Announcing his retirement at 52 in 1973, Mr. Surmain sold the restaurant to Mr. Soltner and later opened Fuc y Fum (Fire and Smoke) on the island of Majorca, Spain; the Relais a Mougins, near Cannes, France, which earned two stars from the Michelin Guide; and its shorter-lived sister, also named the Relais a Mougins, in Palm Beach, Fla.
Lutèce, at 249 East 50th Street in Manhattan, was by no means the city’s first haute cuisine French restaurant. But it graduated into what W magazine in 1972 called “Les Six,” joining La Grenouille, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lafayette and Quo Vadis as the last bastions of grand dining in New York. (Only La Grenouille survives.)
Waiters offered two menus (both in French, but the one given to the host at each candlelit table included the prices). The décor included tapestries, gold damask drapes, a Victorian fireplace, a mural by Jean Pages, Baccarat crystal stemware and a sign near the diminutive front bar that cautioned, “Alcoholism makes a man a brute, a child a victim and a woman a martyr.”
Mr. Surmain himself was considered more snobbish than brutish, He ranked his socially conscious customers and seated them accordingly, lamented the dwindling number of deluxe dining destinations and rarely minced words if a patron failed to appreciate his restaurants’ singularity.
“Don’t tell us you want our steak like Joe back home,” he told The Boston Globe in 1971, as an example of what he called “the arrogance of ignorance.”
“We won’t do it,” he said.
“When someone orders a very fine wine,” he explained to New York magazine in 1983, “I bring it to the table myself, along with a decanter and an extra glass. I personally decant the wine over a candle, pour a little into my glass to taste, and if the wine is all right, I then turn to the host and say, ‘How I envy you this experience.’
“And let me tell you,” he added, “it takes someone with a lot of chutzpah to send back a wine after that.”
Born Andre Sussman on Dec. 5, 1920, Mr. Surmain was the son of the former Nina Ratzkovski, a chemist, and Richard Sussman, whose father’s family were jewelers to the viceroy of Egypt. The couple also owned Aziza Cosmetics.
Educated in France, at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris and the French artillery school in Fontainbleau, he served in the French army until 1940, the year France fell to Hitler, and immigrated to the United States. Drafted into the American military, he served with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and was shipped back to Europe.
Six weeks before the invasion of Normandy, in 1944, he was parachuted into Occupied France and wounded in the knee by a German bullet. Before the jump he had changed his surname to Surmain, fearing that the name Sussman might give him away as Jewish if he were caught by the Nazis.
In postwar New York, he partnered with another O.S.S. veteran, Serge Obolensky, a public relations man. He promoted hotels, New Bedford scallops and a new kitchen gadget that would become known as the Cuisinart.
He and James Beard, the chef and cookbook author, met on Nantucket, Mass., where they made pâtés and sold them at a boutique owned by Mr. Surmain’s wife at the time, the former Nancy Wormser, whom he had married in 1953. Two years later, Mr. Beard and Mr. Surmain teamed up to teach cooking classes, starting in the drawing room of the Surmains’ townhouse on East 50th Street.
He is survived by his fourth wife, the former Patricia Terno; two sons, Philippe and Jean-Claude; a daughter, Micheline Battaglia; two sisters, Claudine Hurwitz and Estelle Lobet; 14 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Ghislaine Surmain, died last year.
Mr. Surmain’s career also included catering for airlines, and while working for what became Aeromexico, he established an informal eating club. One of its members, Miguel Aleman, who owned the Mexican airline, lent Mr. Surmain $50,000 to open his own French restaurant.
For the first six years, Lutèce posted losses. Mr. Surmain even bowed to skeptical reviews and lowered the prix fixe lunch price from a scandalous $8.50 to $6.50.
By 1973, after a successful decade, he had grown more interested in his antique cars, sailing and his farm in Majorca than in “the incessant detail of running New York’s most consistently pleasing French restaurant,” the restaurant critic Gael Greene wrote in New York magazine.
He soon sold Lutèce to Mr. Soltner, who remained there until 1994, when it was bought by Ark Restaurants. Lutèce closed on Valentine’s Day in 2004, a victim, in part, of indifference to opulent dining, whose decline Mr. Surmain had predicted. (La Caravelle and La Côte Basque closed the same year.)
Although Mr. Surmain began cooking when he was 8 in his parents’ apartment and taught a cooking class when he was in his 30s (his students craved the quiche Lorraine, he said), his kitchen skills were belittled by Mr. Soltner.
“He was not a chef at all — he didn’t know what cooking was,” Mr. Soltner said in a telephone interview on Thursday, “but he did have great ideas.”
Jerry Della Femina, the advertising executive, once recalled that his daughter had been invited to dinner at the Surmains’ apartment.
“Naturally I couldn’t wait to ask what she had,” Mr. Della Femina told Ms. Greene of New York magazine. “ ‘Spaghetti,’ she told me. ‘With ketchup.’ ”
Had she complained about the menu, Mr. Surmain would have been unfazed, just as he was by the rare expression of displeasure at one of his restaurants. At the Relais, he summed up his hauteur as a host this way:
“If you don’t like my style, there will be no check. But don’t come back.”