Visiting the world’s oldest café

I love cafés. I love proper espresso coffee, idle chatting while I sip it, and those little cakes that are just small enough to let me pretend that they’re not unhealthy.

I like my water served sparkling, my toast with ‘smashed avo’, and I like using my local café as a ‘coffice’ even though that’s the worst portmanteau word besides ‘webinar’.

Yes, I’m an inner-city, lattè-sipping, walking stereotype, so when I recently visited Paris I made sure I visited as many of them as humanly possible.

French cafés are uniquely atmospheric, with those distinctive tiny circular marble tables and wicker chairs, and they boast lots of streetside seating where you can linger while you observe the passing parade. They serve breakfast in the morning, supper late at night, and everything in between, and stopping by for an omelette or croque is an essential part of visiting Paris. They’re fully licensed, with beer on tap, and if it’s that time of day, the waiter will be happy to recommend un petit aperitif.

The coffee that gave such establishments their name isn’t exactly a strong point – the espresso quality doesn’t often match what we’re used to in Australia, but they’re belatedly learning from their Italian neighbours. The super-strong hot chocolate is almost worth the resultant clogging of your arteries – our waiter poured the milk at our table, which was a nifty trick.

But one particular café caught my eye when I was walking through the Latin Quarter. Le Procope has a sign outside saying that it was founded in 1686. I was astonished. Even though visitors to Europe become immune to all the ancient buildings everywhere, that seemed a very long time for a café to operate in one location.

And so it is, because Le Procope is the oldest café in the world. And while some say there was an earlier coffee-house in Marseilles, Procope’s still there today, and by the sounds of things they were Patient Zero for the infectious idea of sitting at any time of day or night for a chat over a non-alcoholic beverage.

The place was founded by Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, originally from Palermo, and alongside the coffee, which was still a relatively exotic beverage back them, he served Italian sorbets – which are still on the menu today. As bizarre as it may sound nowadays, coffee was previously served in taverns, but Francesco served it in porcelain cups in a dedicated space, and the idea took off.

Le Procope was soon packed with local intellectuals from the Sorbonne and the nearby Comedie Française theatre. Napoléon was a customer, and most of the city’s intellectual establishment attended over the years, with Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac and many other prominent writers among the regular patrons. Revolutionary figures like Robespierre and Danton made it their headquarters, and even Benjamin Franklin features on the list.

When we visited, we were taken aback at how posh the place was – it feels like a Victorian-era boutique hotel, with elegant wallpaper, red leather banquettes and beautifully polished wooden fixtures, along with impeccably dressed waitstaff who made me feel decidedly underdressed. The place was also enormous, with two levels, each with several rooms – all of its famous patrons across the years could probably have visited for coffee simultaneously.

Happily, the prices were far from exorbitant, especially given the place’s storied history. We sat and ordered a mixed dessert platter and some tea (it was too late at night for coffee, sadly) and soon found ourselves working our way through a scoop of raspberry sorbet, a shot glass full of tiramisu and a chocolate pudding – quite a lot of food for 11 euros, including the tea!

In keeping with the place’s traditions, we sat and chatted for quite a while, and were never asked to move on despite our relatively modest bill. It was hard to imagine anyone plotting revolution in such elegant surroundings, but for all we knew, the ringleaders of the strikes that had been paralysing the city might have been in a corner plotting their next move.

The most famous cafés in Paris, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, are just down the road from Le Procope. What’s more, Sartre, de Beauvoir and their circle were regulars at the Procope too. While the other two are both splendid places with huge terraces on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, they’re both constantly crammed with tourists, and the prices are bordering on exorbitant. I’d rather visit their progenitor, where they first conceived the idea of sitting around and chatting over a coffee, giving rise not only to an enduring fashion, but a whole culture.

Le Procope is the longest continually operating restaurant in Paris, apparently, and it’s hardly surprising given how comfy and welcoming it still is today. So whenever you sit down for a flat white at your local, spare a thought for Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who took the beverage out of the tavern and gave it a special place of its own.

And if, like me, you’re the kind of person who works in cafés for long stretches, it might be worth reminding the irritated proprietors that Voltaire once did the same thing – in fact, Le Procope has preserved the desk he used to write at. Maybe your regular table will be a priceless heirloom someday, too?

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