It’s a funny fact of modern times that revolutionaries are often adopted as symbols of chic individualism once the memory of their brutality begins to dim. Witness the omnipresent glorification of Che Guevara on every conceivable type of paraphernalia, no matter his bloodthirsty summary executions at La Cabana, personally administered, or the labor camp systems he erected in which countless innocents perished. Le Procope, the oldest café in continuous operation in Paris and a former meeting place for Robespierre, Dantan and Marat, has a long history of identification with revolutionary activity and unapologetically exalts the French Revolution: The menu cover at Le Procope is an image of a red Phrygian cap, the symbol of Liberty; the bathrooms are marked Citoyens and Citoyennes; the ancient Pompeian red walls of the three-store townhouse are covered with historical artifacts like a 200-year-old copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Nothing quite like a cutesy celebration of the Reign of Terror to act as a sobering reminder of the fragility of civilization.
Thankfully, Le Procope does have some redeeming historical significance as well. In 1689 the Comédie-Francaise was established across the street (the restaurant is located on what is now called the rue d’lAnciennne Comédie) and Le Procope became a gathering place for theatre patrons and other literary types. It was to Le Procope that Rousseau defected when, on Dec. 18 1752, while sitting through the first performance of his last play Narcisse, Rousseau realized how deeply boring it was and got up and left. Voltaire reputedly drank forty cups of coffee a day there, mixed with chocolate, which explains a considerable amount. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (the good revolutionaries!), Napoleon Bonaparte, Beaumarchais, Balzac, Verlaine, Hugo, Wilde, Sand and Diderot all dined in Le Procope’s 9 luxurious salons filled with sumptuous fabrics, oil paintings and crystal chandeliers.
The shadow of history that hangs over Le Procope makes it unavoidably touristy and it’s fair to say that visitors come more for the elegant atmosphere and historical significance than the serviceable cuisine. But with an illustrious lineage dating back to 1686, it’s clear that the restaurant has remained popular over the centuries for a reason.
13 Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie
+33 (0)1 40 46 79 00 Mon-Sun, 11:30am–midnight
- Bernard Leprince, Chef
- Zagat : 17
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