Can you write about historic Paris cafés without mentioning Le Procope? This was the city’s very first café, founded by an Italian in 1686, and it is worth a peek, although the quality has declined tremendously since it hosted such luminaries as Molière, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
After the café craze of the 1680s, the true golden age for cafés in Paris began during the Third Republic in the 1880s, when Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann widened streets, creating large boulevards where Parisians could go to see and be seen. Le Café de la Paix was one of the grandest cafés of this era, and it remains a gorgeous souvenir of a romantic time when ladies would stroll the nearby covered passages in their flowing gowns and attend the newly built, golden-topped Opéra Garnier before coming to the café for a late-night snack.
Rents in the area soon became prohibitively expensive for many people, sending young entrepreneurial café owners to the artistic and trendy Montparnasse neighborhood near the studios of artists like Léger, Chagall, Brancusi and Matisse, with an entirely different set of revolutionaries: Lenin and Trotsky. Here, they built places like the vast 400-seat La Coupole, with its historically classified columns decorated with murals. My personal favorite in this neighborhood is Le Select, where artist hang out even today, and where most afternoons around 4 p.m., a couple of retired elderly “ladies of the night” can be seen primping away, reminding you of how it must have been once upon a time . . .
With the turn of the century, there was soon a war, and habits changed, although not dramatically. Artists and authors, politicians and intellectuals still flocked to Paris, moving their headquarters a few blocks north to the St.-Germain des Prés neighborhood, camping out at Les Deux Magots or Le Café de Flore, where coal-burning stoves kept them warm for the price of a coffee. De Beauvoir, the Fitzgeralds, Kahlo and Rivera—for the first time women became a celebrated part of the café scene, and they’ve been dominating the cafés in Paris ever since!
Le Select 99, boulevard du Montparnasse, in the 6th Arrondissement. 01 45 48 38 24.
Le Café de la Paix
Le Café de Flore
Les Deux Magots