The Enduring Charm of Café Groppi in Cairo

At café Groppi, British dukes and French bourgeoisie once rubbed elbows with Cairene dissidents and politicians. Victoria Hazou / Bloomberg News-Getty Images

A short stroll from Tahrir Square, down a narrow, bustling street, a flâneur may stumble upon a small square with a grand legacy and, at the heart of the plaza, a patisserie with an Italian name. Here, at the café Groppi on Talaat Harb Square, British dukes and French bourgeoisie once rubbed elbows with Cairene dissidents and politicians who could be found deep in debate about the future of Egypt over small cups of strong coffee and magnificent sweet confections.

Founded in 1909 by Swiss pastry chef and chocolate maker Giacomo Groppi with the help of his son Achille, the café grew from a modest business to a three-branch landmark.

But time has left its mark.

Today its unique and colorful tile exterior is cracked and worn, its walls marred by graffiti vilifying the country's power-hungry generals, once hailed as liberators. Minimum-wage employees have replaced the world-class pastry chefs and multilingual waiters. Street vendors and beggars hover outside its doors. Tourists, the main clientele these days, have stopped visiting, fearing instability following last year's revolution.

Yet for 60 years, through wars and revolution, Groppi for a long time remained unchanged, an unlikely symbol of continuity and perseverance during times of transition.

In the early 20th century, Groppi in many ways symbolized Egypt itself: it was a cosmopolitan crossroads, a meeting place where new ideas could be vigorously discussed. "Cairo at that time was at the center of the world, and Groppi was at the center of Cairo," said Marco Groppi, 31, the fourth generation of his family to live and work in Egypt.

Groppi was the scene in which to be seen, where political aspirations were born, business deals struck, marriages and divorces negotiated. Famed for mouthwatering delicacies like its freshly baked croissants, chocolate-covered dates, and ice cream smothered in crème Chantilly, Groppi and its neighbor, the Greek-owned Café Riche, provided the pulse for Cairo's bustling social and political scene. A visit to Groppi demanded your finest fashions. It welcomed women and families—an alternative to the traditional male-only coffee shops. And heads of state on visit to Egypt often left the country packing suitcases full of Groppi treats. In his memoir, He Who Dares, late British colonel David Sutherland recounted that he treated Nazi German soldiers to tea and ice cream at Groppi before turning them over for interrogation.

But that expansive era would come to an end a few years later when, in early 1952, the incendiary fervor of the revolution swept through Cairo. In January that year, on a day now known as Black Saturday, riots erupted, triggered by a deadly clash between British occupation forces and Egyptian auxiliary policemen. Anti-colonial protesters burned and ransacked downtown neighborhoods, targeting foreign-owned establishments. At least 300 shops, as well as landmarks including the Cairo Opera House, were torched by fire; British and foreign property in Cairo reportedly suffered more than £3 million in damages.

On Talaat Harb, the damage to Groppi was extensive. An anonymous eyewitness account published in the Egyptian Chronicles recounts how the mobs went wild. "Some climbed for Groppi's sign and dismantled the royal emblem 'Confiserie de la Maison Royale' from it ... The mob proceeded to attack a paint shop next door and set fire to it," the eyewitness wrote. "The fire quickly spread to engulf both Groppi's and a small ammunition store next to the paint store ... Then, the mob proceeded to attack any building that looked foreign."

Afterward, "my father went around downtown to see all the shops, because Cairo was burned," says Franco Groppi, Marco's uncle, recounting the experience of his father, Cesar. "After that he said, 'I will go, take my luggage, and go back to Switzerland.' Most of the shops were burned. It was a big disaster. But when he told our workers—we had 1,800 workers at that time—they started begging him to start again. He didn't want to let them down, so he stayed there and put his money into rebuilding."

But 1952 was a year of turmoil, and later the restaurant was bombed, ostensibly in an attack targeting foreign soldiers dining at the restaurant.

By summer definite change arrived in the shape of the Free Officers Movement, a group led by a few young, middle-class officers, including a charismatic man named Gamal Abdel Nasser. In July they deposed the king in a coup and set about purging the country of its colonial overlords.

Nasser vowed to restore political independence, economic revival, and social equality following the foreign occupation. The movement would inspire similar revolutions across the region and bring to the realm of power a hands-on military that increasingly asserted itself in civil affairs, laying the foundation for a no-nonsense police state. Fearing any potential challenge, Nasser banned all political parties, restricted basic freedoms, and brutally cracked down on his former allies the Muslim Brotherhood.

An ardent champion of Arab nationalism, Nasser vowed to rid the region of its imperial past and began nationalizing banks, insurance companies, factories, shipping firms—anything owned by foreigners he could lay his hands on. Even the Suez Canal, one the world's most strategically important maritime passageways, came under government control.

Groppi, Swiss-owned, popular with expats, and located near Cairo's pulsing heart, was an obvious target for takeover. "Nasser had our file on his desk many, many times," said Franco Groppi, 56, among the last generation of his family to own and operate the restaurant. "Whenever he was faced with nationalizing us, he said, I need these guys. We were the caterer to presidents and kings."

Over the next two decades, Groppi's main branch in Soliman Pasha Square—renamed Talaat Harb Square by Nasser as part of his nationalization project—would experience a revival. With five major streets branching out from its center and a boom in population and commercialism, the square and its characteristic nooks and crannies became a popular—and sometimes illicit—meeting place for those opposed to Nasser's policies, including the Islamists who had been garnering popularity on the streets through their grassroots activism.

"People could go to Al-Shorouk bookstore nearby and buy books that were banned by the Nasser regime, wrap it up in a bag discretely, carry it out, and then go to Groppi and sit with a cup of tea and read the book," said Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. "Since they were foreigners running the café, people felt they were safe there."

While the café's clientele shifted toward the middle class, Groppi continued to actively serve the government through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971 it catered an extravagant party commemorating the inauguration of the Aswan High Dam—the linchpin of Nasser's economic vision. "There were about 500 people at this party, from heads of state of other Arab countries, as well as Soviet leaders, since the Soviet Union funded the project," Franco Groppi said of the inauguration party.

While the project bore great economic benefits for Egypt, it was also criticized by many. "Every conquest in our history was to dominate the Nile River Valley," said Samir Rafaat, a Cairo-based researcher in Egyptian history. "Suddenly this flood that was bar-coded into the Egyptian psyche was stopped with this monumental project. It was the first time a wave of Egyptians left to work in Libya, Saudi [Arabia], the Gulf, for economic reasons. We used to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The cash cow. The land of plenty. But we have since become economic refugees."

After Nasser's death in 1970, Groppi continued to serve government events during the reign of Anwar Sadat, the military officer who succeeded Nasser. The café catered high-profile events, including state visits by President Richard Nixon and Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. At the latter party, "the starter was caviar, because what else does one serve to the shah of Iran?" said Franco Groppi. "Imagine we served three meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—on a warship to a delegation of about 40 dignitaries and presidents. It was quite an event." Four years later Sadat would welcome the shah back to Egypt as an exile amid the Iranian Revolution, sparking a break in ties between Egypt and the Islamic Republic.

Radical Islamists assassinated Sadat at a military parade in 1981, and the country's next president, Hosni Mubarak, who would rule Egypt the next three decades, imposed emergency law. Egypt was once again a full-fledged police state.

Meanwhile, the population was soaring—growing from 22 million in 1952 to 82 million today. With the demographic explosion came social problems and poverty. Many flocked to the capital in search of jobs and property, resulting in the erosion of downtown Cairo. Rent-control laws ushered in by the socialist regime drew more people from the countryside and lower-income areas to downtown Cairo. A lack of zoning laws allowed people to freely build vertical extensions on older buildings and alter building façades at will.

"What happened then in downtown Cairo was decay, then corruption, then chaos," said Rafaat.

In the ritzy neighborhood around Groppi, things started changing too. Café Riche relocated to one of the nearby side streets, and low-end mom-and-pop shops replaced many of the high-end clothing and department stores. Fewer people were able to afford the luxuries Groppi had to offer, and increasing competition from hotels and foreign fast-food establishments lured away many of its customers. "The first fast-food restaurant to open in Cairo was Wimpy's in the mid-1970s," said Sadek. "It became the fashion to go there. Everyone wanted to take their girlfriend to treat them to Wimpy's."

More recently Egypt's leftist Tagammu Party stationed its headquarters across from Groppi, just off Talaat Harb Square. Presidential candidate Ayman Nour, the head of the Ghad al-Thawra Party and now a member of the Constituent Assembly, opened his political headquarters in the apartment directly above the patisserie.

But by then Groppi had lost some of its eponymous cache. After years of hesitation, the Groppi family decided to partner with Lokma Group founder Abdul-Aziz Lokma, who earned much of his fortune in the Arab Gulf, and in 1981 the business tycoon bought what had grown into a small café chain. Alcohol was banned instantly, many of the famed chefs were replaced, and prices were adjusted to a level deemed fit for the average Egyptian. The café lost a certain sophisticated je ne sais quoi, and it became submerged in Cairo's ultra-urbanization. Today, Franco and Marco Groppi work in finance; Franco in Geneva, Switzerland; Marco in Cairo. But the family still toys with the idea of reclaiming the Groppi glory and opening a new café. After all, they say, "our family does what the Swiss do best: finance and chocolate."

Cracked and a little worn around the edges, Groppi still persists, though. And unlike many shops in Tahrir Square and the surrounding neighborhoods that boarded up their doors during the turmoil of 2011, the café stayed open.

A flâneur taking a stroll through Cairo and deciding to stop for a drink may still sit down in these art deco surroundings for a cup of coffee and a piece of patisserie. "We had to briefly roll down our gates once or twice during the revolution, but we never closed," says Walid Badr, the café's manager, with notable pride. "Groppi never closes."

Vivian Salama is an American freelance journalist with a decade of experience reporting in the Middle East.