Inside the Procope: Paris' Oldest Cafe-Restaurant?

  • 01 of 03

    A Favorite Meeting Point for Writers and Philosophers, from Voltaire to Balzac

    Procope is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Paris.
    ••• Procope is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Paris. Courtesy of the Procope.

    It proudly claims to be the world's first genuine literary cafe, and the oldest restaurant in continuing operation in the city of light. Some even say the Café Procope's opening in 1686 by an Italian chef named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli marked the birth of the European coffeehouse as we know it.

    Few would suspect that the cafe-restaurant nestled in a passageway near Paris' tourist-heavy Mabillon metro station in the heart of the Latin Quarter was once the favored haunt of great minds including French writers Voltaire and Denis Diderot. Writers of the world's first encyclopedias were regulars here, and even American revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin hung their hats in the Procope to discuss matters abroad and debate new democratic principles. 

    In later years, the cafe-restaurant was chosen as a favorite place for dinner and impassioned conversation by writers and thinkers like George Sand, Paul Verlaine, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and...MORE Alfred de Musset. 

    If you're interested in literary history, or are a coffeehouse aficionado fascinated by the origins of the dark brew and the places that purvey it, a visit to this opulent old-world address should definitely be on your itinerary.

    Today, you can enjoy lunch, dinner, or a light meal or drink in between-- unfortunately the Procope no longer operates as a simple coffeehouse. The space was entirely renovated in recent years to mimic the eighteenth-century interiors. It's perhaps a bit on the kitschy side, but the historical legacy is real, and so is the charm.

    Read related: Top Literary Haunts in Paris (Cafes, Bookshops, and More)

    Location, Opening Hours, and Contact Information:

    The Procope is located on Paris' left bank in the district known as the 6th arrondissement. 

    • Address: 13 Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie
    • Metro: Mabillon
    • Tel: +33 (0)1 40 46 79 00
    • Visit the official website (in English)
    • Opening Hours: Daily, 11:30 am to midnight
    • Serving: Lunch, dinner, hot drinks, wine and beer. The emphasis here is on traditional French cuisine. Vegetarian/vegan choices are very limited. You can see full menus here
    • Dress code: Business casual to formal wear is recommended for dinner. Lunch  service is more casual, but avoid ripped jeans, etc. 
    • Forms of payment accepted: Cash; debit; all major credit cards. 

    Sights and Attractions Nearby: 

    I recommend visiting the Procope after visiting the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district and its other legendary intellectual landmarks like the Café de Flore and Lapérouse restaurant. The Musée d'Orsay and its breathtaking modern art and impressionist collections is also nearby. 

    Click through to the next page for some history of the mythical old cafe and its eccentric patrons. 

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  • 02 of 03

    A Few Mythical Happenings at the Procope: Some History

    The Procope claims to be the oldest cafe-restaurant in Paris, founded in 1686.
    ••• The Procope was a hotbed of intellectual activity from its opening in the late 17th century. Public domain

    The Procope has a long and vibrant history. Just a few of the historic happenings here include the following:

    1686: A Sicilian chef opens the doors of his humble new establishment on what was then called rue des Fossés Saint-Germain, serving Italian sorbets in porcelain goblets, along with a dark, enlivening new brew discovered during colonial expeditions, otherwise known as "coffee". The success is immediate. In 1689, the Ancienne Comédie Française theatre opens; patrons stream in before or after plays and shows  to quarrel, debate politics and art, see and be seen in the old Parisian tradition.

    1752: Jean-Jacques Rousseau reportedly came through the doors in defeat while the premiere of his play, Narcisse, was still underway at the Comedie Francaise across the way: he was certain it was a failure, so preferred to retire here rather than face the scorn of critics.

    Late 18th century onward:  The Enlightenment fosters radical new ideas and the desire to disseminate knowledge to the...MORE wider populace. In addition to gaggles of encyclopedia writers, philosophers and satirists like Voltaire are reputed to hang out at the Procope and get into coffee-fueled intellectual sparring matches-- the author of Candide is said to have consumed upwards of 40 cups a day, mixed with chocolate! 

    1780s-1790s: Revolutionary figures from both the US and France meet here to discuss, debate, and shape politics. Americans Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are regulars; during the French Revolution ruthless leaders including Robespierre, Danton, and Marat met here to cook up revolt. They would later be key figures in what was known as "Le Terreur": revolutionary policies that persecuted and guillotined countless dissenters.

    During that Revolution, the pointed hat known as the Phrygian cap was displayed first at the Procope: it would later be widely used as a symbol of Republican and anti-monarchist liberty. 

    1988-1989: The Procope is renovated to resemble its eighteenth-century guise. 

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  • 03 of 03

    Voltaire's Table at the Procope: An Object of Literary Legend

    Voltaire's desk at Cafe Procope
    ••• Voltaire's desk at Cafe Procope. Crustina/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons license.

    French philosopher and satirist Voltaire's favorite table serves as a kind of shrine at the Procope, decorated with candelabras and tomes of the author's work. The marble table appears to have suffered a bit of damage, but honors the name of the eighteenth-century writer and Encyclopediste

    Read related: Top Literary Haunts in Paris (Cafes, Bookshops, and More)