Inside the salle blanche at the Casino de Monte-Carlo hangs Florentine Graces, a portrait of three unclothed beauties by Belle Epoque artist Paul Gervais. And once upon a time, the sight of this nude trio may have been a familiar one to some of the casino’s patrons. Their names are Cléo de Mérode, La Belle Otéro, and Liane de Pougy—the most desired courtesans of the fin de siècle. Year after year, these women (also stage actresses and dancers at the Folies Bergère) frequented the seaside Casino de Monte-Carlo, their deep-pocketed aristocratic suitors in tow. Otéro was such a high-rolling gambler, and Monaco considered her contributions to the principality so significant, they generously let an apartment for the aged courtesan in her final years.
This past weekend, under the Florentine Grace’s watchful gaze, three contemporary thespians (though not members of the demimonde!) were also celebrated. Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, and Isabelle Huppert gathered at the city’s second-ever Surrealist Dinner, a fantastical affair conceived by Belgian designer and whimsical event producer Charles Kaisin. On the guest list were Caroline, Princess of Hanover (daughter of Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, and Grace Kelly); Arabic singer Nancy Ajram; and some of the casino’s most valuable patrons. (It’s worth noting that the princess’s presence was especially rare, as members of the royal family and Monaco residents, the Monégasque, aren’t allowed to gamble/enter the casino.) Perhaps most surreal is that this writer found herself on the guest list of the unforgettable, made-for-Instagram affair.
The iconic Casino de Monte-Carlo—a 1863, Beaux Arts gambling haven designed by architects Jules Dutrou and Charles Garnier (of the Palais Garnier)—served as the venue. Upon entry, guests knew they were in for a treat. A red-and-white harlequin-print fabric covered the casino’s marble columns. As partygoers roamed around the atrium, they happened upon domestic vignettes completely swathed in the pattern: a living room with couches and more checkered all over.
Moving onward, guests were invited to flourish their black-tie ensembles with a touch of whimsy. On offer were Magritte-style bowlers—topped with teddy bears, baby bottles, and more—and boutonnieres. The Champagne was flowing, canapés were on rotation, and guests snacked on barbajuan (the Monégasque culinary specialty: Swiss chard fritters).
Now properly accessorized (I decided my ostrich-feathered handbag sufficed as surreal), the crowd migrated over to the salle blanche for dinner.
In the dining room, rows and rows of chairs were found but tables were not. Nonetheless, we all took seats and waited. Speculation bandied about the room as we searched for signs of things to come.
A gong sounded and the mystery of our missing tables was solved! In they walked, a spectacle that evoked the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland. Mad hatter chefs with Vichy-clothed tables for shoulders marched into position.
As they settled down, we pulled our chairs in to find our first course cleverly strapped onto the table: a yogurt amuse-bouche with edible flowers and crunchy vegetables. Our “waiter,” whose name I didn’t catch as he remained silent while I spooned my meal, did pantomime responses to my endless questions. “Will you be joining me throughout the entire night? Blink once for yes and twice for no!” Two blinks it was and shortly after, he and his fellow table men arose and walked back to where they came from.
What would come next? Could the second course arrive by stallion? At last year’s event, horses sauntered throughout the casino’s rooms. With iPhone cameras at the ready, our subsequent course arrived. Encased in a gauzy white canopy, ballet-slippered maidens snaked through the dining room.
They clutched test-tube-like vessels containing a delicious winter herb soup, placed them in our hands, and were on their merry way.
We heard our main course before we saw it. The sound of chirping birds grew louder as bird-cages-for-heads waiters toted our entrées. Disclosure: A partition separated the waiters from the actual birds; no animals or staff were harmed in the serving of this dinner.
Lest you fear we ate the birds for dinner, our behatted plates contained seared bass with a generous sprinkling of Alba truffles.
Post-meal and just as soon as I patted my lips with my napkin, the top layer of our dinner tables were lifted. Underneath: a foosball table! (Or better known in France as babyfoot.) Before grown-up games of French roulette, blackjack, and ultimate Texas Hold’em poker were initiated in the casino, tablemates dueled in a mini-soccer match.
Because after the party, it’s the after-party, guests migrated across the street to the famed H?tel de Paris (which has just unveiled its Princess Grace Suite; a jewel box room in the sky with endless Mediterranean views) for a nightcap at Le Bar Américain. Yours truly enjoyed a glass of pink Champagne and was reminded of Deborah Kerr’s famous line from An Affair to Remember. “Don’t you think life should be gay and bright and bubbly like Champagne?” For me, the night was just that.