It’s an absolute delight that, even after living here for almost a decade, Paris still surprises me. Sometimes the surprises are unwelcome; Parisians living up fully to their reputation of rudeness, the extent to which dealing with administration here can be Kafkaesque, or having a pigeon swan dive you as you ride your bike up Boulevard Barbès, to name a few. But most often these surprises are the kind that remind me why I moved my life to Paris.
Le Procope, a restaurant located in the touristy Odéon area, was my most recent unexpected discovery and a perfect example of how Paris is a city of hidden treasures. Founded in 1686, the site holds the honor of being the city’s oldest café. In fact, it was the first respectful address in Paris where you could get a coffee in good company, thanks to founder Francesco Procopio. A native Italian, Procopio came to France at an early age and, much like your average expat blogger today, got totally into the food scene. Coffee had arrived in France from the Middle East in 1644 and small coffee shops opened in Paris from that time on. Cutting his teeth at one of these early cafés, Procopio set out on his own, buying up several houses on the block where Le Procope still stands.
The café quickly became a favorite address among local politicians and writers. Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, and Rousseau were just some early regulars of this wildly popular café littéraire. Other customers of note are listed on a commemorative plaque at the entrance to the restaurant, but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you stopped your visit there.
Le Procope is now a full-service restaurant, but it is also a part-time museum, with each room telling a story, each wall proudly displaying historical documents. From the Age of Enlightenment to the French Revolution, Le Procope tells an intimate story of people who changed history. Napoleon’s hat (which he gave to the restaurant upon realizing he was short on cash to pay for his meal once), the final letters between Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, Voltaire’s marble top desk, and revolutionary wallpaper from 1830 are some of the fascinating artifacts you’ll discover as you visit the restaurant.
Classified as a historic monument, the decor of Le Procope remains unchanged year after year, protected from any modifications by order of the French government. As a result, the interior remains an intact and authentic representation of revolutionary era France. Each room is dedicated to a guest of honor – Marat, Chopin, and Diderot have dining rooms in their names. An imposing bust of Benjamin Franklin observes the goings on in his eponymous salle, which is located next to Lafayette’s room, which is said to be where the two influential revolutionaries first met.
The food at Le Procope is not drool-inducing and the prices are even above average for the neighborhood, but if you are interested in sitting a spell and soaking up centuries of history, it is well worth stopping by for a spot of tea and a slice of pie. You’ll be in good company.
Le Procope – 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, 75006. Tel: +33 (0)1 40 46 79 00. Métro: Odéon.
- Explore more of this historic area with our Saint Sulpice round-up.
- If you love French historical figures, check out the sites where many of them are buried (some in museums!).
- Discover Paris’ oldest restaurants with this list from the Vélib’ blog and step into Paris of the past.