Vienna’s coffeehouses have history of serving literati, raconteurs

By Carola Frentzen, IANS
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

VIENNA - Paris has its bistros, London its pubs, Rome its wine bars and Vienna its coffeehouses.

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig once described these cosy strongholds of Viennese culture as an institution comparable with no other in the world. Their coffee drink menus often go on for pages and feature such classics as the Grosser Brauner - a double espresso with milk - and the wonderful Melange - a less strong Grosser Brauner with a little steamed milk.

“It is in fact a sort of democratic club, accessible to everybody for a cheap bowl of coffee, where each guest may remain for a small obolus for hours, and may discuss, write, play cards, receive his mail and above all where he can consume any amount of newspapers and magazines,” the noted author wrote in 1942.

The Austrian capital was not the first city in the world where coffee was served openly. Coffeehouses had been around since about 1530 in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in Cairo and Damascus and later in Istanbul. London and Venice caught on to coffeehouses faster than Vienna, which many believe got its first coffeehouse in 1685 when an Armenian named Johannes Diodato opened his establishment.

Other sources say Georg Franz Kolsckitzy is the originator of the Vienna coffeehouse. He supposedly opened his Blue Bottle cafe one year before Diodato using numerous sacks full of coffee beans left by Turks after the second siege of Vienna in 1683.

Today there are more than 500 coffeehouses in Vienna.

Vienna coffeehouses are a place to browse newspapers and books, discuss the events of the day or play chess with a good friend. But above all it’s a place in which a person can wade into the crowd and while away the hours on an upholstered chair at a marble-top table.

People who go into coffeehouses want to be alone, but they need a little company while they are at it, said writer Alfred Polgar in describing coffeehouse patrons. He felt most at home in Cafe Central where he was a regular along with Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Arthur Schnitzler and Peter Altenberg.

Altenberg, Vienna’s most famous coffeehouse wit and poet, is eternalized in a life-size figure seated at a marble table at the entrance of Cafe Central. Other writers have been chosen to represent other coffeehouses. The legendary Cafe Hawelka, which has been kept in its original art nouveau style, for example, features art historian and publicist Alfred Schmeller.

“If I am not at home, then I’m at Hawelka. If I’m not at Hawelka, then I’m on the way there,” he once said, making no secret of his love for the cafe near the centrally located St Stephan’s Cathedral. Leopold Hawelka, who turned 99 this year, has been personally greeting guests of his establishment since May 1939.

In earlier days artists sometimes stayed at their favourite coffeehouse until well into the night. The reason was not just to exchange opinions with other intellectuals and to enjoy the coffee. They also preferred the warmth of the homely and familiar cafes to their small, cold apartments. Some writers went so far as to have their post delivered to their favourite cafe.

Today traditional coffeehouses are among the main tourist attractions of Vienna. Aside from the Central and the Hawelka, there’s the Landtmann, the Sperl, the Griensteidl and the list goes on. As in the past, actors and actresses and other artists are seen at Vienna coffeehouses whose menus have been broadened to include non-Austrian coffee specialties such as cappuccino and latte.

One thing that hasn’t changed is no matter what type of coffee a guest orders, the cup is served in the traditional Viennese way with a glass of water on a small silver tray.

Filed under: Fashion, Lifestyle, World

will not be displayed