It’s Easy to Spend at Le Pirate—The Bill Depends on What’s Broken

Three restaurants made me fall in love with cooking. Blue Bayou at Disneyland was the first, dining at Maxime’s de Paris in 1981, and Le Pirate in 1984. This article by Richard Atchenson in the New York Times in 1972 does Le Pirate justice.

There is a crazy restaurant in the south of France where you are expected to eat well and copiously, to drink to excess, to listen to music, and perhaps to spin to it, and also to break up the joint before you leave. The name of the place is Le Pirate. It sits on an otherwise empty stretch of rocky heath at Cap. Martin and commands an unobstructed view across a bay to the lights of Menton. Relatively few people can avail themselves of the prospect, however, because Le Pirate, in addition to being wild, is wildly expensive.

The night I was there, I was a guest in a party of 10 and I never did discover what our bill was. Cost was never mentioned during the evening, and no prices are displayed, but I learned later that the addition at Le Pirate depends to a great extent on how much you break. Two American millionaires who departed one night without settling up must have done considerable damage because next morning they sent a messenger around with a leather pouch containing 2,000 gold pieces said to be worth about $1,000 altogether. For ordinary citizens, I am told, the equivalent of $50 a person would be on the lower end of the scale.

Frenchmen who know Le Pirate say it is very “American,” a reference perhaps to the fact that what is of paramount importance is not the food but the total experience. The secret of the restaurant’s success, put simply, is excess loud, raw, tasteless, outrageous waste and profligacy. And for that one must pay plenty.

My introduction to the place came when a French friend of mine called me up in Monte Carlo. “Tonight,” he said, “we make a big party at Le Pirate. Americans like it very much. Frank Sinatra likes it very much, We shall break up the place. You come and you will see.”

We drove along the coast to a rocky beach and parked in front of a high barricade with a gate with some roughneck leaning against the gate, picking his teeth with a knife. He could have been just another Cote d’Azur hippie, for he was stripped to the waist, had a scarf tied around his head and wore, one gold earring, but in fact he was Le Pirate’s only road sign, a sort of Elsa Maxwell version of a proper pirate.

My companions and I passed through the barricade and found ourselves in an open‐air court with a few tables and chairs scattered around, and big rocky outcrops with open fires blazing away furiously in them. There were torches set on poles to provide flickering illumination as the twilight deepened.

Several bare‐chested “pirates” were rushing around with trays of drinks and popping flat round loaves of bread into and out of the fires. There was much yelling, swaggering, wrestling, and showing off of high spirits. I took a martini from a nearby pirate and tried to get into this thing.

The Man Himself

The people I was with were standing around making witty conversation, but I noticed that their eyes were rolling like crazy trying to take everything in, and when Le Pirate himself showed up a tall, sallow, Satanic‐looking guy with jangling gold coin necklaces and a toothy smile our party gazed at him with undisguised amazement. His name is really Robert Viale, and he is as much entertainer as restaurateur when he’s doing his number (which is apparently all the time) he is given to grand and sweeping gestures, grandiloquent overstatement (“Eeeuuu are all my derruing fraahnds”) and a sort of balletic direction of his staff. While he talks to you, hands out his business card and caresses the gold coins around his neck, he is simultaneously twitching, ogling and going “psssst” at his youthful employees, who are alert to his merest shrug, leaping six feet through the air to light the cigarettes of women who’ve only just started to fumble with their packs, bounding back to produce chairs for portly gentlemen who’ve only just begun to glance around for one. Le Pirate, and his crew do nothing without flourish; you begin to realize that you are not just at a restaurant for dinner but are an integral part of a carefully choreographed event.

The drinks keep coming (this is not French) and the sunset is, perhaps therefore all the more remarkable. The yelping youths and Le Pirate himself begin to jolly and cajole you toward the door of the restaurant proper, then down a set of stairs into a low‐ceilinged, wood-paneled room where colored‐glass balls hang in fishnets from the pillars, the tables are covered with red‐and‐white checkered cloths and candles sputter everywhere. On one wall is a signed photograph of Frank Sinatra; lesser celebrities flank him.

As you sit down, more drinks are produced; then pirates rush forward with bowls and crocks and soon a steaming pile of moules mariniere is before you, and other pirates are pouring white wine. Though you attempt to converse with your neighbors, there is such an urgency about these young men serving you and such an intrusive concern on the part of Le Pirate, who is swaggering from table to table, that it is hard to maintain a line of thought. Particularly when the mussels taste so good, and when Le Pirate suddenly claps his hands imperiously and shrieks for gypsies. Immediately the room is full of beautiful girls in bare‐midriff dresses with polka dot flounces, all going “yi‐yi‐yi” and “yip-yip‐yip” and whirling and clapping their hands and stomping furiously on the floor right by your chair. Guitars are whanging, people are dancing and screaming, and you are so busy looking that you can hardly, find your mouth with your fork.

The pace never slackens. On comes the soup, on comes the steak and the lobster (all very non‐French this, but fine cuts), and you scarcely notice because of all the high jinks, not to mention the wine – bottle after bottle. And it’s amazing how witty you’ve become after so much wine; whenever you can make yourself heard above the din your flushed companions positively roar with laughter at everything they think you’re saying.

Le Pirate is keeping up a steady monologue in French; it’s all about his life, about love and joy and unutterable sadness, and sometimes he’s speaking and at other times singing. Soon the two become almost interchangeable, and at a certain point, he embarks on this long, melancholy song about how he’s growing older and how his beloved son (there stands the lout, tall and blond and blushing a bit, accompanying his father on the guitar) wants to go his own way, to leave him (sob). But the song concludes that this is Right, this is Good, this is Joy. So out come the gypsies, screaming and stamping even louder; it’s dessert time, champagne time, and while you’re breaking a meringue with your spoon, the bubbly is surging forth from 10 bottles at a time, and Le Pirate is sampling each and the ones he doesn’t like he hurls full force into the fire.

Serpentine Streamers

So, the corks are popping, the bottles are smashing, and you’re still dining in a frenzy of drunken excitement when suddenly you find serpentine streamers by your plate and then the air is full of uncoiling colored paper and everybody is pelting everybody else. Now, the music is augmented by horns and trumpets. There is screaming in the background and you turn to see that a braying donkey, garlanded with flowers, has been introduced into your midst; he is plodding up to your table and lowering his great gray muzzle into your plate; he is eating up your meringue and grazing your chin with his soft ears. At this point a lot of people are starting to fling their champagne glasses at the fireplace, so of course you do, too.

There is no shortage of champagne glasses – there are always more champagne glasses and you keep drinking and throwing and find you have stepped directly Through The Looking Glass. Because the plates now start to go SMASH! CRASH! Shards of glass and crockery are flying around the room. People seize the vases, flowers and all, ZOOM BOOM the salts and the peppers, the tablecloths, the silverware are all in the air. Madness! Your companions are lifting up the table itself; tables rise on shoulders all over the room. There’s a big parade of tables and drunks and gypsies and horn players out of the room, into the courtyard. The big fires in the stone outcrops are still burning, and the tables are flung into the flames, with everybody cheering and hollering and applauding. And as the heat rushes forward to your cheeks in the night air, as the warmth flares around you, people look at one another with wild eyes and wicked, heedless grins, and there is laughter from some deep‐down, dangerous, untapped place.

On to a Discotheque

And is the evening over now, in the light of these hungry flames? Hardly, because the son of Le Pirate happens to have a discotheque just across the road, and we can all skip and dance over there by the light of the moon and rush in and dance off our energies in a final paroxysm of sweat, laughter, drinks, and fragmented conversation.

The trouble for members of the bourgeoisie like me is that it’s hard for us to take stuff like this in our stride. The rich don’t have any problems with things like breaking up a joint; that’s one of the ways in which they are different from us. They break something, they buy something else. The bourgeoisie survive Le Pirate, though, but their hearts may go boom‐boom the whole night afterward.

Only the other Sunday there was a mention in a story I read about Americans who like to live on the Riviera and of some “affluent American” who particularly prizes his Cote d’Azur villa because Le Pirate, his favorite restaurant, is only 20 minutes away. Never in a million years could I describe Le Pirate as my favorite and I guess that marks one obvious difference between the rich (him) and the bourgeois (me). For all that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

USC Homecoming

At the end of October, we traveled to Los Angeles for the homecoming game at USC. The plan was to celebrate Dr. Arthur C. Bartner’s 51 years of service and retirement as the director of the USC Trojan Marching Band. They put us through our paces that weekend.

I saw so many friends from USC and Marina High School. We marched with the current band and performed for the halftime. Take a look at 7:13. Dr. Bartner ascended the ladder for the last official time to direct the band playing All Hail. The sky was still orange and purple from sunset as the final notes resonated “Where western sky meets western seas. Our college stands in majesty. Sing our love to Alma Mater, Hail, all hail to thee. It was a real lump in the throat moment.

It was an absolutely epic weekend I will never forget.