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Phantoms of Jefferson, Napoleon Lurk at Left Bank Restaurant

Le Procope
The front door and facade of the 3-story, 17th-century townhouse in Paris has been the home of La Procope since 1686. Photographer: Cooper Copetas/Bloomberg

Beneath the costly modern splendor of Paris, far removed from its Michelin-starred restaurants and $2,000-a-night luxury hotel rooms, there lies a hidden treasure of history, food and drink.

“It’s not easy to properly cook a snail,” says retired French actress and singer Virginie Vitry, who has come to Cafe Le Procope, billed as the oldest eating establishment in Paris, to celebrate her 83rd birthday. With her grandchildren listening attentively, Vitry recalls the many chilly postwar evenings she spent dining at the 324-year-old restaurant with her friends Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Albert Camus.

“Jean-Paul and Simone preferred Cafe de Flore,” Vitry says, referring to Sartre and De Beauvoir, France’s most celebrated existentialist cafe couple. “Flore had much better heating, but not very good food. Procope was chic, full of gaiety and amusement and better cooks. Of course, France was so hungry after the war that we ate anything and everything.”

Back in 1686, a Sicilian by the name of Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli realized there was money to be made in mass marketing coffee, at the time a rich man’s drink the Turkish ambassador to France had helped make a salon-society sensation, served along with shots of liquor called “canons.” It wasn’t long before Le Procope’s three-floor town house emerged as the incubator for all things French.

Business and Dominoes

Businessmen discussed their deals over dominoes on the first floor. Students played billiards and talked insurrection on the second and, up top, Denis Diderot invented the encyclopedia and wrote a series of pamphlets on the dangers of consumer society. In 1792, the first “bonnets rouges,” or red Phrygian caps that symbolized the French Revolution, were whisked from a performance of Voltaire’s “Brutus” at the Comedie Francaise and into Le Procope for customers to wear in defiance of the royalist regime.

According to the faded scribble on a second-floor wall, Voltaire wrote: “A woman is like a windmill. She stops when she rusts.” As the 19th-century French theater critic Jules Janin points out elsewhere, “French small talk at Le Procope has exhibited its most lively impatience, its most dangerous zeal; all of its briefs, all its paradoxes, all its scandals, all its resistance, all its opposition.”

And for 36 euros ($49.34), Vitry says Le Procope still serves up the best roasted red partridge in Paris. “It’s still delicious,” Vitry says after a 24.30 euro starter of six nutty Belon oysters.

Bonaparte’s Hat

Yet you can only wonder if the young corporal Napoleon Bonaparte, who was forced to leave his hat as collateral when he ran out to get money to pay his tab, found Le Procope’s wine list as pathetic as the one today printed on the back of the menu by the cafe’s new owners, the restaurant chain Groupe Freres Blanc.

Could the abominable bottles of Chablis and glasses of Cotes de Bourg be the same as the ones served to Benjamin Franklin, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton? Did a 19th-century Le Procope sommelier actually offer what’s now a 5 euro tumbler of bitter Cotes du Rhone to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the day they first met?

Sommelier Sebastian Burdeno isn’t amused by the question that suggests his restaurant -- where the entire French National Assembly in 1790 retired for three days of drinking, eating and mourning the death of Franklin -- offers the wine of a “gargote,” a greasy spoon for curious tourists.

“Look here,” Burdeno says, flourishing a crumpled sheet of plasticized paper. “Follow me.”

Seeking Enlightenment

History records that Oscar Wilde, George Sand and Moliere also clamored into the dim labyrinths beneath the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie to find enlightenment. Upstairs, the waiters say “Pepsi, no Coke,” but the crown jewels of French wine are also here for a reasonably priced taking: Beaune Greves 1er Cru 1976 Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus from Bouchard Pere & Fils at 185 euros; Latricieres-Chambertin 1995 Grand Cru from Domaine Faiveley at 215 euros; and a 2004 St. Julien from Chateau Leoville Barton for 185 euros.

Le Procope’s secret stash of 10 grand Bordeaux, Burgundy and Cotes du Rhone wines is, of course, diminutive by comparison to what’s in the cellars of Alain Ducasse or at L’Espadon restaurant in the Ritz Hotel.

Yet dinner at Le Procope isn’t just about dinner. It’s a place to teach yourself and your children about history, to taste the same onion soup Victor Hugo burned his tongue on while writing “Les Miserables” and perhaps, after eating a 12.35 euro “pate en croute” named after Cardinal Richelieu, leave with a better understanding of why the French are so different from everybody else.

“Le Procope is a beautiful restaurant,” Vitry says over the sorbet served to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s about France.”

Le Procope, 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, 75006 Paris. Information: or +33-1-4046-7900.

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