A tiny steakhouse is the toast of Paris again

Patrons eat at Anahi restaurant in Paris on June 30, 2017.
Patrons eat at Anahi restaurant in Paris on June 30, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTimes) - On the Saturday of Paris Men's Fashion Week last month, all 42 seats in a tiny restaurant just north of the Marais district were full, even those in the annex bar, where a couple in black Adidases and silver Louboutins were sharing guacamole with Kobe beef bacon.

In the main dining room, lit by votive candles, a group of 15 were celebrating the birthday of YSL's studio director, while waiters in tan hide aprons circulated with wine bottles and glasses. Every few minutes someone got up for a cigarette, but not before a petite Spanish woman wearing a leopard-print blouse and chunky earrings and drinking white wine with ice stopped them for a double kiss and a "Bonsoir, ça va?" At Anahi, everyone knows the lady of the house, Carmina Lebrero.

The reopening in May of this 375-square-foot Argentine restaurant, a few blocks from Place de la République at 49 Rue Volta, has the couture world aflutter. In the 1990s, it served as an unofficial canteen of the louche fashion set, with its beloved owners, Lebrero and her sister, Pilar, serving as the mesdames of ceremonies. This is where Jean Paul Gaultier and Paloma Picasso canoodled shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad with Naomi Campbell, Thierry Mugler and other regulars.

"It was a fashion hub," designer Pierre Hardy said. "All the models, all the photographers; everybody was there. It was very social but also very private. It had the shine of Indochine but the comfort of Florent."

But the party, not to mention the mediocre steak slathered in chimichurri sauce, came to an end in 2014, after a 29-year run.

Sibling rivalry reared its head and Pilar, the older, quieter one who spent more time in the kitchen, wanted to return to Spain. Luckily for her, Cédric Naudon, a businessman, made the sisters an offer. He planned to include the restaurant in La Jeune Rue, or Young Street, his ambitious concept to turn Rue Volta and nearby streets into a trendy epicurean village.

The new Anahi, however, was not the same. And Paris, or at least a particular subset of it, was in mourning.

"It was really personal, in a way, when it closed," said Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain. "There are not many places in Paris where you can go and feel yourself - not Olivier from Balmain, but just Olivier."

La Jeune Rue, it turned out, was a flop and Anahi's lease went to auction. Riccardo Giraudi, an Italian-born, Monaco-raised meat exporter who once lived nearby and was a regular, made a play. Much to his surprise, he beat out two other offers and took ownership in early 2017.

"It's an iconic restaurant," Giraudi, 41, said. "I always said if I ever bought a restaurant in Paris - I own several others in Monaco, Hong Kong - I'd love to buy Anahi because of its history, and the meat and my connection to it."

He brought in better beef, but with the exception of a small room that his husband, architect Emil Humbert, turned into a yacht-inspired cocktail bar, the latest Anahi looks the same. Everything from the cracked white subway tiles to the opulent art deco ceiling dates back to its days as a butcher shop.

Moreover, Carmina has returned: the ultimate hostess with her MAC-red lips, short black bob, statement accessories and endearing, guttural laugh. She arrives by Métro (only on weeknights "because that's when the chic people go out," she said), and stays until the last customer leaves.

"She's emblematic; an iconic figure in Paris," Rousteing said. "She's so good to be around because she brings happiness and joy."