Le Procope, the parisian cafe that fashioned modern society
We have a theory: the human brain’s cognitive processes work particularly slowly up until the time you’ve had your first cup of coffee.
And you certainly wouldn’t say any different if you’d already bumped into us before our first caffeine fix of the day; that said we’d like to evoke a more universal example.
This is the story of Le Procope, the first (and therefore the oldest) establishment to serve coffee in Paris, a place where ideas were born that would fashion western society.
At the end of the 17th century, a member of the entourage of Sultan Mehmed IV came to see the King of France and, during his visit, he gave the monarch his first taste of coffee. It wasn’t long before the drink was all the rage at court and everybody wanted to try it, however back then there were no multinationals employing by the millions people who can’t even spell your name right on the cup. Fortunately a handful of Armenians decided to open coffee houses in Paris to the delight of the new drink’s aficionados.
Grégoire was one such person and, in order to attract a “showbiz” clientele, he set up his bistro near the Comédie-Française theatre on Rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain, which would you believe is just a nine-minute walk on foot from French Theory. In 1686, the café was bought by a Sicilian waiter called Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who decided to Gallicise his name and become François Procope-Couteaux. As a result, he renamed the establishment Le Procope and modernised it with brio.
L'escalier intérieur du Procope. (Photo officielle)
François also did away with the rule that banned women from the café and transformed the ground floor into a luxurious lounge, festooned with crystal chandeliers, tapestries and mirrors.
He sold ice cream and Italian specialties that were previously unheard of in France.
To attract a clientele of intellectuals, he put newspapers on the tables around the centrally placed wood burner.
And finally he prepared coffee in a totally new way, by pouring hot water through a filter filled with ground coffee
IT WAS AN IMMEDIATE SUCCESS.Bravo François.
Throughout the 18th century, philosophers, artists, writers and spectators rubbed shoulders on Le Procope’s benches, their conversations stimulated by the invigorating beverage. The debates were lively and ideas came thick and fast. Montesquieu even mentioned the establishment in his famous Persian Letters: “Coffee is much in use in Paris. (…) In some of these houses the news of the day is reported, and in others chess is played. There is one in which coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: at least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it”.
Le Procope with Condorcet, La Harpe, Voltaire and Diderot in the background.
Amongst the café’s other regulars were Rousseau and Diderot, who wrote some of the articles for his famous Encyclopaedia whilst sitting here, not forgetting Voltaire whose favourite table you can still see today on the first floor. If he had been born today, the philosopher would have been a firm favourite with coffee-loving hipsters: he used to drink as many as twelve cups a day and collected coffee pots.
Foreign thinkers also patronised Le Procope ensuring its reputation as the greatest literary café the world has ever known. The story goes that Benjamin Franklin prepared his alliance with Louis XVI and wrote certain elements of the future American Constitution within its walls. The place is literally steeped in aspirations for freedom and independence.
A commemorative plate at Le Procope. (Photo: Doreenworld)
At the end of the 18th century, the coffee house became the headquarters of the instigators of the French Revolution. Marat used to meet up with Danton and Robespierre at the café and he wrote his pamphlets here, ringing the bell above the café to call a servant to come and take his texts to a nearby printer’s. The Phrygian cap was presented here for the first time; the order to attack the Palais des Tuileries was given at Le Procope and Doctor Guillotin lived on the same street at number 21!
In the 19th century, the revolutionaries were replaced by writers and poets. The list of Le Procope’s customers reads like the names on the books of the perfect library: Georges Sand, Musset, Verlaine, Daudet, Balzac, Anatole France, Oscar Wilde and Théophile Gautier, not forgetting Victor Hugo, all came here to talk over a cup of coffee. Unfortunately the establishment’s prestige couldn’t preserve it from financial problems: the owners struggled to make money and the establishment closed down in 1890.
The interior of Le Procope today. (Official photo)
The following years were sad as one new owner followed another in a succession of new names, openings and closings. Today the Comédie-Française has moved away and Rue des Fossés-Saint-Jacques has become Rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, but Le Procope lives on and its roof and wrought iron balconies are now listed monuments.
Since 1957, the former literary café has become a very good restaurant, but the memory of the former premises has been kept well and truly alive and not just because a delicious tête de veau (calf’s head) casserole is still on the menu just as it was back in 1686. You can still see one of Napoleon’s hats that the Emperor left behind and you can still marvel over documents in connection with the Revolution, but the real magic of the place is not in what you see, but in its soul.
To quote Camille Desmoulins: “Contrary to others, this café is not decorated with mirrors, gilding and statues, but rather draped in the memory of those great men who have come here and whose works would cover every available space on its walls were they to be placed here”. Modern society has a debt to the minds that, in the hustle and bustle of a room in the heart of Paris, came up with so many ideas (perhaps just that little bit more quickly thanks to a hot drink with a bitter taste). And that’s an idea that we find just as stimulating as a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day.
Procope, founded in 1686
13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, Paris VI
Le Procope may no longer be a literary café, but don’t let that get you down. French Theory serves speciality coffee roasted by Coutume and our cultural events programme is just as thought-provoking. We would love you to come along and perhaps we could sit and put the world to rights together over a good cup of coffee.