During the Jazz Age, the French Riviera was the place to be for anyone who claimed membership in or aspirations to the haut monde. From Saint Tropez to Nice and beyond, the smart and monied planned their vacations to the Côte d’Azur. If you were Coco Chanel or Cole Porter or Winston Churchill in the early 20th century following WWI, you would secure a coveted ticket to the French Riviera on Le Train Bleu.
Luxurious, exclusive, and an instant sensation, the overnight locomotive ferried the fashionable elite from Calais to the southern coast of France and, in the process, became an iconic fixture on the rails and in the imagination.
It inspired books, ballets, and gourmands, including a semi-hidden restaurant tucked away in a Gilded Age train car transplanted to the sixth floor of Bloomingdale’s. But all good things must come to an end and Le Train Bleu eventually blew its whistle for the last time. In 2016, the secret eatery atop Bloomingdale’s followed suit.
The British were the first to popularize the French Riviera, and they did so in the late 1700s on doctors’ orders. If your health was ailing in the mists of of England, a wellness retreat to the healing warmth and waters to the south was the perfect medicine. Flocks of ailing Brits began to descend on the French coast from November to April and soon became a nuisance for locals.
On The Land of Desire podcast, host Diana Stegall notes that, by the time Napoleon came to power, “the French were already sick of the sick Britons, writing that British doctors were ‘sending to our shores a colony of pale and listless English women and listless sons of nobility near death.’”
The flood of visitors never slowed, but in the 1830s they began coming for a new reason: pure pleasure. During this decade, the British began to embrace the coast as a leisure destination and the healthy well-to-do made regular trips along with their sickly brethren. But there was just one problem—it was really hard to get to the French Riviera.
That began to change in the late 1800s, when the Calais-Mediterranée Express made its debut on the rails courtesy of the company behind the famed Orient Express. Not only was the service more reliable between Calais and the towns on the French Riviera, but travelers could now make the journey in the comfort of sleeping cars.
It was a huge improvement for British travelers, who could board the train in Calais, on the northern French coast, around 1 p.m. in the afternoon, enjoy some socializing and a meal with their fellow passengers, repair to their berths for the evening, and then wake up the next morning to find themselves at their sunny destination.
It was in the years following the end of World War I that the French Riviera really took off. As Americans joined the British on the French coast, the fashionable vacation season was extended and the idea of a summer jaunt came into fashion.
“They tell me there is a woman living in a small frame house in a Montana village who expressed no intention whatever of going to Antibes this summer,” Alexander Woollcott wrote in Vanity Fair in 1929. “I have heard no explanation of this bizarre uniqueness of hers, have received, as yet, no details to account for what does seem at first blush a somewhat too studied effort to be conspicuous.”
The Calais-Mediterranée Express took full advantage of the destination’s popularity. On December 9, 1922, the train company debuted a new look for one of their most popular routes.
The Calais-Mediterranée Express transformed into pure luxury on wheels. It consisted of 10 exclusively first-class sleeping cars that were decked out in a midnight blue velvet upholstery with mahogany trim, and one upscale dining car that served five-course meals. The exterior of what essentially was a five-star hotel was painted “a shimmering dark blue with gold accents,” according to Stegall, earning it a new name: Le Train Bleu.
The dazzling Le Train Bleu was almost instantly a hard-to-get ticket. It was also the only way for the social set to fashionably arrive at their vacation destinations on the coast. Coco Chanel, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, and Edward VIII were among the most famous passengers.
Agatha Christie took a trip on Le Train Bleu and then published The Mystery of the Blue Train in 1928. Hercule Poirot solved the case of a dead American heiress and her missing ruby five years before Murder on the Orient Express was published.
In 1930, Woolf Barnato, the race car driver and chairman of Bentley staged a race to the Riviera against Le Train Bleu as something of a publicity stunt. He won by a matter of a few minutes and the Bentley Speed Six became known as the “Blue Train Bentley.”
In 1924 the famed Ballets Russes premiered a new ballet, Le Train Bleu, that explored the “shallowness of modern love” of the vacationing set on the coast. It was quite the one-act production. Chanel created the costumes, Picasso the curtain, Henri Laurens did the sets, and Jean Cocteau was the performance’s librettist.
The glamor of night trains began to dim following WWII as the convenience and popularity of air travel began to rise. While Le Train Bleu would not lose its name until 2003, it quickly ceased to be the status symbol and spectacle on the rails that it once had been. But its reputation remained.
In 1963, a grand restaurant in the Gare de Lyon was renamed Le Train Bleu after the famous train, and it continues to be a sought-after dinner reservation today. Its decor is an ode to the Belle Epoque, complete with sculptures and frescoes, crystal chandeliers and gilded touches. According to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, it “is considered one of Paris' best preserved examples of that lavish fin de siecle architectural design.”
The restaurant made such an impression on Bloomingdale’s impresario Marvin S. Traub, that he decided to pay homage to the Parisian eatery and its forefather on wheels by opening a restaurant of his own.
Starting in 1979, in-the-know fashionistas would take their new acquisitions to the kitchen department in Bloomingdale’s, where they would find a nondescript, narrow staircase. After ascending to a platform, they would encounter an unusual site—an opulent train car sitting in a hidden nook on the sixth floor of the Manhattan building.
The semi-secret restaurant Le Train Bleu at Bloomingdale’s did justice to its forbears. The walls were lined with a dark-green velvet and mahogany panelling, the tables were covered in fancy linens and individual lamps, and the menus paid homage to the original locomotive. Luggage racks lined the walls giving the train car both a touch of nostalgia and a practical place to stash diners’ shopping bags.
As recently as 2014, Gawker named Le Train Bleu “The Best Restaurant in New York,” though the review poked fun at the somewhat tarnished clientele it catered to (“very old New Yorkers reliving the luxury travel accommodations of their youth”) and its somewhat dated space.
Only two years later, this iteration of Le Train Bleu also reached the end of its line. In 2016, Bloomingdale’s announced it would be shuttering the secret restaurant that many casual shoppers had never known existed.
While the era of luxurious train travel may have sadly come to an end, the spectacle of Le Train Bleu remains fixed in the lore of the French Riviera and of that magical, golden time when the globe was just beginning to open up to travel by all. Or, at least, by those who could afford a berth on Le Train Bleu.