It is more than 300 years old and has been a legend for nearly 100 years: the coffeehouse, a Viennese institution of the first rank, shrouded in anecdotes and myths. It was at the very beginning, or so legend has it, that after the siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks left behind bags of inconspicuous grey-green-coloured beans. They were attended to by a certain Kolschitzky. It is said that, in thanks for his helpful spying services, he became the first Viennese coffee house proprietor. Thus goes one of the favourite Viennese rumours. However, it was not the Polish spy Kolschitzky, but the Armenian merchant called Deodato who acquired the first coffee licence privilege, in 1685. For a long time the Armenian merchants remained the city’s leading coffee makers. No rumour is further from the truth than that this trade quickly enjoyed great popularity (amongst the male population).
The consumption of coffee was complemented by other pleasures in the 18th century: playing billiards or chess or reading the newspaper. In the 19th century, the coffee house became a big central point of social life, luxuriously furnished in the city, cheaper although not less pompous in the suburbs. Here, the patron drank ‘his’ coffee, read ‘his’ newspaper, played, reflected or conversed. Also dining was (and still is) possible in the coffee house. And in the concert cafés during the Biedermeier, the waltz kings played music. At the turn of the century was the dawning of coffee house culture at its height. It is said that the brilliant minds sat tightly packed around marble tables, in front of them a mocha or an Einspänner (mocha with whipped cream), above their heads billows of cigar smoke, and always a notepad and a newspaper within reach, and between it the staccato of their ingenious witticisms. At home they might only have a cold room, if anything, because money was short. That is how the legend goes and how the many anecdotes are recounted; and thus or similar it may well have been in the Café Griensteidl, Central or Herrenhof. “In the coffee house the talents are sitting so close round the table, that they are preventing one another from evolvement”, mocks Karl Kraus, who ought to know because he sat there, too, just as Schnitzler, Freud or Hofmannsthal, Loos, Klimt or Schiele, the still unfamiliar operetta composer Franz Lehár and an even more unknown Mr Bronstein alias Leo Trotzki. And the man of letters, Peter Altenberg, gave his complete address simply as ‘Vienna 1, Café Central”. In those days, the coffee house had ultimately become an institution or for some even a philosophy of life. And for many this applies to this day, in spite of the dwindling numbers of coffee houses. After all, there are still about 500 coffee houses in Vienna and for all of them, a saying by Alfred Polgar about Café Central still rings true, “Participating in the intrinsic charms of this fantastical coffee house can only be someone who does not want anything there but to be there. Uselessness justifies the sojourn.”