When the Comedie Francaise installed itself across the street from Le Procope in 1689, the café’s success was guaranteed. Founded in 1686, by a very entrepreneurial Sicilian named Francesco Procopio del Coltelli, it ushered in the birth of café society by providing a place where men could meet and match intellects, while drinking coffee.
Coffee was a fairly new commodity, an exotic brew introduced to Paris society with the arrival of the Turkish ambassador in 1669. Louis XIV was first offered the drink in 1664 and did not care for it at all, but the emissary from Turkey hosted exotic parties where the novel beverage was served, and Parisians were hooked.
The prolific writer and representative of The Enlightenment, Voltaire (1694-1778), was a regular. Legend has it that he consumed forty cups of coffee per day at Le Procope. Let’s see, that’s ten cups per hour over a period of four hours. I assume they were delivered to his table in tiny demi-tasse cups, and maybe tempered with a bit of chocolate, which Voltaire was also fond of. No wonder he generated such a prodigious amount of work! He was totally buzzed.
In 1776, Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to Paris, after having just signed the Declaration of Independence. His mission was to ally the newly formed United States of America with France and secure financial help during the early stages of independence. Franklin immediately captivated Paris society and soon his portrait could be found adorning everything from porcelain snuffboxes to the walls of the most elegant parlors in town. He remained in France until 1785, when due to illness, he was conveyed to the port of Le Havre by stretcher, and then sailed home.
When the news of Benjamin Franklin’s death reached Paris in 1790, the National Assembly did something it had never done before. It closed its doors to mourn the loss of a man from another country. For three days it adjourned and Café Le Procope draped itself completely in black in his honor. On June 15th, the “True Friends of Liberty” met at the café and a memorial service was conducted in front of the portrait of Franklin which hung there.
During the turbulent years of the French Revolution, the café provided the backdrop for meetings between such notables as Robespierre, Danton and Jean-Paul Marat. Marat’s printing press which published L’Ami du Peuple, (Friend of the People) was located around the corner at #8 Cour du Commerce Sainte-Andre.
And no story regarding Le Procope is complete without mentioning the name, Napoleon Bonaparte. The young military officer on one occasion, was required to leave his hat inside the establishment while he went in search of money to pay for his coffee.
The café of yesteryear, is today a sophisticated restaurant which has been restored in the style of the 18th century. The rooms are richly decorated and embellished with memorabilia from some of its most famous patrons. The food is solid bistro fare, but the three hundred year history of the place, is the main attraction. Within the graceful confines of its walls, the past is palpable.
While dining on coq au vin, you might be tempted to recite a verse from a poem penned by Voltaire, after his 35th cup of coffee.
13, Rue de l’Ancienne de Comedie
Hours: 11am-1am Daily