Romance and Nostalgia in the Coffeehouse

Kathleen Walsh

On the website for the European Historic Cafés Association, one can find the itinerary for a nostalgic tour of the continent’s historically preserved coffeehouses. The tour spans Western, Central, and Southern Europe, stretching from Greece to Malta, Spain to Denmark. Most of Europe’s historic cafés, however, are within the confines of the former Austro-Hungarian empire—Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary—and they project a nostalgia for that imperial era. Even in the northeastern Italian city of Trieste, on the far edges of the erstwhile empire, today’s historic coffeehouses serve as a callback to the Habsburg age and an attempt to establish the city as a cultural connecting point to Central Europe. Europe’s historically preserved cafés work primarily for the purposes of tourism, drawing in visitors through romantic remembrances of a bygone age and the legendary figures who populated it. While Vienna stands out as the most famous coffeehouse culture, cafés across Europe reflect the lingering aesthetics and traditions of the Austro-Hungarian era.

As the popular story goes, Viennese coffeehouses began after the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683, when the Ottoman military left behind several sacks of dried green coffee beans. But the true founding was in 1685, when two Armenians received permission from Emperor Leopold I to sell Turkish coffee. Coffeehouse culture hit its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becoming a staple of fin-de-siècle culture. As described by Gabrielle Robinson and Mike Keen, the coffeehouse was “as much a philosophy as a place which satisfies our paradoxical desires.” Cafés offered patrons both community engagement and solitude; it was a space where one could interact with fellow urban citizens or sit alone and enjoy respite from the city. The coffeehouse represents a desire to both participate in the cosmopolitan city and observe it from a distance. For writer Stefan Zweig, who memorializes fin-de-siècle Vienna in his memoir The World of Yesterday, the café was “a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world . . . a democratic club to which admission costs the small price of a cup of coffee.”

Many Viennese cafés have their own specialty items, such as the Buchteln at the Café Hawelka or the eponymous Sacher Torte at the Hotel Sacher café. Vienna’s more touristy cafés, concentrated in the First District near the city’s main attractions, have made the turn towards serving iced coffee, an order that, in a more “traditional” café, might warrant a stern look of disapproval and an insistence on a mélange or some more classic beverage. Newspapers abound inside most coffeehouses, while laptops do not—a clear nod to the old coffeehouse culture of observing or participating in the environment. The waiters, known as Oberkeller, still wear black jackets or vests and a tie, usually a bow tie, all of which aims to retain this romantic sense of the coffeehouse.

Viennese coffeehouses have various decorative styles, ranging from the grand vaulted ceiling of the nineteenth-century Café Central to the dark, comfortable Café Hawelka (both pictured above). Differences in appearance notwithstanding, many of these cafés became sites of intellectual discussion, often of well-known writers and artists. These famous coffeehouse devotees—often listed on the cafés’ websites to attract tourists—included Gustav Mahler, Leon Trotsky, and Gustav Klimt. The Café Griensteidl was a favorite haunt of the Jung Wien group, while Sigmund Freud was known to enjoy the Café Landtmann. When Grace Kelly visited Vienna, she is said to have wanted to see three things: the Heurigen, the Lipizzaner stallions, and the Café Hawelka.

Many of the writers and artists who frequented Viennese cafés were a part of the rich Jewish intellectual scene of fin-de-siècle and interwar Central Europe. This Jewish intellectual strand provides a partial explanation for the spread of coffeehouse culture far beyond Vienna. As Shachar Pinsker argues in his monograph A Rich Brew, Viennese cafés were a “part of the silk road of transnational modern Jewish culture created in urban cafés in Europe and beyond.” Covering cafés in Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and Tel Aviv, Pinsker outlines the “functioning myth” of the Viennese coffeehouse and of Vienna more broadly. Identified in the mid-20th century by Jewish Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg, the “functioning myth” of the Viennese café refers to the importance of the coffeehouse as a cultural symbol, rather than a physical space. The romantic and myth-like idea of the coffeehouse proves more appealing and powerful than the reality of it.

Viennese cafés became a “neutral ground” for Jewish intellectuals who sought retreat from the prejudices of the city. Because of their growing association with Jewishness, coffeehouses became sites of anti-Semitic attacks. Coffeehouse and Jewish cultures were intertwined, meaning the Vienna-style café was a “migrating” and “mobile” concept, not fixed in Vienna. Pinsker argues that coffeehouse culture was “not lost with the advent of the Anschluss and World War II,” but was “transformed and preserved, at least in memory, in various locations after Jews had to flee Vienna in the face of the devastation of the Nazi era.” By investigating cafés in communities with large Jewish émigré populations and locations that functioned as pre-war hubs of Jewish intellectualism, Pinsker finds that Vienna is just one example of an international café culture.

While Vienna’s coffeehouses often receive the most focus, a consideration of these cafés elsewhere could provide an important understanding of the ways in which certain cultural features of the Habsburg era lingered after the dynasty collapsed. Although central to the tourism of their cities, many of these cafés still draw in locals, making their continued presence not only a means of attracting others in, but also a continued form of cultural engagement for city natives. Vienna’s coffeehouse culture has taken on a myth-like quality, filled with the sentiment of Zweig’s “world of yesterday.” Some cafés did not make it through the turmoil of twentieth century Central Europe; but those that did work to present themselves as something with a sense of coming from another era. Asking how these cafes across the former empire differ in appearance, in style, or in the food and coffee would allow for an understanding of the uses of the coffeehouse across Europe, outside of the mainstay of Vienna. A comparative approach, perhaps one that follows the route of the European Historic Cafes Association, could elucidate how Habsburg successor states have used these cultural centers to either differentiate themselves from, or romantically call back to, a former imperial world.

Image: Cafe Central, Vienna (Photo from a.canvas.of.light) pictured on the left. Cafe Hawelka, Vienna, (Photo from Yusuki Kawasaki) pictured on the right.

Kathleen Walsh is an M.A. candidate at Georgetown studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include the Habsburg monarchy and post-World War II Austria, as well as memory and identity.

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