Paris without us well, that would be rather a different story," says Jean-Louis Costes with just a hint of a smile, and if you don't know the man you might think he's an amiable megalomaniac. After all, most Parisians have never heard of Costes or his brother Gilbert; they rarely speak to the press. But if you've spent even a weekend in Paris, it's a good bet they have taken your money and shown you a good time. The Costes brothers are limonadiers, French slang for café owners, but theirs is a lemonade empire: a good 40 hotels, cafés and restaurants belong either directly to them or to members of their extended family and employees they have staked. In a city where much of life unfurls at little round tables, the Costes own the best ones in town.
Now the Costes are making clear they intend to go well beyond limonade. A massive work in progress will expand their recently purchased luxurious K Palace hotel into the adjacent buildings on the swank Avenue Kléber. The remodeled K Palace, designed by architect Ricardo Bofill, should put the Costes in the front ranks of the city's hoteliers. "From the Bastille to Trocadéro, from Montparnasse to the Grands Boulevards that's our fief, our little village," says Jean-Louis, 53, with a proprietary air. "It's a very good village."
They've got the Café Marly in the Louvre museum, which overlooks I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, and the restaurant Georges atop the Pompidou Center, where diners survey the city through giant windows. L'Esplanade is theirs too, the only café on the magnificent Esplanade des Invalides. If you're in the fashion business, you eat lunch at l'Avenue, which holds down what may be the most chic intersection in the world: the corner of Avenue Montaigne and Rue François I.
The restaurant that sprawls over most of the Hôtel Costes' lobby on Rue St.-Honoré is where you eat if you're French and you're famous, period. Yves Saint Laurent dines in the atrium twice a week. Isabelle Adjani, Catherine Deneuve and Johnny Hallyday are regulars. So are John Malkovich and Johnny Depp. The Costes know them all and feed them steamed vegetables (€20), carrot juice (€8) and roast shrimp with Thai herbs (€28). The food is always dependable, never risky or flashy or attention-getting. The brothers aren't looking to win awards for creative gastronomy. "Every meal starts when a man asks a woman, 'Chérie, where do you want to eat tonight?'" says Jean-Louis. "Our cuisine is designed for women." Which means portions that are small bordering on skimpy; no sauces too fattening; no "plat du jour" too complicated; and never, ever two garnishes an inexplicable personal obsession of Jean-Louis'.
It doesn't hurt the bottom line either that the Costes own 80% of the operation that makes the 1,800 little rolls and 1,500 pastries the Costes restaurants serve daily, 33% of the company that supplies the smoked salmon and other prepared foods, and 50% of the condiment supplier. All the Costes establishments are obliged to buy from these suppliers, no matter which member of the extended family is the majority shareholder. That's a nice bump to the bottom line when the €10 slice of chocolate cake at Georges costs a little more than €2 to make. A string of restaurants where the food isn't the point, where the marketing plan and the look and feel of the room matter more than what's on the plate? That really is putting a fresh stamp on Paris. The idea has taken root. Goodbye wicker, hello chintz. Café owners across Paris have been imitating the Costes' haute-design blueprint to the point where it risks turning into a new café cliché.
How much does the Costes formula bring in? As a patchwork of private companies or "an informal network whose members have been tied to one another since birth," as Gilbert, 54, puts it they're not required to say. Pressed, Gilbert figures the whole collection throws off some j100 million a year, although that's probably low. Profits? Up to 20% on the restaurants, perhaps 35% on the hotel rooms. Pas mal.