Global Issues: Austria & Czech Republic/Case Reports/Cafes

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Literati and Intellectuals at Vienna’s Cafes

Vienna’s cafes, called “Wiener Kaffeehausen” in German, have great historical significance in the context of the literati and intellectuals at the turn of the 19th century. The café culture of Vienna’s cafes is such that visitors can linger for hours, reading, writing, or conversing with other patrons. Hospitality in the cafes reflects this even today, as a cup of espresso is automatically served with a cold glass of water, intended to signify that a guest is welcome to remain in the café as long as desired. This living room atmosphere is what allowed for the great intellectual tradition to flourish in Vienna’s cafes.

“Coffeehouse literature” is the name given to famous writings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries coming out of Vienna. Some famous authors and poets include Karl Kraus, Arthur Schnitzler, Hermann Broch, Alfred Polgar, Friedrich Torberg, Peter Altenberg, Thomas Bernhard, and Egon Erwin Kisch. In fact, Peter Altenberg famously spent so much time in the Café Central that he made it his address and received his mail there.

Coffeehouses in Vienna also served as meeting places for well-known artists, scientists, and politicians, especially during the coffeehouse culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some notables are Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Egon Schiele, Gustave Klimt, Adolf Loos, Theodor Herzl, Alfred Adler, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Theodor Herzl, Egon Friedell, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Anton Kuh, Leo Perutz, Josip Broz Tito, Sigmund Freud, and Vladimir Lenin.

The popularity of Vienna’s cafes waned in the middle of the 20th century, a period called “coffeehouse death” in history. It is speculated that this “death” occurred because other forms of entertainment arose at the time, namely television and newer espresso bars. Because of their historical lore, however, Vienna’s coffeehouses have regained recognition and have sustained reinvention because of the burgeoning tourist culture in Vienna.

Some notable cafes and their patrons are:

-Café Central, where Peter Altenberg received his mail, and the preferred meeting place for many intellectuals of the revolution who met there to discuss politics.

-Café Demel, a famous bakery and confectioner.

-Café Frauenhuber, the oldest café in Vienna, said to be Mozart’s favorite. -Kleines Café, the smallest café in Vienna. (In fact, the name means small.) This is the café made famous in the movie Before Sunrise.

-Café Landtmann, Freud’s favorite café.

-The Café at Hotel Sacher, famous for the Original Sacher Torte.

A few notes about etiquette at Vienna’s coffeehouses:

-Even though Starbucks and the Viennese chain Aida offer quick, cheap coffee on the go, it is out of the question at traditional cafes to get a coffee on the run. Don’t ask unless you want to offend the waiter. A common expression to tourists regarding this is, “this is Europe, you sit and you drink your coffee at the café!”

-It is impossible to escape smoke in Vienna’s cafes. Public smoking in almost any building is not considered a faux pas in Europe, and especially at the coffeehouses. It is considered rude to complain about the smoking, so choose an outdoor spot if smoke truly bothers you. Again, it’s Europe.

-Tipping is expected, but is not as much of a percentage of the bill as in the US. A 10% tip is good, which can usually be accomplished by rounding up the bill a few Euro, or by asking the waiter to keep the change. Tip 15% for very excellent service, but know that this is considered an abnormally large tip. Of course, not tipping is frowned upon, and though the waiter might not show it, he will consider you quite rude.