Saint-Paul-de-Vence may not be known for intricate, elaborate meals like you'd find in Paris, but hidden in this quaint, touristy town is a 1920s hotel once called "a small paradise" by Henri Matisse. And we can’t argue with that.
La Colombe d’Or, or "the golden dove," opened its doors in 1920, first operating as a café-bar and later as a hotel, and owner Paul Roux made the café a gathering spot for the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall. "It was fashionable to be a painter in the Cote d’Azur," current owner Daniele Roux (the third generation of the Roux family) says. "They all came here, because it was the free zone, and Paul Roux just laughed with them, did beautiful bouquet flowers, roasted a chicken, and was very passionate about painting. And he had taste. So they became extremely friendly with him."
So friendly, that instead of paying for their meals with money, they paid the Roux family with paintings. "And that’s how it started," Roux says.
Since the 1920s, the restaurant has amassed enough artwork to line the walls of the dining room with paintings by Arman and Cesar, decorate the terrace with sculptures, and even place a mobile from Alexander Calder by the pool in the back. Dine outside on La Colombe d’Or’s terrace and you’ll find yourself seated next to a ceramic mural by Fernand Léger in the shade of some fig trees. Dine inside, and you will probably find yourself breaking bread next to a Calder ("We have quite a lot of Alexander Calder because Alexander Calder used to be in love with my mother-in-law," Roux says.) But the biggest draws in the hotel-turned-museum are, perhaps, the multiple authentic Picassos you’ll find along the walls.
"The Picasso story is quite amazing in fact because he used to come here often," Roux says. "[Paul Roux] was not very well. His wife, she was really tough, quite an amazing woman, so about 10 days before her husband died she went to Picasso she said, 'You promised Paul a painting. He’s not going to live very long, so I have to go back with a painting.' So she came back with three paintings and Paul chose one."
And while the artwork may outshine the food, the humble cooking of Provence is actually the perfect complement. "The cuisine is very simple; it’s fresh family food," Roux says, pointing out the beef with potato gratin and the sea bass as her favorites. "It’s not too sophisticated here, and that’s the reason why people just come here. We don’t bother them, even though they may be well-known." Well-known indeed; past visitors range from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill, while Elton John, Hugh Grant, and Roger Moore have been noted as more modern-day fans.