‘The Viennese coffee house is a special kind of institution, and incomparable to any other in the world. It is actually a kind of democratic club, accessible to everyone for a cheap cup of coffee, where for this small fee every guest can sit for hours, discuss, write, play cards, receive their post and, above all, consume an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines,’ wrote Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday. His description, published in 1942, still holds true. The coffee house in Vienna was, and still is, an important meeting place for private, political, economic, artistic, and last but not least, literary ideas. Initiated by the Club of Viennese Coffee House Owners, Viennese coffee house culture was included on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011.
The history of the Viennese coffee house and its accompanying culture began in the late 17th century. Today we know for sure that it is not Georg Franz Kolschitzky, but a certain John Diodato (also Deodat or Theodat), who on 17 January 1685 received the Ausschankprivileg (licence) for serving coffee and opened Vienna’s first coffee house.
During the 18th century the number of coffee houses in Vienna grew rapidly and, as in other European cities, a coffee house culture developed in tandem. The Viennese coffee house was so special that other European cities considered it unique, as the following description from 1895 shows: ‘The same high rooms on the ground floor, decorated like a banquet hall, the same marble tables and the same throne of the cashier, who graciously grants audience to the favoured regulars, the same cosy establishments fitted with window seats, the same huge mirrored panes, which allowed the casual spectator to observe, greet and nod at the colourful street life […], the same elegant, softly upholstered furniture, the same quieter, darkened back rooms for the card players, the same elegance and comfort of the most secret places of recreation.’ Except for the Sitzkassierin (seated cashier), these features still exist in Viennese coffee houses today.
In 1788, the era of the concert café began with the Café Bellevue in Vienna. For a while, garden and summer cafés were particularly popular, along with Ausflugscafés (excursion cafés) such as Café Dommayer. In 1857, as part of the construction of the Ringstrasse, glamorous Ringstrasse cafés were created, of which Café Landtmann, Café Prückel and Café Schwarzenberg remain today. A century later, in the 1950s, Italian style espresso-drinking became popular; from 2000 on, coffee shops took off everywhere and the so-called ‘third wave’ (American-style coffee shops and roasting culture) reached the Viennese market. In these new venues everything revolves around Fairtrade, the way coffee is prepared and consumed in comfort seated in the shop’s front window. This trend will certainly have an impact on the classic Vienna coffee house, adapting to people’s needs and present circumstances.
Last but not least, it was and is a place for intellectuals, artists and writers to discuss and perform their work, be inspired or withdraw to write. As Friedrich Torberg writes, in the coffee house, ‘literary schools and styles were born and discarded’. Especially around 1900, the combination of coffee houses and literature became an international phenomenon. In Vienna, the term, ‘coffee house literature’, found its way into literary history. It refers to works that were created either in part or entirely in the coffee house during the fin de siècle, and refers primarily to the work of the best-known coffee house writers: Peter Altenberg (the pen name of Richard Engländer, 1859–1919), Alfred Polgar (1873–1955), Egon Friedell (1878– 1938) and Anton Kuh (1890–1941). According to Kuh, a coffee house writer is ‘a person in the coffee house who has time to think about what the others outside do not experience’.
The former Café Griensteidl (opened in 1847) is a distinctive literary café. The group Young Vienna, which included Arthur Schnitzler, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was organised by Hermann Bahr. Karl Kraus also frequented Café Griensteidl. His text, ‘The demolished literature’, a swan song to the Griensteidl which included not always favourable descriptions of his colleagues, ends with the question: ‘Where is our young literature headed now? And which is its future Griensteidl?’
Café Central then became the focal point of intellectual life in Vienna. Not only did all the writers frequent it, including Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil and Anton Kuh, but also painters, architects, and guests ranging from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, to Russian revolutionaries. Peter Altenberg used this café as his residential address, and Adolf Loos, Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgar were regulars at his table.
In 1918, Café Central faced competition from Café Herrenhof, which had opened across the street frequented by numerous writers including Friedrich Torberg, Milan Dubrovic, Ernst Polak, Max Brod, Joseph Roth, Heimito von Doderer and Elias Canetti. In 1938 the café was expropriated from its (Jewish) owner and ‘aryanised’. After the Second World War, it never achieved the same status and was finally closed.
The Café Museum, designed by Adolf Loos and opened in 1899, was also an important meeting place for the city’s cultural and artistic celebrities. In addition to the painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, the writers Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, Georg Trakl, Elias Canetti, Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel, Robert Musil and Leo Perutz are mentioned as regular guests.
Café Hawelka, which opened in 1939, can also be described as a literary café in the classic sense in which, among others, the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) of H. C. Artmann, Friedrich Achleitner, Gerhard Rühm, Konrad Bayer and Oswald Wiener met. André Heller, who discovered Café Hawelka when he was thirteen, described it as a ‘place of obvious illusions’; Robert Schindel as a ‘training centre’. Women authors also appear on the lists of famous guests, for example Elfriede Gerstl, Friederike Mayröcker or Hilde Spiel. After the heyday of Café Hawelka in the 1950s and 1960s there was a certain decentralisation of the coffee house literature scene. Authors were now less likely to be found in groups than they were by themselves in very specific coffee houses, for example Elfriede Jelinek in Café Korb or Thomas Bernhard in Café Bräunerhof.
To this day, many authors have their regular cafés and the same seats, such as Robert Schindel in Café Prückel or Friederike Mayröcker (until her death in 2021) in Café Sperl. Like other Viennese, authors organise their meetings in cafés. Author groups still meet, for example, in the back room of Café Sperlhof or in a booth at Café Am Heumarkt. Readings or events, such as Literature Sunday in Café Anno, provide platforms for authors to appear in public before the café audience. And finally, the Vienna coffee house is still a home for anyone wanting to spend hours over a cup of coffee simply reading or writing.
by Barbara Rieger and Alain Barbero
Translated by Christina Daub
The Viennese Coffee House Writers
From MÉLANGE DER POESIE – WIENER KAFFEHAUS MOMENTE IN SCHARZWEISS
by Barbara Rieger and Alain Barbero
Translated by Christina Daub
Published by Kremayr & Scheriau (2017)
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Barbara Rieger was born in Graz. She lives in Vienna and Upper Austria and is a writer, publisher, and teacher of creative writing. Together with Alain Barbero she founded and runs the bilingual photo and literature blog cafe.entropy.at. Her third novel will be published by Kremayr & Scheriau in 2024.
Alain Barbero, born in Annecy, France, lives as an artist-photographer in Paris and Dortmund, Germany. He has exhibited in France, Austria, Italy and Spain. With Barbara Rieger he founded and runs the blog cafe.entropy.at, from which two books have been published.
Christina Daub, is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, whose work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. The founder of The Plum Review, she has taught poetry and creative writing at George Washington University in Washington, DC. She also translates from German and Spanish into English.