RALPH WALDO EMERSON said that Paris was “a city of cafés and conversation”. So it was – and so it still is.
Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli – or François Procope as he was known, is considered to be the founder of the first coffee house in Paris in the Foire Saint-Germain in 1686. The Café Procope is still alive and well.
By the end of the 19th century Parisian cafés had become, in the words of the writer Laroy-Beailieu, “places of conviviality, but also of consolation – cathedrals of the poor”.
The years between the end of the First and Second World Wars and the years just after were the hey-day of the Parisian Café when scores of impoverished artists and intellectuals, living beyond their means, sought out the cafés of Paris for refuge, warmth and conversation. They gathered in, amongst others, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore in St Germain-des-Prés and in the clutch of cafés on the Boulevard Montparnasse – Le Select, La Rotonde, Le Dôme and La Coupole.
Of these four cafés in Montparnasse, each has it’s own atmosphere and style. La Rotonde and Le Dôme have a rather Belle Epoque feel to them whereas Le Select and La Coupole are quite different. Styling themselves as an American Bar in the case of Le Select and a Bar Americain for La Coupole, both reflect the mood and atmosphere of Paris in the inter-war years. But for me, it is La Coupole that really stands out.
The sound inside La Coupole:
Founded by Anatole Broyard in 1927, La Coupole is an Art Deco feast. From the thirty-two painted pillars that form the supports in the huge dining room each painted by students of Matisse and Fernand Léger, to the light fittings, the clocks and the black and white photographs around the walls – everything is in perfect Art Deco style.
Even the ceiling in the shape of a dome – a coupole in French – is a feast.
As well as the elegant, but not extravagantly expensive, restaurant there are pavement tables where one can sit and enjoy a café crème and take stock of the Boulevard Montparnasse.
La Coupole is the ultimate reminder that Parisian cafés are so much more than just coffee shops. People still seek them out for refuge, warmth and conversation and they still have their share of impoverished artists and intellectuals – as well as, of course, less impoverished tourists. They are places to rest, to work, to meet friends and neighbours, to dine or to simply engage in the quintessential Parisian way of sitting undisturbed, watching the world go by.
Long may they continue.