Unless you're really alert, you could miss the Mini influence altogether at the Mini Palais.
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But an upscale restaurant named after an automobile? The thought of exhaust fumes and burning rubber hardly seems conducive to a rewarding gustatory experience. Yet the Mini Palais -- named after BMW's hip runabout -- is a surprisingly successful branded environment. That's because it's not too heavy-footed. In fact, unless you're really alert, you could miss the Mini influence altogether. It consists mostly of the brand's distinctive sans-serif typeface.
The restaurant is attached to the Grand Palais, a glass-roofed structure built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. These days it's an art gallery; the paintings of Gustave Courbet will be the main attraction until Jan. 28. The 5,000-square-foot space that is now the Mini Palais was a tangle of disused offices until it was acquired by events company Ludéric, which is its sole owner.
Ludéric founder-CEO Olivier Maurey explains: "The Grand Palais was refurbished in 2005, but when it reopened the following year, there was still some office space earmarked for redevelopment. When I heard it was available for creating a corporate entertainment space, I immediately thought of my client Mini. The Mini Palais would be a natural annex to the Grand Palais."
Mr. Maurey was seduced by the idea of being able to use the building's beautiful colonnaded terrace as part of the dining area. Originally, he envisaged a pop-up restaurant sponsored by Mini. But he quickly realized that the time and money required to carry out the conversion demanded a greater commitment. "We had to knock down walls and even an entire floor, as well as creating a professional working kitchen," he said. The work began in May this year.
Others might have been daunted by the prospect, but Mr. Maurey knew the culinary trade thanks to his corporate-entertainment alliances with several leading restaurants. To create the menu for the Mini Palais, he teamed up with chef Gilles Choukroun, who specializes in reinventing traditional French dishes. On the menu at the Mini Palais, for example, is a foie gras and peanut crème brûlé. Prices put the establishment in the upper-middle bracket: around $20.50 for a starter and $38 for a main course.
"I wanted it to be a genuine restaurant rather than just a trendy spot where people go to see and be seen," Mr. Maurey said. His company spent just over $1.5 million on the project, which continually draws a packed house of mainly Parisians. BMW did not directly contribute to the refurbishment costs, but it holds many events at the restaurant, including the recent French launch of the Mini Clubman.
"The Mini brand is synonymous with chic urban living," said Emmanuel Bret, Mini brand manager at BMW France. "It's also trendsetting and unconventional. As it's a unique location, even for Paris, the Mini Palais perfectly represents our brand values."
The Mini branding consists of "subtle touches," in Mr. Maurey's words. The official Mini typeface crops up on the neon sign in the lobby, as well as on the menu and on the black T-shirts sported by the staff. Also in the lobby, a row of clocks resembles a Mini dashboard. There is a rack of Mini customer magazines outside the bathroom and Mini posters on the doors. And perched on a shelf in the dining area is a tiny retro refrigerator emblazoned with the Union Jack. There's a full-sized version behind the bar.
In keeping with that subtlety, there is no marketing for Mini Palais. Its brisk traffic is the result of word-of-mouth recommendations and the occasional restaurant review.
For the moment the restaurant looks to be a one-off, although Mr. Maurey said he believes other brands will find the understated approach instructive. Legally, the Mini Palais is still operating under "temporary" status, but he said it is unlikely to close, even if the Mini branding is eventually phased out. There's no schedule for that at the moment, however.
"As an experience, the restaurant is in phase with the typical Mini driver: young, hip and extrovert," Mr. Maurey said. "I call it 'subliminal branding.'"