The Parisian Cafés
By Anne Rohan
T he cafés are part of the Parisian urban landscape and contribute towards the charm of the capital city. Some of them very famous, went through History and its multiple social changes. These places are the witness of our cultural heritage and linked to the Parisian way of life.
In 1684, the Sicilian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened in the sixth district the café "Procope" in "Rue de L’Ancienne Comédie". His wish was to create an elegant place with beautiful furniture and big chandeliers, which would attract the intellectual elite.
In 1689 the "Comédie Française" opened near the café, encouraging stage artists, play writers and literary critics to come and have a drink. The "Café Procope" became the first literary café attracting writers like La Fontaine and Marivaux.
In 1702, a certain Dubuison bought the Procope which had become more and more fashionable. During the 18th century the Procope became the place for new ideological movements and trends. It became the greenroom of Encyclopaedists such as d’Alembert and Diderot, as well as other philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment like Voltaire, Buffon, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Marmontel.
The first revolutionaries like Robespierre, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins and the Jacobins used to meet up at the Procope, aiming to find ways to defeat the monarchy. Some people say that the Phrygian cap was displayed for the first time in the Procope.
During the 19th century Romantic poets like George Sand, Alfred de Musset or Verlaine used to join the Café Procope.
The "Café Procope" is nowadays still famous. It is known as the oldest Parisian café and as one of the mythical places of the capital city because it has been the witness of numerous intellectual currents for the past three centuries.
The 19th century was truly the highest peak of fame of the cafés, particularly for those of the most popular boulevards of Paris, like the "Boulevard des Italiens", "Boulevard de la Madeleine", or the "Boulevard des Capucines". They were very busy and attracted mainly the dandies and the extravagant upper middle class population.
During the Second Empire (1852-1870), the Grand Boulevards cafés like the Café de la Paix, the Café Tortoni, famous for its ice-creams, or the Café Riche and Café du Divan, which the social elite used to enjoy. These cafés were among others gathering spots for writers like Théophile Gautier, Balzac or Gerard de Nerval.
In the middle of the century the impressionists, rejecting the academism of the Second Empire, turned themselves towards the cafés of the "Butte Montmartre" (Café Fleurus, Café Guerbois, Café de la Nouvelle Athènes...). These symbolic places with a particular atmosphere used to inspire French painters like Cézanne, Degas of Manet.
The proletarians, far from the luxurious capital city of the Second Empire, lived in the suburbs. In the "cabarets ouvriers", the working class used to meet and drink dangerous and strong alcohol, or see prostitutes... The atmosphere was totally different as in the prestigious cafés of Paris.
At the end of the 19th century, new luxurious "café-restaurants", like the Maxim’s and the Fouquet’s opened on the famous "Avenue des Champs Elysées".
The Twentieth Century :
During the twenties, the "Années Folles", the district of Montparnasse became very trendy. Many intellectuals, cosmopolitan artists from various social backgrounds used to rub shoulders at the Café de la Rotonde, The Dôme, The Select or at the Coupole. Many avant-garde ideas and trends like the cubism or the surrealism emerged in these cafés.
After World War II, Saint-Germain-des-Prés district became busy and much appreciated with the new Café de Flore and Café des Deux Magots. This district still symbolizes the Bohemian lifestyle. It was the centre of the post-war new ideas.
You cannot imagine the Parisian life without going to a café. The Parisian cafés each have their own atmosphere which makes them unique; some have a historical dimension, whereas others are very modern, but they all reflect the beauty of Paris.