Referring to the legendary Parisian brasserie on Boulevard de Montparnasse, French historian Georges Viaud once remarked: “If the tables [here] could talk, they would tell the story of La Coupole’s role in the history of 20th-century art.”
The place does feel spookily permeated with literary and artistic mojo. Walking through the doors transports you to Paris circa 1927, the height of the jazz age and a feverishly innovative period in the arts. It isn’t a stretch to imagine regular patrons such as Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, André Dérain, Colette and Tamara de Lempicka coming through the heavy glass and metal doors, then sashaying through the enormous Art-Deco dining room to their regular tables. In later years, it’s been favored by the likes of Edith Piaf, Hemingway, Albert Camus, Serge Gainsbourg and Patti Smith. At one of the tables, Camus celebrated his Nobel Prize in literature with friends and fellow writers. At another, Josephine Baker frequently sat.
An Enduring Mystique
The iconic brasserie and its “Bar américain” (American-style bar) is so synonymous with art history and the Paris intelligensia that it’s managed to retain its standing. That’s a remarkable feat in the era of mass tourism and what many have called the “Disneyfying” of the capital.
True, it’s got a bit of the ringard about it– a French term that denotes something outmoded and decidedly unhip. Yet it continues to fascinate. The fact that it’s still frequented by local artists, publishers, professors, filmmakers and other members of the Parisian intellectual class gives La Coupole continued relevance.
And since the restaurant was taken over by new owners in 2018, who’ve fully restored the bar and the downstairs dancing area, you could even say it’s undergoing a period of genuine revival. Legend has it that when the restaurant celebrated its inaugural evening in 1927, hundreds of members of the Parisian artistic avant-garde showed up, partying so rowdily that the police had to be called. Admittedly, that sort of vive is now largely absent– you’re more likely to find retirees enjoying a civilized, three-hour lunch than witness painters becoming falling-over-drunk.
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But there’s arguably something refreshing about a place that flouts trendy, conceptual menu items and uncomfortable counter seating in favor of solid, traditional fare and spacious seating. Call it the willfully ringard, if you will. La Coupole retains its distinctive, timeless style– and that’s part of the allure.
It was a rainy, steel-skied day in Montparnasse, so I took refuge at La Coupole for a solo lunch. It was busier than I somehow expected, and the spacious, heated terrace outside doesn’t really clue you into the grandeur of the interiors.
Inside, the 1927-era decor remains largely intact. Art deco lamps, floors in mosaic tiles, wall-length mirrors, spacious booths and 33 ornately painted columns dominate the room. These were painted by 27 artists, including Henri Matisse, Ferdinand Léger, Marie Vassilieff and Moïse Kisling. Along with the photos of famous patrons and stylized posters advertising bygone galas at the restaurant, the columns are its most striking feature. They literally ground La Coupole in Parisian artistic history, making it impossible to forget. If you visit, try to find an excuse to poke around to see some of them in detail, along with the historic photos. Visiting outside “traditional” mealtimes is your best bet. Since the restaurant offers “continuous service” from breakfast through late at night, this is entirely possible.
By 12:45, the place was already packed. Where I had expected mostly tourists, the majority of the patrons were French and seemed like regulars, from what I could glean of their conversations. I sat next to two publishers who chattily recounted which books were successes this year, then moved on to discuss the problem of economic inequality in France over a full bottle of white.
The troupe of servers, clad in traditional black and white uniforms, scuttled hurriedly around the dining room. They’re constantly rushing around the enormous space, carrying massive platters of fresh shellfish, or warming up sauces on small gas burners built right into their stations.
I opted for the lunch menu, which is currently less than 20 Euros and includes a starter and main or main and dessert. Drinks aren’t included. The a la carte menu options are far more expensive, but give you a lot of choice. La Coupole is famous for its fresh shellfish platters, sourced right from an open station at the restaurant. Don’t hesitate if you’re a fan of fresh oysters, clams and other fruits de mer.
The menu is traditionally French and not especially vegetarian-friendly, although there was one pasta dish. The lamb curry is legendary: During the 1920s Indian food was considered rare and exotic, and the restaurant generated considerable buzz by hiring an Indian chef to create their signature dish. Other specialities that come recommended include the chicken supreme with morel mushrooms and mashed potatoes, Charolais beef tartare, peppered steak and whole seabass.
Options were rather restrictive on the set menu, but I went for fresh leeks with eggs “mimosa” (deviled eggs) as a starter.
The dish was delicate and delicious. Fresh, sharp flavors from the leeks complemented perfectly with the “oeufs mimosa” (eggs are chopped and mixed with a sauce comprised of mayonnaise, dijon mustard and spices) and crunchy croutons. A few crusty pieces from a bread roll made an ideal accompaniment, as did a crisp glass of white from Saumur.
For the main course, my options were quite limited as I don’t eat red meat. Fish and chips are not my preferred dish, but here was a scrumptious version of a simple classic.
Generously buttered parsley and a squeeze of lemon really added flavor and punch. The cod was perfectly fresh. I couldn’t finish all the chips, which came in a heaped metal cup. The portions were unusually large for a French restaurant.
Over all, the food was delicious if unremarkable. But it seemed less the point than experiencing this extraordinary dining room, taking in its dizzying history and enjoying the hum of conversation.
The service was friendly if a bit too slow at the end, when I wished to pay and move on. The servers were visibly overwhelmed by group tables at times, and given the size of the dining room the restaurant seemed slightly understaffed. Nevertheless, servers are helpful and efficient, happy to take you through the menu options.
My Bottom Line
La Coupole is the stuff of myths, and worth a stop if you’re interested in Parisian literary and artistic history. Even if you don’t wish to have a whole meal, you can stop by at happy hour (from 4:30 pm) to enjoy an inexpensive glass of champagne and take in the grand old dining room.
Practical Details: Location, Contacts & Getting There
- Address: 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris (14th arrondissement)
- Metro: Vavin (Line 4) or Raspail (Line 12)
- Tel: +33 (0)1 43 20 14 20
- Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner (lunch and dinner are served from noon through late evening). Happy-hour drinks (glass of champagne and a few other options) are served from 4:00 pm.
- Open: Monday 8:00 am to 11:00 pm; Tuesday to Friday 8:00 am to midnight; Saturday 8:30 am to midnight; Sunday 8:30 am to 11:00 pm.
- Payment: Cash and all major credit cards are accepted
- Dress code: Business casual to formal
- Visit the official website to see current menus and book a table