La Coupole, Montparnasse, is the grandest and most famous of the old pre-war Parisian brasseries; that is, if you have an Esprit Brasserie loyalty card, as I have, you can dine in homage to dead continental intellectuals — plus Ernest Hemingway — whenever you wish, and with 20 per cent off. They sit, dead in black and white on the walls in their spectacles, like the toys Star Wars sold but more rigorous and interesting. Ernest Hemingway is to Parisian brasseries what Mickey is to Disney World; Edith Piaf — or Salvador Dalí — is Daffy Duck. Me, I sat under a playful cartoon of Jewish intellectuals murdered by the Nazis. Happy Easter, Europe.
The street is a shrieking boulevard; the exterior is Art Deco at its most inhumane and bulbous; the room is vast. The only restaurant of similar size I have seen is Britannia on the Queen Mary 2, which is based on La Coupole (established 1927), although I doubt it would admit it. La Coupole has 650 seats; waiter station upon waiter station, a small restaurant-city. The dominant colour is pale brown, which is a shame — brown booths, brown banquettes, a flinty brown bar. England, for whom the brasserie is a themed restaurant, like the hot-dog bar or the Stringfellows bar, does them prettier, but less well. The bones of this is business. It is not about the art. It is about the money.
Even so, there are 13 famous pillars, painted by early customers, and memorialised on the register of historic monuments, for everything is listed in Paris, even, I imagine, the bins, in a narcissistic frenzy of peculiarly French nationalism. The website rudely calls them ‘the minor masters of the Roaring Twenties’ — but how can they complain, being dead and beyond bad service? There are naked women — naked women of all kinds, as long as they are naked — pliant or furious and everything in between, and stranger things: a man in spats fishing; a cat staring out a demon; a painting of — am I right? — necrotic flesh. A huge dome at the centre has an octopus strangling a woman, or vice versa; a fresh fish shop loiters by the entrance, wafting charismatically, offering takeout lobster. François Mitterrand ate his last meal — a lamb curry — at Table 82, and died. Henry Miller ate at the Table of the Unknown Intellectual, and didn’t. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir fought about ironing. It’s a living cemetery with cocktails and it is passive-aggressive; all the interesting customers, the décor tells us, have left.
So, a gargantuan themed restaurant, flogging its past and its pastries; Esprit Paris! (At least here, unlike Maxim’s or Harry’s Bar, they have not succumbed to a gift shop that sells ties and has a franchise in the Eurostar terminal). Within this, there is hierarchy fanatical. Regulars, in caps and polo necks, sit at the front, under Pablo Picasso posing angrily with pottery. They get small armchairs and natural light. Coachloads of tourists sit in the centre, with the best views of the naked women, where it is easy to contain them. Others — Germans in duffel coats and us — sit at the edges.
The food, like the pillars, holds up; the menu is as vast as the brasserie, but it is well done. Onion soup is good if slightly cold; foie gras melts, filthily; cod, so fresh as to seem almost breathing still; an excellent blue steak (of course the waiter, hearing English, assumed I would want it charred, because we English eat ash for pleasure); cheeses excellent and various; a bouncing and excitable profiterole.
As the courses come, the sense of wellbeing, of being inside a practised restaurant — or maybe a brothel? — builds. Heartless it may be, heartless it was; but the brasserie will stand while Paris falls. It is a certainty.
La Coupole, 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris. Tel: +33 1432 01420.