Le Procope: A Slice of History at the Oldest Café in Paris

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Le Procope: A Slice of History at the Oldest Café in Paris
A slice of history goes well with a nice restaurant meal and it’s a combination easily found at Le Procope, just up the road from the Odéon metro station in the 6th arrondissement. For there you can find traces of the Revolution, the Enlightenment and heavyweight 19th-century authors like Balzac while enjoying some of the same traditional French cuisine which has been served here for over three centuries. Little wonder then that the restaurant is officially classified as a monument historique.  The signs displayed outside are enticing. “Café-glacier depuis 1686,” reads one, making it the oldest café in Paris if you discount the fact that it closed down for a period in the 19th century. In the late 17th century it was, continues the information panel, almost certainly the first restaurant to serve coffee, the fashionable drink newly arrived from Italy. What’s more, it was brought in porcelain cups to customers at their table. All of this was new, and it was the beginning of Parisian café culture. Le Procope is in 18th-century style. Photo credit: Michael Rys / Wikimedia Commons Le Procope opened its doors in 1686, the brainchild of Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Cotelli, who opted from the outset for a luxurious atmosphere, choosing crystal chandeliers, mahogany and velvet for the décor. Trade was brisk from the beginning, boosted by actors and audience members from the Comédie Française theater which at that time was just across the road. The novelist Alain-René Lesage was among the early customers and wrote delightfully of the bustling new restaurant where you would find “nobles and cooks, wits and sots, pell mell, all chattering in full chorus to their heart’s content.” The atmosphere today may be a little quieter, but much of the décor has been kept. Indeed, it is said that the wallpaper has not been changed since 1832! The lady at the ticketed cloakroom desk smiled when I asked her if it was true, as I had read, that the restaurant has a little museum upstairs. “Ah,” she said, “the whole restaurant is a museum, madame. You will see.” We followed a waiter through a room with dark red and mustard-colored walls, covered in prints and framed documents where the tables – mainly full – were laid with white linen cloths, heavy cutlery and sparkling glasses. In the little corner reserved for us was a heavy old bookcase full of ancient leather-bound tomes and on the ceiling I spotted not just a copy of key text from the Revolution — the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme — but also an old-fashioned ironwork chandelier. Bliss for the history nerd! Le Procope. Photo credit: Marian Jones

Lead photo credit : Café Procope. Photo credit: Jean-Marie Hullot / Wikimedia Commons

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.


    2023-02-23 11:17:32
    My husband and I will be going to Le Procope for dinner in April. Which room do you suggest we should request as the nicest to be seated in? Thank you !


    • Marian Jones
      2023-02-27 04:06:40
      Marian Jones
      Last time I was there, it wasn't full and they were only seating people downstairs. So I am not sure you can choose, but you could try asking to be seated upstairs if possible, where I think it was a little more spacious. Either way, make sure you have a good look round at all the display cases, upstairs and down, while you are there - I went into every room and no-one seemed to mind.