Viennese coffee house culture is renowned the world over, but coffee houses did not begin there. In Mecca, there were several coffee houses in the 12th century, while Europe’s first coffee shop opened in Venice, closely followed by London. It was 1683 before the first Viennese coffee house opened its doors. Since then Vienna has established an unparalleled coffee house tradition.
In 1683, the Ottoman invaders made a hasty retreat from the Battle of Vienna, leaving behind them sack loads of coffee beans at the city gates.The Armenian spy Diodato, who served at the Imperial court and knew the secrets of roasting and brewing the dark beans, seized his opportunity and opened the first coffee shop there. The Viennese soon developed a taste for coffee!
But the early establishments were little more than dingy basements. They had little in common with the sophisticated places with their red velvet chairs and ostentatious chandeliers that we now see as being the ‘traditional’ Viennese coffee-house. In the dark basements though, traditions began which survive to this day: card games, chess and billiards were played and waiters served a glass of water with every cup of coffee. In 1720, the Kramersches Kaffehause began putting out newspapers for its patrons.
In 1808, Napoleon’s Continental Blockade of England had a knock on effect for Austria, where the price of coffee beans rose sharply. Café restaurants serving alcohol and food allowed coffee house owners to diversify, offering cheaper alternatives to coffee in order to avoid bankruptcy. But by 1815, coffee house culture was alive again and had become symbolic of good quality living. In Vienna’s first district, typically the rooms were bright and spacious with darker recesses where men sat reading their newspapers debating loudly on matters of politics and art. Women weren’t allowed to frequent the coffee houses until 1856! They were places of conversation, of fleeting movement and social encounters.
Around 1890, Café Griensteidl became the meeting place for a group of young writers, Jung Wein. Arthur Schnitzier, Felix Salten and Richard Beer-Hofmann were among some of its patrons. It also became the favourite meeting place for a number of actors, lawyers and psychoanalysts. The writers of Café Griendsteil, mostly from liberal Jewish families are celebrated as the founders of modern Viennese literature.
Artists of the Secession such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Court Opera, and Theatre an der Wein preferred the Café Museum. The café was designed by Adolf Loos and was famous for its purist interior and cool ambiance.
Interior – Café Museum Vienna
But working Viennese people, who mostly lived in small flats began using elegant coffee houses as places to meet friends and listen to music. They became extensions to their pokey living rooms, places of entertainment and pleasure. During the depression of the 1930’s, contraband goods were traded under the tables.
In 1938, the Nazis seized several Jewish owned coffee houses in Vienna’s second district and beyond. They had been a second home for many Jewish artists a lively counterpart to the grand coffee houses in the first district.
These days Vienna still has a thriving coffee house tradition, places where locals can linger over a single cup while the world outside rushes by, where those of us with a sweet tooth can order a slice of Wiener Apfelstrudel or sachetorte, trade gossip, read write, laugh and love.