Life In The Early Coffee Houses
Diderot tells in 1760, in his Rameau's Nephew, of the life and frequenters of one of the Palais Royal coffee houses, the Regency (Café de la Régence):
In all weathers, wet or fine, it is my practice to go towards five o'clock in the evening to take a turn in the Palais Royal . . . If the weather is too cold or too wet I take shelter in the Regency coffee house. There I amuse myself by looking on while they play chess as skillfully as in Paris and nowhere in Paris as they do at this coffee house; 'tis here you see Légal the profound, Philidor the subtle, Mayot the solid; here you see the most asounding moves and listen to the sorriest talk, for if a man be at once a wit and a great chess player like Légal, he may also be a great chess player and a sad simpleton like Joubert and Mayot.
The beginnings of the Regency coffee house are associated with the legend that Lefévre, a Parisian, began peddling coffee in the streets of Paris about the time Procope opened his café in 1689. The story has it that Lefévre later opened a café near the Palais Royal, selling it in 1718 to one Leclerc, who named it the Café de la Régence, in honor of the regent of Orleans, a name that still endures on a broad sign over its doors. The nobility had their rendezvous there after having paid their court to the regent.
To name the patrons of the Café de la Régence in its long career would be to outline a history of French literature for more than two centuries. There was Philidor the "greatest theoretician of the eighteenth century, better known for his chess than his music"; Robespierre, of the Revolution, who once played chess with a girl disguised as a boy - for the life of her lover; Napoleon, who was then more noted for his chess than his empire-building propensities; and Gambetta, whose loud voice, generally raised in debate, disturbed one chess player so much that he protested because he could not follow his game. Voltaire, Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, Marshall Saxe, Buffon, Rivarol, Fontenelle, Franklin, and Henry Murger are names stil associated with this historic café. Marmontel and Philidor played there at their favorite game of chess. Diderot tells in his Memoirs that his wife gave him every day nine sous to get his coffee there. It was in this establishment that he worked in his Encyclopedia.
Chess is today still in favor at the Régence, although the players are not, as were the earlier patrons, obliged to play by the hour for their tables with extra charges for candles placed by the chess boards. The persent Café de la Régence is in the rue St.-Honoré, but retains in large measure its aspect of olden days.