Europe, History and culture

The institution

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The Viennese coffee houses served as home to Austria’s chief literati for decades. Today they are still recognised as one of the country’s finest cultural treasures. 

 

There is one rule to remember when entering the spacious rooms of a classic Vienna coffee house: never order ‘coffee’. The days when Nobel Prize winners filled the Thonet wooden chairs and debated contemporary issues in smoke-filled chambers may be over, but, casting a look at the bow-tie-and-jacket-wearing waiters, the rich selection of continental newspapers and journals, and the thick menus containing only variations of coffee and cakes, the sense of sophistication is still very much present.

The attention to detail that stems from the coffee houses’ history of housing Vienna’s literati – writers, philosophers and composers who in the late 1880s were the pioneers of Viennese Modernism – gives way to a charming set of values that defines their cultural worth (the city’s coffee houses were in 2011 added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage). The waiters, quiet and polite, serve each coffee on an elegant silver tray with a glass of still water and a silver spoon. For long stays, water is refilled. And even after finishing your drink, you can as long as you want.

There are many reasons to do so. Besides coffee, the houses offer a world of cakes, pastries, ice creams and smaller food plates. Many have signature drinks. Among guests, the activities are slow and leisurely. The array of newspapers, journals, magazines and literature can occupy visitors for hours. Others play billiard, chess or cards. Contributing to this aura of relaxation is the cafés’ cosy interior; wooden floors, marble-topped tables, high ceilings and large windows that allow guests to lean back and observe the hectic street life. With opening times often stretching from early morning until midnight, people can stay all day. And the more newspapers, games and regulars, the better the coffee house.

If the current coffee houses have a touch of class and sophistication, the specificity with which guests order coffee was even greater in the past. From the mid-1800s to the early 20th century, when coffee houses were cultivated institutions, waiters and guests possessed a repertoire of technical terms to describe the composition of a coffee. Expressions like ‘mélange’, ‘cup of gold’ or ‘one-horse carriage’ needed no further explanation. One waiter is said to have carried shades of brown on a 1-20 scale, aiming to serve the coffee in exactly the colour ordered. Complaints were referred to by numbers: “Waiter, I ordered a 12; this is simply an 8!”

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Such refinement was partly a reflection of the clientele. After the establishment of the city’s first coffee house in the late 1680s, the Viennese coffee scene in the 1800s developed into an institution that attracted the finest of domestic and European intellectuals, who indulged in the selection of newspapers and magazines from Austria as well as Germany, France, England, Italy and America. But information was key in all professions, and so businessmen, politicians, army-officers and bohemians also attended, practically using them as second living rooms or homes.

But there was more to coffee houses than just reading. Production, debate and discussion took place. Writers could be seen alone, toiling away on their manuscripts for hours, while on the next table a group of regulars heatedly debated a literary work, a painting or a theatrical review. Many respected writers clashed in debates with younger names. Journalists, painters and architects joined in. It was, as Stefan Zweig, a novelist and journalist wrote, a “democratic club to which admission costs the small price of a cup of coffee”.

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Some coffee houses were more famous than others. The old Griensteidl was the first meeting place for the Viennese elite. From 1847 to its demolition in 1897, its legendary culture consisted of Austrian names such as Hermann Bahr and Karl Kraus, the renowned writers, Hugo Wolf, the composer, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the novelist. All produced some of their finest work over cups of coffee. The Griensteidl’s importance to the literati was lost on no one; after its demolition in 1897, Kraus lamented: “Our literature is facing a period of homelessness, the thread of poetical production will be cruelly broken… more than one advantage has secured this venerable locality a place of honour in literary history.”

The elite needed somewhere, and so moved to Café Central which became the new centre for European sophisticates. Within the next two decades, names like Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Alfred Adler and Vladimir Lenin had visited. At the time, the coffee houses’ general popularity were boosted by the inadequate housing caused by the economic chaos that followed World War I, with people fleeing cold houses for warm public saloons. One writer, the quintessential coffee poet Peter Altenberg, frequented Café Central so often he used it as his address.

The coffee houses’ heyday died down before World War II. After a dark period during the 1960s and 1970s, several were renovated, including the Griensteidl, which reopened in 1990. Other traditional cafés reinvented themselves as post-modern espresso bars, providing an alternative house for the young and hip. But although a couple of lonesome pianists have been replaced by DJs, many classic coffee houses are still staving off the new wave of chains (Starbucks, Costa…) by presenting their proud culture with a twist of modernity. For tourists, that is great news. As long as you know how to order.

Photos: Stephen Coles, Café Central.

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