Once a magnet for Egypt’s high society when it was considered the world’s
Ritziest tea room, Groppi, set in Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square, still retains its
original mystique although its interior is somewhat faded. Groppi’s, the
creation of Swiss pastry maker Giacomo Groppi, has been featured in countless
films and extensively written-about.
Groppi stands as a living legend and is still a magnet for
visitors to Cairo today. It symbolizes a never to return era; a time of great
wealth and ostentation; the days of the Egypt’s kings, princes, pashas, beys and
cotton magnets when the Egyptian pound was worth more than either sterling or
It was once a place of political intrigue, a venue where historic deals were
done and a beloved haunt of authors, journalists, artists, movie stars and
socialites eager to be seen. Those who remember that glittering era first hand
are dwindling. The few who still remember wax lyrical about those good old days.
Architect Chafik Nakhla, recalls what Groppi once symbolised for him.
“Oh how I loved Groppi,” he said with a far-away look in his eyes. Throughout
the 1950s, when we lived in Assiut, we regularly spent our summers in
Alexandria. En route, we would usually stop for a week at the Shepheard’s Hotel
“We children were not allowed outside the hotel without our governess but we
would persuade Abdou, the family retainer, to go to the Groppi Garden each
morning so as to bring back freshly-baked croissants for breakfast. I can still
taste them now.”
Now steeped in memories of a gentler era, Chafik enthused over Groppi’s Petit
Suisse (sweet fromage frais) and its marrons glacés “better than any in Paris”.
It was then his wife Marian, an English-language teacher at the American
University of Cairo, joined him on his trip down memory lane.
Cairo’s answer to Fortnum and Mason’s
“My parents would often take me to the garden for ice-cream soda with strawberry
syrup,” she said. “Christmas and Easter were special times when there were
always fabulous displays, a giant Christmas tree, stockings filled with sweets
and goodies, life-sized Santas or huge Easter bunnies. You could say that
Groppi’s was Cairo’s answer to London’s Fortnum and Mason’s.”
Leon Wahba, who once lived near the Groppi Tea-room on Suleiman Pasha Street,
now a citizen of the US, shares that memory. “I was only 13 years when we left
Egypt,” he says, but what I recall best was Groppi’s ice-cream, sold off
bicycles with coolers. Those ice-cream vendors would often park right outside my
school. It was a wonderful treat on those hot Cairo days.”
Adel Toppozada, former Deputy Minister of Information and grandson of former
Egyptian Prime Minister Hussein Pasha Rushdy, describes the area around Talat
Harb during his youth, as “extraordinary”.
“Those streets boasted the best coffee shops and tea-rooms but none could
compete with Groppi’s. It was normal in those days to see the aristocracy
stepping out of a Rolls or a Cadillac for a hairdressing appointment at Socrate
or George or Climatianos, which sold exquisite men’s hats and ties. Those were
the days when the shops were stocked with anything you could possibly want from
Paris, Rome or London.”
“In my student days, we often went to Groppi’s or Locke’s, dressed up to the
nines. These were real occasions and people always looked as though they were
going to a party, the women in long evening dresses and fur stoles. Groppi’s tea
room was the place to people watch and be seen.”
“Kamel Shenawi the journalist and poet had his own table and I often spotted the
author Taufik Al-Hakim, who had a reputation for being a misogynist”.
“During WWII, Groppi’s on Adly Pasha Street (a second branch of Groppi’s) was
frequented by members of Britain’s Eighth Army and was a favourite of General
Montgomery, who came to enjoy jazz evenings in the garden,” says Toppozada.
Indeed, Colonel David Sutherland, who was characterised by Dirk Bogarde in the
WWII movie “They who Dare”, recounts in his memoirs how he treated two German
prisoners to tea at Groppi’s before turning them over to British interrogators.
How cruel was that? Oh how those men must have suffered during their
incarceration longing for those delicious flavours and refined ambience that
encapsulated Groppi’s of the day.
A biography of Admiral Sir Horace Law, a descendant of Horatio Nelson, describes
how guests at Law’s wedding party marvelled at a cake made by Groppi’s, the like
of which hadn’t been seen in London for years.
But the British weren’t the only ones milling around Groppi’s during the war.
According to a statement signed by a Fascist spy Theodore John William Schurch,
a Swiss national who was incarcerated by the British, Groppi’s was the venue for
meetings with his Italian recruiter.
And according to SS archived microfilm, Hitler’s right-hand man Adolph Eichmann
visited Cairo in 1937, where he met with a member of the Haganah on October 10
and 11 at Groppi’s – a meeting that some chroniclers of history would prefer to
A member of the US 98 Bomb Group recounts an evening spent at the Groppi garden
in the 40s. “Well into the evening, the musicians stopped playing and all
dancers left the dance floor, which was then hydraulically raised two feet to
become a stage for the floor show. There were some very accomplished
performers…I think they were the best floor show acts I have ever seen.”
In 1952, due to its British army clientele, Groppi’s tea room narrowly escaped
destruction. An anonymous eyewitness recounts the day Egyptian protestors almost
burned it down.
“First was the sound of shattering glass of Groppi’s windows. Some of the mob
went inside and escorted the employees safely outside. Some climbed for the
Groppi’s sign and dismantled the Royal emblem (Confisserie de la Maison Royale)
from it. They then proceeded systematically to smash everything in the place.”
But Groppi’s swiftly recovered and in later years during the 50s” it was
fashionable to take breakfast at Groppi’s side-by-side with pashas, famous
politicians, artists, writers and editors, such as Ali Amin, Mustapha Amin and
Mohammed Al-Tabei,” says Toppozada.
Former UNESCO official and Secretary-General of the Aga Khan Foundation Said
Zulficar, who lives in France, has rather less pleasant memories of breakfast at
“In 1960/61 when I was doing research in Cairo for my PhD thesis, I lived across
the street from Groppi’s at the Tulip hotel, which cost EG 1 per night. And so I
used to have breakfast every day at Groppi’s, which was the “in place” in Cairo
and often sat with other habitués, who assisted me with my research. These
included journalists, historians, an ambassador and several members of the
French commercial delegation (there was no French embassy since the 1956 Suez
“These daily breakfast meetings went on for some three months after which I fell
ill with hepatitis and went to convalesce in my grandmother’s Alexandria flat. I
give this detail because my absence from Cairo saved me from a terrible fate.”
“One morning, the Secret Police raided Groppi and arrested the whole crowd under
the accusation (totally trumped up) that the French team was plotting with their
Egyptian breakfast colleagues to overthrow the regime. They were imprisoned for
over six months but in the end they were all released as there was no proof of
any such conspiracy”.
“I never resumed my daily breakfasts at Groppi’s, nor have I ever returned to
the Tulip Hotel, which is still there”, says Zulficar.
Leftist conspirators and secret police
In his book “Cairo: the City Victorious” Max Rodenbeck describes the ambience of
Groppi’s Tea Rooms and the nearby Café Riche, which both had its share of
“leftist conspirators and secret police…”.
In 1981, Groppi was sold to Abdul-Aziz Lokma, founder of the Lokma Group, its
present owners, explains Khalim A. El-Khadem, Groppi’s current General Manager.
It was then that the bar was closed down and the sale of alcohol banned.
El-Khadem told me that Giacomo Groppi was the first to introduce Egypt to
crème-chantilly and ice-cream and his chocolates were of such fine quality they
received world-wide renown.
King Farouk was so impressed with the excellence of Groppi’s chocolates that
during WWII he sent 100 kilograms as a present to King George for his daughters
the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
These, says El-Khadem, were put on a ship which avoided German submarines by
taking a circuitous route from Egypt to London via West Africa, Spain, France,
Belgium and Scotland. Incredibly, they arrived intact.
The patisserie, the chocolates, the marrons glacés and the jams were made in
Groppi’s factory which still stands today complete with original machines.
“The manufacturing processes were kept strictly secret,” says El-Khadem.
“No single employee was allowed to know every ingredient contained in the final
product. There were always two or three chefs employed; each responsible for
only one manufacturing phase.”
“The recipes were all in French, which the employees didn’t understand, so when
Groppi eventually hired a Swiss-German to run his factory, he was given French
lessons to enable him to read them.”
El-Khadem admits that not all of Groppi’s products today are made according to
the original recipes because consumer demands have changed.
Ibrahim Mohammed Fadel, Groppi’s longest-serving employee, has worked for the
company for 60 years. He worked closely with not only Giacomo Groppi but also
his son and “Mr. Bianchi, who become a partner in the 1940s.”
He recalls the days when the former head of Egypt’s Wafd Party Fouad Serageldin
was a regular of the Adly Pasha branch, and remembers how the Nobel Prize
recipient author Naguib Mahfouz would frequently stop by Groppi’s tea house to
read the newspapers.
It’s a pity that walls can’t talk. Groppi’s encapsulates almost 100 years of
Egypt’s history and an elegant, sophisticated milieu that no longer exists;
except, that is, in the fading memories of those who were privileged to have
been part of that glittering and exciting world.
Sadly there is little doubt that one day all that will remain of Egypt’s Belle
Époque and Groppi’s glory days will be found on celluloid or deep within the
pages of novels and biographies.