Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Central Coffeehoueses

When an article in The Guardian couple of years back said that the homogeneity of modern coffeehouses is stifling their traditional role as places of sedition, it was the writer’s take on the conflict between convenience and culture (or maybe the culture of convenience). This is a change with a global footprint - Starbucks in the US; Café Nero, Costa Coffee and Café Ritazza in Europe; Barista and Café Coffee Day in India having taken over the space occupied by the traditional coffeehouses. While the story of European cafes is well documented (even the early chapters of Harry Potter were written by JK Rowling in an Edinburgh Coffeehouse), what is lesser known that the traditional coffee houses in India, run by workers’ cooperatives, attracted a Nobel Laureate like Rabindra Nath Tagore and other famous writers; Life-time Oscar winner Satyajit Ray and many other film makers; and intellectuals from other walks of life. So it had been really some kind of a global cultural phenomenon even before globalization!

In this context it was an interesting experience to visit two legendary coffeehouses from the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire, a region where the coffeehouse culture had seen its best days. Incidentally the two I visited, though in different cities on the banks of the Danube, even have a common name – Café Central in Vienna (Herrengasse 17) and Central Kávéház in Budapest (V. Károlyi Mihály u. 9).

Café Central has played host to legends like Goethe, Beethoven, and Lenin. But it’s patron who can be called its mascot (no surprise that they have his statue at the entrance, seated at a table) is Peter Altenberg, who had even his mails delivered to the café where he spent most of his time. There are many stories and legends about the place. Some time before the war the Austro-Hungarian government received a sharp note from St Petersburg, demanding that a stop be put to the activities of the Russian political emigrants in Vienna. The Minister of the Interior received the note and shook with laughter: 'Who do they think is going to start a revolution in Russia - perhaps that Herr Trotsky from the Café Central?'" (from Wit as a Weapon by Egon Larsen, 1980).

On my visit I found an elegant place with high vaulted ceilings and marble columns. While the pastry shop Demel and Hotel Sacher fight over who created the ‘original Sachertorte’, Café Central plays it safe with its own ‘orginal Café Central Torte’. So you can have the famed Viennese Apfelstrudel at the restaurant and get gift packed the Central Torte for those back home (presumably it doesn’t use fresh cream and hence lasts longer). While I was there only for breakfast, it has various options for a 3-course lunch or a dinner, including some Viennese specialties and mouth-watering desserts. But the place will always be more about the experience of an unhurried meal in the traditional settings rather than the food .

Quite distinct from my morning visit to Café Central on a crisp spring morning, was the dinner at Central Kavehaz in Budapest. We reached there as hungry souls, after having spent a few hours at the Gellert Thermal Baths, so no tradition or ambience would have mattered, had the food not been good. Thank God, we were not disappointed. As a typical coffeehouse it has a wide varieties of tarts and pastries, the more popular ones being Centrál's creamy coffee cake (with marzipan) and Flodni (layers of poppy seed, walnut, apple and plum marmalade). For the meal one can have traditional Hungarian meat dishes like Goulash or fresh fish from Lake Balaton. While ordering starters and the main course, one needs to budget appetite for the dessert, what with descriptions like ‘Mango parfait with pineapple carpaccio’!

It can be argued that both Café Central and Central Kavehaz are more of tourist traps now rather than intellectual hangouts. There maybe merit in the argument, but the alternative would the period when these both these places had fallen into disrepair and closed for almost four decades till they were reopened in the 80s. The Vienna Café project, is a praiseworthy attempt to understand the past and present of café better. As a glimpse into this unique cultural aspect of 19th and early 20th century, I would think even those part of this project appreciate the tourist-funded reopening of the traditional cafes.

For an interesting read on Central Kavehaz and a lovely photographs check out

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