed, a provision of French law of the time removed all validity to a record of adultery made in a public place. A hidden stairway, cut into the wall and leading to the Senate through underground galleries of the former Couvent des Augustins contributed to the legend, as did the mirrors on which the willing, but hardly naïve “cocottes” had the habit of carving their names with the diamonds that their gentlemen had just given them, in order to verify that their “attentions” were not being rewarded by a vulgar piece of glass.