323 Years of Caffeine

One of Thomas Barnett’s commenters complained about Europe being a cafe society, so why not some café-blogging? After all, the collectif antilibérale over at European Tribune had a whole thread on brasseries not so long ago. Der Standard has a long article on the history of Viennese kaffeehäuser, going back to 1683 and the second siege of Vienna.

First of all, a classic trope of European history-the fact everyone knows, but that turns out to be rubbish. Like King Canute telling the tide to back off (a little like keeping spam out of our comments threads, but I digress) – everyone remembers that, but hardly anyone realises that Canute did it to humble his courtiers with the limits of power, rather than in a gesture of deluded arrogance. Every schoolboy knows that one Georg Franz Kolschitzky was rewarded for sneaking through the Turkish lines with a message by being given a stash of coffee beans from captured stocks. Another version is that, after the relief of Vienna, he looted the beans from the Turks’ abandoned baggage train, or bought them for a song from a soldier who didn’t know their value.

The only problem is that it’s not true.

In fact, the first café in Vienna was opened by an Armenian who was a former servant at the Imperial Court, and who may also have been a spy. (What else? Cafés are for conspiring.) There are obvious parallels between the two stories, and it’s hard not to imagine that Kolschitzky was a more patriotic and Catholic figure for little Austro-Hungarian boys’ consumption. Brief consideration also debunks the story that no-one knew what the brown beans were – Venice had opened the first European café in 1647, and this key strategic technology spread rapidly along the sea trade routes, so that cafés were opening in numbers in London in the 1650s.

Gambling and billiards were common from the word go. 40 years on, newspapers began to appear, and another 20 years saw the first café with music. Booze and hot food had to wait until 1808, when Austria joined Napoleon’s trade embargo on the UK and immediately lost access to coffee. But it was 1856 before women were admitted. From then on, the sky was the limit-or rather, it was until the eruption of the short twentieth century.

Vienna’s Ringstrasse is today surprisingly short on cafés; there are essentially three worth speaking of, the Schottenring at the top end, the Schwarzenberg at the Schwarzenbergplatz halfway down, and the Prückel at the Stubentor near the bottom. The reason is grim. Most of the luxury car showrooms and airline offices are former Jewish cafés, expropriated before the extermination of their clientele, and converted to their new use postwar because of their fine locations and ample clear space on the ground floor. A curious architectural echo of this exists in London, where a recently opened restaurant that claims to be an attempt at a classic café-restaurant occupies, yes, a former car showroom.

My favourites were the Stadlmann, next to the Institute of Political Science on the Währingerstrasse, and the Alt Wien in the city centre on Bäckerstrasse. And the Hawelka, but everyone loves the Hawelka.

Any favourites?

3 thoughts on “323 Years of Caffeine

  1. Hi –

    Sperl on Gumpendorferstrasse, especially since the renovation. Great cakes, great window seats, one of the oldest continuously open cafes in Vienna, and as usual great coffee…


  2. Cafe Gloriette – after walking up the hills behind the Schoenbrunn castle, it was a great place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

    I also liked the glamourous grit of Cafe Westend across from Westbahnhof.

    The dark and grittiness of a different sort was also enjoyable at Cafe Alt Wien – tucked into the heart of the 1st district.

    And of course who can’t like Hawelka – one weekday night a bunch of friends visited, and the table next ordered beer. They ordered an extra one and offered it to Frau Hawelka – and she sat down and joined them…rest in peace Josefine

  3. Ah, the Westend. A real cracker, especially with the frantic Gürtel traffic pelting by. I had dinner there the last time I was in Vienna.

Comments are closed.