Between my two summer sessions of teaching, I traveled to Paris for a week and although I could write on any number of amazing historical sites (and probably will in the future), I will start with the oldest cafe in the city–Cafe Procope founded in 1686. This Paris restaurant can still be visited…and it should join your list of Paris cafes.
I had read about Cafe Procope before leaving Michigan and had a general idea where it was, but knew that it might be difficult to find as it wasn’t on a major street and European cities like Paris are often a maze of little lanes that you may walk right by and never recognize as a street. Street signs are not necessarily as visible as those in the states either (if they even exist). Husband and I were walking down the boulevard St. Germain (a big thoroughfare) exploring the 6th arrondissement when I had one of those “feelings” that I get when I am close to a historical find. I had the same feeling when I stumbled across the Pantheon in Rome.
Well, I veered off down this little cobble-stone street. Street is probably a misnomer as it wasn’t much larger than an alley here in the States and a car bigger than a mini-Cooper probably couldn’t drive down it. We walked over the uneven stones and then I saw this:
Yes!!! I jumped up and down and dragged hubby in. He, of course, was a little confused as to why I was acting like a maniac over the place. This was a center, though, of Enlightenment activity during the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson (as ambassador to France) ate there frequently, as did Benjamin Franklin. Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Honore Balzac, and many other great intellectuals were regulars there. Here was a place where philosophes debated the proper form of government and the role of the monarchy. It was a hotbed for revolution and Napoleon left his hat there once. And I got to sit within the same walls as they had!
Places like these give me an immediate connection to the past. The hostess was gracious enough to give me a thorough tour of the establishment. She knew the restaurant’s past intimately. I was in awe as she led me up a grand staircase past dining rooms to a small corridor that led to the kitchen and the owner’s office. She smiled at me and told me that she thought I would like what she was about to show me. In a dark corner of the corridor stood two tables. They were quite pretty, but pretty banged up. I looked at her questioningly–wondering why she was showing me these. She told me that Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau had sat at them! These two men were influential thinkers of Enlightenment philosophy which asserted that all men were capable of reason–regardless of their economic station at birth. Their writings literally changed the world and played a huge role in the founding of the United States of America! Imagining that Voltaire sat at this table and conceptualized his social satire, Candide, I ran my fingers over it. I pressed my face to the table where Rousseau may have ate, drank, and penned ideas that contributed to the re-birth of democracy.
We returned down the stairs passing a grand library on the way (I really think American restaurants should have libraries). Sitting down at a table near an open window, I looked on the wall to see a plaque commemorating Thomas Jefferson. It gave me chills to think that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin probably looked out that same window, viewed the same cobble-stoned street, as I was. They had conversed with Enlightenment philosophers at this literary cafe and later would pen the words “All men are created equal…”
Knowing the history of Cafe Procope made it a truly special experience. Although I did not try the food, it looked delicious. This was truly an exciting historical find and I encourage you to check it out if you are in Paris.
P.S. There are many great books about Enlightenment thinkers and both Jefferson and Franklin’s time in Paris. You might consider Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham or The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson by William Howard Adams.
Cafe Procope, restaurant Paris, located at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in the 6th arrondissement. http://www.procope.com/
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3 thoughts on “An American Historian in Paris”
My wife and I live in Paris. We rescued and restored and old Boni. It is a lovely rustic painting done about a hundred years ago. Boni (later with his son) painted the fronts of patisseries for many years. Most of his paintings are gone now. We would like to speak with someone who knows about such things here in Paris. Do you have any ideas who we could contact? Please email
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Thank you, Peter & Suzanne, for visiting my site and inquiring of me. My familiarity with experts in Paris is limited mainly to archival research, but I know that the Drouot auction house has fine art experts. I’ll email you their website. Best, Amy