Wings of a dove | The legend that is La Colombe d’Or

by

Good food, a sunny terrace and art heists: Derek Guthrie on the perennial appeal of La Colombe d’Or

Wings of a dove | The legend that is La Colombe d’Or

Nobody told the Roux family that their petit auberge, with its wonky little rooms and wooden tables, would become the most sought after in the south of France. It just happened.

Take Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch. Last year they could have honeymooned anywhere on the planet, but their private jet brought them here to La Colombe d’Or (“The Golden Dove”), to coo under the cypress trees. They were accompanied by a single, discreet security chap with a little black bag – containing not a gun, suggested some fellow guests, but a defibrillator.

A few miles away, the elegant beaches of the Côte d’Azur, long the summer playground of Eurotrash, are now further colonised by Russian oligarchs and the super-rich of the Middle East. Their convertible Lambos and gold Rollers are shipped in every August for a carnival of vulgar ostentation which the prostitutes and maître d’s along the Croisette in Cannes love and the residents don’t. Je ne sais quoi slipped away a decade ago anyway when Hotel du Cap, once the epitome of Riviera grand luxe, finally surrendered and began to accept credit cards.

Picasso was here, Matisse, Chagall. It became the hot spot for a postwar jet set

At the approach, opposite le tabac, is the anonymous wall which conceals La Colombe d’Or. The original three rooms above a locals’ bar are now a couple of dozen, invariably full, as is the restaurant. During the Cannes film and television festivals, chauffeurs drop off producers, directors and celebrities for discussion over lunch; by nightfall the terrace is sparkling with fairy lights and diamante. Throughout the rest of the year, everyone else comes for the art, which is unique.

Overlooking those terrace tables looms a sizeable Léger ceramic mural (pictured top); poolside there’s another by Sean Scully, and a Calder mobile dangling over the water. In the main room, I recently dined under paintings by Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Delaunay, Bonnard, Kandinsky, Arman and more Calder (who had a thing for le patron’s wife). The giant thumb of Le Pouce by César Baldaccini has stood guard at the entrance for as long as I can remember; inside, in nooks and crannies, stand eccentric arrays of exotic glass and brightly coloured ceramic. Upstairs in rustic rooms you can wake up in a four-poster under Chagall, Bompard, Yves Klein, more Calders. It’s enchanting, because it wasn’t dreamt up by a designer. It’s real. All of it.

La Colombe d’Or

The Calder sculpture, poolside at La Colombe d’Or

Three generations ago, Paul Roux, farmer turned innkeeper, encouraged some new customers to mix with his local paysan clientele at the bar. They were artists, congregating in the area to capture the light or escape postwar Paris. He accepted payment from them in cash or on canvas, building a collection of artworks as well as making new friends. His own enthusiasm for art found expression too – his vibrant still lifes adorn the walls and menus.

Word spread: the bar was the place to be. Picasso was here, Matisse, Chagall. It became the hot spot for a postwar jet set. Yves Montand, Truffaut and Jean-Paul Belmondo were soon joined by Sophia Loren and Orson Welles – all relaxing and getting drunk with artists, the demi-monde, the peasantry! This was Egalitarian France in a black and white snap (by Magnum, bien sûr). Sartre came with Simone de Beauvoir; then came Hollywood, even the occasional royal. You can smell the Gauloises.

They ate, but they came not for the food but the conversation, the art, and the wine: the bonhomie. Today, despite our culinary obsessions, the family still has no interest in the pursuit of gourmet aggrandisement. The historic paysan dishes survive, albeit in a more sophisticated, higher-priced, form. In summer, everyone I know eats the same starter, a degustation of hors d’oeuvre with charcuterie presented on 15 little serving dishes: asparagus, radish, sweet onion, herring, eggs, aubergine, artichoke, tomatoes, whatever else is en saison. You could instead have the market fresh crudités enriched with aioli, singing with garlic, equally substantial. But you could never have both.

The menu at La Colombe d’Or

Of course there’s foie gras and snails, terrines and shellfish, all served prettily but plainly. There is a wine list, but on sunny days the Provence house rosé (€14 per half litre) is quite sufficient.

Almost everything you eat is local, seasonal, satisfying. There is no effort to reach the dizzy heights of haute cuisine: this is a menu happy to remain comfortably bourgeois. The veal kidneys are soft and pliant, without that urinous tang; the onglet always firm, flavoursome with just enough chew, as it should be. Mains run the gamut of sole dijonnaise, daurade royale and loup de mer to carré d’agneau rôti, poussin and rabbit.

This being the South of France, burglars arrived one dark night in 1959 and made off with all the paintings save one, a large work by Chagall, which got stuck in a window. (Chagall was miffed to be left out of this important art heist, thinking it might sully his lofty reputation as A Great Artist). Police arrived, investigations were conducted, but they drew a blank. The Roux family, however, are well connected locally. Enquiries were made and voilà, the entire collection was uncovered in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer. The subsequent rehang utilised slightly more secure chains.

One of the artist’s anarchic assemblies of wood and metal, beloved of Warhol – came off the wall and fell to the floor

If there’s still an insurance premium these days, I’d respectfully suggest it includes third-party as well as theft. A few years back, our dinner was rudely interrupted by a loud crash. A large poubelle by Arman ­– one of the artist’s anarchic assemblies of wood and metal, beloved of Warhol – came off the wall and fell to the floor, via the head of an unfortunate diner who, miraculously, was uninjured. The piece was in fragments, but by chance, this shattering – the end of the line for any other artwork – was akin to Arman’s normal way of working (the name La Poubelle tempts fate: it means “dustbin”). The repaired piece can now be seen encased in glass on a rear wall, securely supported.

By coincidence, I had been there the previous night too when that very same table had been occupied by a Los Angeles-based English TV producer, Mark Burnett. As creator of The Apprentice, this was the man directly responsible for rescuing Donald Trump from obscurity to make him a reality TV star. Fate, huh? A different night, a bloodier accident… who knows? C

 

La Colombe d’Or, 1 Place du General de Gaulle, 06570 Saint Paul de Vence
+33 4 93 32 80 02; la-colombe-dor.com

The writer travelled to Nice by train from London St Pancras. Further information from Voyages-SNCF.com or Eurostar.com