Le Procope is one of Paris iconic cafe-restaurants and the oldest cafe in Paris.
It is located at no.13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie in the equally iconic Saint-Germain-des-Prés district.
Coffee is today part of our everyday life.
It was introduced to Constantinople in 1555 and then imported by the Venetians in 1615.
It reached Paris in 1670, when a young nobleman from Palermo, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, moved to Paris.
Procopio was penniless, however, resourceful!
He indeed opened a street stall and started to sell coffee by the cup, until he was employed as a clerk by Pascal, the official cafe owner operating in the Foire Saint-Germain.
King Louis II founded this annual fair in 1482 in the grounds of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
This fair was very popular; it not only attracted visitors from all over France, but also from Europe!
It remained a major economical and social event until the French Revolution.
Le Procope, the first Parisian cafe
Procopio eventually saved sufficient funds; he set up his own business and rent a stall at the fair.
Drinking coffee became quickly very popular and Procopio’s business was thriving.
In 1675, Procopio bought a small shop in rue de Tournon.
In 1684, he transferred his shop round the corner in Rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain, the current Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, and a stone’s throw from the colleges of the Latin Quarter.
The year 1689 was a turning point for the success of Le Procope.
Indeed, the prestigious Comédie Française theatre moved into new premises… located on the opposite pavement!
Coffee became the latest craze among actors and patrons of the prestigious theatre; Le Procope immediately became their lair.
Procopio was Italian; he enjoyed beauty!
He bought expensive furnishing and even imported the first mirrors to adorn the walls.
He decorated Le Procope with such refinement that he turned it into a luxurious establishment that attracted an exclusive clientele of regulars.
He served coffee, tea, chocolate and various liqueurs to its customers.
However, he was the first to introduce a dessert nobody had heard of until then, ice-cream!
Le Procope had become the most prominent cafe restaurant in Paris when Procopio retired in 1716, leaving the business to his son Alexandre.
Alexandre attracted a new clientele, the new generation of intellectuals and great writers of the 18th century.
Le Procope became the first literary cafe-restaurant in Paris but also in the world.
Famous and lesser known writers, philosophers, intellectuals and politicians met there for more than 2 centuries.
Le Procope is like a history book…
Voltaire indeed considered Le Procope as his ‘office’.
Diderot spent countless hours there, drafting much of his ‘Encyclopedie’.
Alexander died in 1753.
Le Procope, the lair of the Parisan intelligentsia
Le Procope changed hands several times afterwards and lost much of its influence when the Comédie Française moved to the Rive Droite in 1770.
However, comedians and artists, including Beaumarchais, flocked back to Le Procope in 1782, when the theatre moved to the nearby Place de l’Odeon.
Nestled in the heart of Paris, Le Procope then became the place of meetings of the leaders of the French Revolution.
Danton, Robespierre and Marat even kept their napkin rings there!
A young and penniless corporal, the future Napoleon I, left his hat as security (the hat is on exhibit by the entrance).
The story also goes that Benjamin Franklin wrote the American Constitution in Le Procope.
Zoppi, who then ran Le Procope, tried to relaunch the literary cafe after Robespierre’s execution.
He failed, as the Revolution had left its deadly mark.
The great romantic writers of the 19th century rediscovered Le Procope.
Victor Hugo, George Sand, Théophile Gauthier, Anatole France, Balzac or Alfred de Musset were regulars.
However, the establishment struggled to recover its past influence until the 1860s when Gambetta, the then rising star of politics, took his habits there.
This renewed interest was short lived though and Le Procope was sold at auction in 1872.
Baroness Thénard bought it and made sure that the character of the establishment was preserved.
The building accommodated various companies and artistic circles, but was eventually turned into a cheap restaurant.
Among the regulars of the time were Verlaine, who came to drink his favourite absinthe.
Oscar Wilde enjoyed the place so much that he stayed until closing time!
Modern day Procope
Le Procope changed hands many times until its re-opening in 1952; it has also recovered its vocation of literary coffee.
It has housed awards ceremonies for the ‘Black Humor Prize’ since 1954, ‘Jean-Zay Prize’ since 2005 and the ‘Prix Procope des Lumières’ since 2011.
It was fully refurnished in 1988/89, while retaining its original style and atmosphere.
The walls of one of the rooms are adorned with the text of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789’.
The decoration includes many objects and documents relating to the French Revolution, the famous cocked hat of Napoleon and a commemorative plaque dedicated to Procopio.
It was also redecorated with a great sense of humour.
The toilet’s doors indeed bear the inscriptions Citoyens and Citoyennes (a reference to the Revolution) instead of the traditional Hommes/Femmes.
Le Procope’s main entrance is located on Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie.
This facade, wrought iron balconies and roof are classified Historical Monuments.
The back entrance is located in Cour du Commerce Saint-André.
The facade is a huge window exhibiting various memorabilia and canvases.
It is really unique.
Directions: 6th district – 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie
Metro: Saint Germain des Pres on Line 4
Coordinates: Lat 48.853060 – Long 2.338801