The Café Procope, in rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, 6th arrondissement, is called the oldest restaurant of Paris in continuous operation. It was opened in 1686 by the Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, with a slyly subversive name adopted from the historian Procopius, whose Secret History, the Anekdota, long known of, had been discovered in the Vatican Library and published for the first time ever in 1623: it told the scandals of Emperor Justinian, his consort and his court.
The Café Procope, in the street then known as rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Prés, started as a café where gentlemen of fashion might drink coffee, the exotic beverage that had previously been served in taverns, or eat a sorbet, served up in porcelain cups by waiters in exotic "Armenian" garb. The escorted ladies who appeared at the Café Procope in its earliest days soon disappeared. In 1689 the Comédie française was established across the street-- hence the street's modern name-- and the Procope became known as the "theatrical" café, and remained so: it was to the Procope on 18 December 1752 that Rousseau retired before the performance of his last play Narcisse had even finished, all too aware, now that he had seen it mounted, he said publicly, how boring it all was on the stage.
It was the unexampled mix of habitués that surprised visitors, though no one remarked on the absence of women. Louis, chevalier de Mailly, in Les Entretiens des caffés, 1702, remarked:
The cafés are most agreeable places, and ones where one finds all sorts of people of different characters. There one sees fine young gentlemen, agreeably enjoying themselves; there one sees the savants who come to leave aside the laborious spirit of the study; there one sees others whose gravity and plumpness stand in for merit. Those, in a raised voice, often impose silence on the deftest wit, and rouse themselves to praise everything that is to be blamed, and blame everything that is worthy of praise. How entertaining for those of spirit to see originals setting themselves up as arbiters of good taste and deciding with an imperious tone what is over their depth!
Throughout the 18th century, the brasserie Procope was the meeting place of the intellectual establishment, and of the nouvellistes of the scandal-gossip trade, whose remarks at Procope were repeated in the police reports. Not all the Encyclopédistes drank forty cups of coffee a day like Voltaire, who mixed his with chocolate, but they all met at Procope, as did Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson.
Alain-René Lesage described the hubbub at Procope in La Valise Trouvée (1772): "There is an ebb and flow of all conditions of men, nobles and cooks, wits and sots, pell mell, all chattering in full chorus to their heart's content." Indicating an increasingly democratic mix. Writing a few years after the death of Voltaire, Louis-Sébastien Mercier noted:
All the works of this Paris-born writer seem to have been made for the capital. It was foremost in his mind when he wrote. While composing, he was looking towards the French Academy, the public of Comédie française, the Café Procope, and a circle of young musketeers. He hardly ever had anything else in sight.
During the Revolution, the Phrygian cap, soon to be the symbol of Liberty, was first displayed at the Procope; the Cordeliers, Robespierre, Danton and Marat all used the cafe as a meeting place. After the Restoration, another famous customer was Alexander von Humboldt, who lunched here during the 1820s every day from 11am to noon. The Procope retained its literary cachet: Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Gustave Planche, the philosopher Pierre Leroux, M. Coquille, editor of Le Monde, Anatole France, Mikael Printz were all regulars. Under the Second Empire, August Jean-Marie Vermorel of Le Reforme or Léon Gambetta would expound their plans for social reform.
In the 1860s the Conférence Molé held its meetings at the Café Procope. Léon Gambetta, like many other French orators, learned the art of public speaking at the Molé. Other active members during this period included Ernest Picard, Clément Laurier and Léon Renault.
The Café Procope was refurbished in 1988-89 in an 18th-century style. It received Pompeian red walls, crystal chandeliers, 18th-century oval portraits of famous people that have been patrons, and a tinkly piano. The waiters were dressed in quasi-revolutionary uniforms.
dei Coltelli - founder
Plaque commemorating Benjamin Franklin's preparation of a Franco-American alliance in the café
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