The Lore and Legend Behind the Viennese Kaffeehaus

Some years ago, I was visited by a journalist friend-of-a-friend from New York, who was making the rounds of European capitals hoping to relocate back to the continent. He knew Paris and Berlin, but not Vienna. But as we walked around town on this Friday afternoon in June, checking out neighborhoods and talking contacts, I couldn’t help noticing the puzzled look on his face. Was something wrong?

“Doesn’t anybody do any work in this town?” he asked in disbelief, as we passed the third café in a row, whose outdoor tables were already overflowing, and it was barely 15:00.

It was my cue to begin the tale of the Viennese Kaffeehaus, the home away from home, the office away from the office, that is a staple of life for many of us. The institution – I think we can safely call it that – that despite two world wars, a banking collapse and a shattered postwar economy, despite even the brutal expulsion and destruction of the Jewish intellectual life that had sustained it, has managed a gradual, if unlikely, rebirth in recent decades.

“But they are working!” I protested – well, some of them, anyway. After all, I reminded him, lots of business takes place over coffee and conversation, over a glass and an anecdote. He was a journalist; surely he knew that…

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With which I launched into my “legends of the Café Louvre,” the redoutable Kaffeehaus that once stood on the corner of Wipplingerstraße and Renngasse in the 1st district, where Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Movement was formed, and whence a veritable who’s who of foreign correspondents met every evening, collecting gossip and filing their dispatches from the Central Telegraph Office across the street: Americans Robert Best of UPI, John Gunther of the Chicago Tribune, Dorothy Thompson of the NY Post, and William Shirer of the International News Service, along with Englishman G.E.R. Gedye representing both the Daily Telegraph and The New York Times that had a later deadline… (Now I had his attention!)

So while Gunther was gathering material for his famed “Inside Europe,” the intrepid Thompson’s unswerving, critical coverage of the Nazis was about to get her deported, and William Shirer was switching from wire copy to radio and preparing to make history. All were dependent on the encyclopedic knowledge and generosity of Hungarian Marcel Fodor, correspondent for the London Times, who spoke five languages and knew everybody. “The basis of journalism in Europe is friendship,” wrote Gunther in Harper’s Magazine in July 1935. “News gathering [here] is largely a collaboration, whereby men who know and trust one another exchange gossip, background and information.”

And ring leader Robert Best? He remained at his Stammtisch at the Café Louvre until the Nazis closed it down in 1940, and shortly thereafter, was fired by UPI for non-performance. But rather than leave, he stayed on and decided to work for the Nazis, broadcasting daily pro-Hitler propaganda to front line American soldiers and their worried families back home. After the war, he was convicted of treason and died in prison in 1952.

I glanced at my guest: This counts as working, right? He laughed. He’s a nice guy.

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The Café Louvre didn’t survive the bombing. Today, journalists can often be found at Cafè Prückel at Stubentor, just a stone’s throw from the offices of Der Standard, along with Christoph Thun Hohenstein, director of the MAK (Museum of Angewandte Kunst) across the street; or just behind it, at Cafè Engländer, where Joachim Riedl of Die Zeit and Angelika Hager of Profil might rub shoulders with Intendant Michael Niavarani or Conferencier Joachim Brandl of the Cabaret Simpl, just around the corner on the Wollzeile. At Café Eiles, on Josefstädter Straße, you might find Wien Museum Director and Stammgast Matti Bunzl, or any of the city’s hundreds of diligent public servants from the Rathaus across the way. Journalists are often there too, of course, picking up gossip, including me. And I have it on good authority (I could reassure my guest) they are mostly working. But then again, I don’t reveal my sources.

The Kaffeehaus Tradition

The golden age of the Viennese Kaffeehaus was at the center of those glowing final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so richly portrayed in Carl Schorske’s Fin de siècle Vienna. This was the era of artists Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and the Secession’s younger acolytes Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, of architects Otto Wagner and Alfred Loos, of playwrights Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, of musicians Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. All of whom, by the way, had their own chosen Kaffeehäuser, where they were among the regulars that made each place what it was. The Secession artists were Stammgäste at Café Museum, opened in 1899 in a sleek, minimalistic black-and-white design by Loos, in provocative contrast to the prevailing taste for red velvet – at neighboring tables to operetta legends Franz Lehar and Alexander Girardi. Not Wiener Werkstätte founder Josef Hoffmann, though, who had his chauffeur drive him daily to Café Schwarzenberg, where he would lunch and then sit for hours sketching. Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal joined Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten and Hermann Bahr and the growing circle of Jung Wien first at the old Cafè Griensteidl, and after it was demolished, at the Café Central; Sigmund Freud could usually be found at the Café Landtmann near the university, along with Gustav Mahler and the great German novelist Thomas Mann.

In this world, wrote essayist Clive James in his collection Cultural Amnesia, “the richest life of the mind took place outside the university.” It was a time when education was a life-long process, broader in many ways than the university, and more fun.

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“In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion and wit a form of currency,” he writes. “You didn’t complete your education and start your career, your education was your career. And it was never completed.”

It was also fun. People came to the Kaffeehaus to read, write or reflect, but perhaps most, for the conversation – which among the Literaten of the Café Central was developed to a high art, sanctified as a kind of elevated purposelessness.

“There are writers who are unable to carry out their literary chores anywhere but at the Café Central,” wrote charter member Alfred Polgar. “Only there, at the tables of idleness, enveloped by the air of indolence, will their inertia become truly fecund.”

But this didn’t work for everyone, as Polgar was first to admit: “There are creative types who are uninspired only at the Central – except that everywhere else it’s worse.”

And then there was Peter Altenberg, the indigent aphorist who sits in replica to this day just inside the door of the Café Central. He was a denizen of no particular fame except in Vienna, who effectively lived at the café for decades, giving it as his address, receiving his mail and the occasional telephone call in the booth at the back. Writes Clive James, “the more diligent writers and intellectuals cherished him as their other, less trammeled self, devoid of ambition, and the obligations of honesty. He was an ideal for men weighed down with ideals.”

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So among them, between borrowing money and cadging drinks, he spent his days reducing his ironic take on the human condition into artful witticisms that were close to poetry. To wit:

“There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.”

Another: “There are three kinds of people that have no money: the spendthrifts, the poor, and the greedy.”

And a third, responding to a complaint from a lover that his interest was based only on sexual attraction, he replied, “Was ist so nur?” (What is so only?) – which men apparently find charming. Women less so. But perhaps I am being unfair: “For men,” wrote Clive James, “the first, and shamefully unthinking flood of worship is the opposite of casual. It is monumental. And Peter Altenberg got it in one phrase.”

Karl Kraus, too, was a legendary wit: “The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make men any worse.” Another: “A journalist is a writer whose skill is improved by a deadline.” Another: “It’s a lovely world indeed, in which men, at the fulfillment of their dearest wish, treat women with contempt.”

They all worked at it. And often with spectacular results, writes James: “When the distinguished and wildly eccentric legal advocate Hugo Sperber played cards, people would take turns standing behind him so they could overhear his running commentary.”

But little of this was ever recorded, so the details have been lost to history. “Everybody was Johnson, and nobody was Boswell.”

How Coffee Came to Vienna

At the heart of the Kaffeehaus legend in Vienna is the tale of Georg Franz Kolschitzky (Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, in Polish), a military interpreter born in 1640 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in what is now western Ukraine. A gifted linguist, he was fluent in Polish, Ruthenian, Serbian, Turkish, German, Hungarian and Romanian, and was working for an Austrian trading company in Belgrade when the Ottoman authorities began arresting commercial traders as spies. Claiming he was a Polish traveler, he escaped this fate and headed for Vienna where he opened his own trading company.

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During the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683, he volunteered to go behind enemy lines to contact Herzog Karl of Lothringen, positioned with his forces outside the city. Dressed in Turkish garb, and singing Ottoman songs, he passed safely through and returned with the news that Karl, although outnumbered, would be able to protect supply lines and harass the Turkish forces from behind, giving time for the Polish King Jan Sobietski to arrive. Assembling on the Kahlenberg on Sept. 12, Sobietski’s troops descended on the Turks from behind and saved the city.

The grateful city awarded Kolschitzky/ Kulczycki a considerable sum and a house in the Leopoldstadt, while the Polish king gave him cartloads of black coffee beans found in the captured camp of Kara Mustafa’s army. With these, according to legend, Kolschitzky opened the first Kaffeehaus in Vienna on Schlosserlgasse, behind Stephansdom.

Was he the first? We’re not sure. But it hardly matters. His skill as a linguist and his role in the breaking of the Turkish Siege is undisputed and a fine statue sculpted by Emanuel Pendl in 1885 stands in a place of honor at Favoritenstraße 64, on the corner of the street that bears his name.

The Gift of Time

The true magic of a Kaffeehaus is the gift of time, the sense, when you walk in the door, that suddenly the world outside just doesn’t matter quite so much anymore. Under the high ceilings, in the generous spaces, you have arrived somewhere where the rules are different, where you can find a place to be left alone. You search out a booth, preferably by a window or in a corner, and settle in, with the book you think you might review, with the A4 notebook of the growing draft of your next screenplay, or perhaps your laptop with the half-written article you just haven’t been able to focus on. Or you decide to catch up on the news but can’t stand the thought of looking at a screen for one more second…

Here you are, in a Kaffeehaus, alone in company, with the tools of your trade and interesting things to think about: The aproned waiter brings your order, and from then on, no one will bother you. Your time is your own.

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It is this gift of time that brings Der Standard columnist Doris Knecht to Café Eiles to write her pieces – free from the thousand distractions of home, in the companionable solitude she finds there. In her opening essay in the richly illustrated new anthology Das Wiener Kaffeehaus (Brandstätter Verlag, 2020, Christian Brandstätter, ed.), she describes how from the minute she arrives in the Kaffeehaus, “the passage of time is reliably shown the door.” Here, she writes, “time stands still,” – a morning without boundaries, an eternal afternoon, a feeling of timelessness that has, for decades, for centuries, been there by design.


But as with the Kaffeehausliteraten of earlier times – escaping cramped, unheated apartments, a chaotic home life or, more often, isolation – for Knecht too, the Kaffeehaus is a longed-for safe haven, a Sehnsuchtsort: Here she can forget all those looming piles of laundry, all those meals to cook, those dust bunnies under the couch, not to mention all the seductions between your home office and the kitchen espresso machine – there is none of this in a Kaffeehaus.

“There,” she writes happily, “the espresso comes to me, without my being distracted.” There, at most, she finds “a bit of incidental atmosphere, a few interesting faces, snatches of conversation, interesting stories, fresh impressions, with a side-order of new ideas.” And if she gets hungry, she has only to raise her hand.

Back at “Work”

So people do work in Viennese coffeehouses. And a lot of other things, too: I have attended countless press conferences and political round tables at the Landtmann, as well as Anneliese Rohrer’s legendary Wutbürger Stammtisch, a political call to action for disgruntled citizens back in 2011 at Café Museum.

There are Eugene Quinn’s Coffeehouse Conversations at the Café Ministerium, where internationals and Viennese get acquainted over coffee and questions, and monthly meetings and performances of the International Brotherhood of Magicians at Café Zartl. Lecturer Simone Stefanie Klein’s Philosophischer Stammtisch meets monthly at Café Schopenhauer, while the Club der logischen Denker meets to hold talks and discussions at Café Westend. The City of Vienna stages a Kriminacht of skits and creepy readings each year at coffeehouses all over town, and the genial and brilliant pianist Belà Koreny hosts cabaret evenings with stars of stage and screen in the downstairs performance area at Café Korb, where the English-language writers group Write-Now also meets to share ongoing work. And at Café Sperlhof, every night is gaming night, between the billiard tables, stacks of board games, chess and playing cards available to all comers.

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For live music, head to Cafés Weimar, Bräunerhof, Central, Sperl and the hotel cafés at the Grand Hotel, Bristol, Imperial, Hilton Plaza, Kempinski and Stefanie.

Rumors of my Death…

Just today, a Viennese friend called in something close to despair to tell me that the pandemic was killing the coffeehouses, that he had just done his own private survey and was convinced that “80% are never going to reopen.” He was distraught: The Stammtische, the evenings of cards, the chess matches, the readings, the music, the literary round tables, the Vernisages – everything, in fact, that made his life in Vienna worthwhile – was all coming to an end.

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I tried to console him. Surely it wouldn’t be that bad: There were government programs to help with salary and rent subsidies, delayed social payments, even the Gastro-Gutscheine vouchers – surely all this would soften the worst of it. But he was inconsolable.

There was not much more I could say; I sincerely hope he is wrong. After all, there have been hard times before, and sooner or later, the Kaffeehäuser have always come back. In the early 1970s, chronicler Friedrich Torberg was convinced the days were gone for good, that times and technology had moved on.

By the “times” he meant “the intrusion of kitchen and cellar into the domain of the coffeehouse,” that resulted in “voluminous menus of dishes and drinks,” which he considered a disastrous concession to the materialistic tendencies of the modern era – a resigned admission that fewer and fewer people were prepared to sacrifice even one cooked meal for joys of conversation and companionship.

Changing technology was an even stickier problem, he wrote in 1976, because “today’s writers write directly onto the typewriter, and dictate their radio dramas to a secretary – neither of which could one take along to a Kaffee-haus.” Needless to say, society has moved on, and the coffeehouses – most with excellent WiFi – have hung in there, adapting as needed so that they can remain who they are.

The Viennese also resent intruders: When retirement closed the beloved Café Haag on Schottengasse in the late 1990s, many were dismayed, even more so when the new tenant turned out to be (gasp!) Pizza Hut. Fortunately, it was out of its league and customers stayed away in droves. A few years later, a Greek restaurant moved in and quickly gave up. Then happily, investor/ manager Andreas Filipczak took over, re- opening as Café Schottenstift, a classy yet unpretentious traditional Kaffeehaus, “not for the tourists.” Now managed by Diglas, it was, and remains, a success.

What Torberg did understand, as well as anyone, is that Vienna is a city that treasures its imagined version of itself, its legends that give shape to the world we live in everyday.

“Vienna is a city of functioning myths,” he wrote, in the mid-1970s. Back then, when the city was still coated in decades of soot and grime, some claimed that legends were the only thing that still worked in Vienna. But he thought that was going too far. What was typical of Vienna, he wrote, and only Vienna, was that “the legends still work, as long as the realities are guided by them.”

The myth of the Wiener Kaffeehaus is one of these.

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