It would be almost impossible to imagine the rich history of European café culture without the Vienna coffeehouses or the Paris cafés. By contrast, the Czech capital, Prague, tends to be more associated with the consumption of beer. Yet, in the history of that city, the tradition of the coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of public life, not least as a meeting point for its culturally diverse population.
From provincial town to Bohemian metropolis
“Spending time in cafés never used to be that popular with the Czechs, and life was less centralized, more divided between many points. Today it’s different,” wrote the Prager Tagblatt on 31 March 1907 in a multi-article feature on coffeehouses. In the second half of the 19th century,
deu. Prag, eng. Prague, lat. Praga

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic and is inhabited by about 1.3 million people, which also makes it the most populated city in the country. It is on the river Vltava in the center of the country in the historical part of Bohemia.

was transformed from a provincial town in the Habsburg Monarchy into a metropolis that was easily on a par with other European centres of the time. Thanks to its convenient geographical location, the city became an important transport hub as well as a centre for international (trade) relations. The expansion of the city was driven by the growth in trade and industry which in turn led to a massive influx of people from the surrounding rural areas. This added to the heterogeneous urban population, with its Czech-speaking majority as well as a German-speaking and Jewish minority. As Prague urbanized urbanized The expression “urbanization” has two meanings. One is the spatial growth of cities and the resulting increase in the proportion of the population of a country or region that lives there. The other is the replacement of rural with urban areas, for example through infrastructure connections and changes to existing ways of life. In both cases it is about the expansion of urban ways of living. and modernized, the social structure and needs of its population changed, and the coffeehouses emerged as new arenas for public life. While high consumption of beer and, to a lesser extent, wine, had previously been the habit, new behavioural patterns were developed for drinking coffee.
How coffee came to Prague
Establishing which was the first coffeehouse in Prague is not as easy as one might think. This problem is not unique to Bohemia, since the introduction of coffee is bound up in numerous legends in other cities too. Jaroslaus Schaller (1738–1809), historian and topographer, tells the following story: Gorgos Hatalah el Dam-schi, also called Georgius Deodatus, who was either Arabic or Armenian, is supposed to have come from Damascus to
deu. Böhmen, lat. Bohemia, ces. Čechy

Bohemia is a historical landscape in present-day Czech Republic. Together with Moravia and the Czech part of Silesia, the landscape forms the present territory of the Czech Republic. Nowadays, almost 6.5 million people live in the region. The capital of Bohemia is Prague.

at the beginning of the 18th century and introduced coffee to Prague. Although initially he simply strolled through the streets, serving coffee in bourgeois homes on request, in 1714 he opened a coffeehouse in an establishment at the Malá Strana end of the Charles Bridge called The Three Ostriches, (U tří pštrosů, U Lužického semináře 76/1; this is now a hotel).
From about the mid-19th century, as urban society developed and the need for public spaces in which to pursue leisure activities grew, larger establishments gradually started to open alongside the simple coffee bars. In England and France these had existed for some time. The Café by the Station (Kavárna U Nádraží, Havlíčková 1029/3, 1846–1875), with its convenient location opposite the first Prague railway station (Masaryk Station or Masarykovo nadraží), is the first Prague coffeehouse to be built in the “grand style” and was located at the very heart of city life. When the station was rebuilt, it was moved to the first floor of the same building. Its Moorish-oriental style and richly decorated interior must have been impressive. It was an attempt to give customers a taste of the atmosphere and culture of the countries where coffee came from (overwhelmingly European colonies), or at least, what was then considered to be authentic. According to the standards of the time, the café offered its guests all the services one could expect from a Grand Café, including a reading room, a billiard room, and a games room.
Between Vienna and Paris: the architecture and interiors of Prague coffeehouses
The two main streets, Ferdinand Street (today, Národní) and Na příkopě (literally “On the moat”) form a kind of cross with Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) and once served as the principle setting for the cultural life of the city. Many department stores, cultural institutions, casinos, and of course inns were built around what is now a shopping and banking centre. Thus Na příkopě, the centre of German life in the 19th century, was described in the contemporary press as the “main artery” and “main attraction and meeting place” for locals and outsiders. In contrast, Národní Street would become the centre of Czech life.
As in other European cities, most of the coffeehouses were situated along these two main thoroughfares. However, in Prague, unlike in Vienna or Paris, it became customary to situate these coffeehouses on the first floor, often above shops. The restaurants or bars associated with the coffeehouses were, in turn, frequently located in the basement basement The expression “basement” (or “semi-basement”) describes a cellar or floor below ground level that may not be completely underground, but rather just below street level. Mezzanines or raised ground floors are usually built above. Both types of floor were found in European cities towards the end of the 19th century, in residential buildings and town houses on the side facing the street, or in the front section of purpose-built apartments, like the large tenement blocks built in Berlin between about 1850–1870. Sometimes the floor divisions could reflect social divisions: the mezzanine would be reserved for well-to-do families or for the offices of higher-earning professionals. It was not uncommon for the service accommodation of staff, restaurants, workshops or the homes of those with lower social status to be located in the basement (if they had not already been relegated to the rear buildings or outbuildings). or became an extension of the café itself, providing additional space on the same floor. Other coffeehouses were parts of larger complexes such as club or society houses or hotels. One of the prime examples of this type of coffeehouse is the Café in the Town Hall (Kavárna v Obecním domě, Náměstí Republiky 1090/5, since 1911); its art nouveau elements are very conspicuous. This imposing multipurpose building housed many entertainment venues and served as a model for the numerous arcades that were built around Wenceslas Square during the interwar period.
The architects of these luxurious establishments found innovative artistic expressions in art nouveau and cubism, and were able to draw on the design vocabulary that had been developed for the same purpose in Vienna. The Grand Café Orient(Ovocný trh 569/19, 1912–1920, re-opened 2005), located in the House of the Black Madonna (Dům U Černé Matky Boží) and designed by architect Josef Gočar (1880–1945), is the first example of cubist architecture in Bohemia. The cubist shapes can be identified in the interior too – and can even be enjoyed as square cream buns (kubistický věneček).
With respect to interior décor, Café Procop, opened in Paris in 1686 by Procopio Coltelli (1651–1727), with its crystal chandeliers, marble tables, and mirror walls was to be the model for the coffeehouses in the Hapsburg Monarchy. The Prague cafés largely imitated the features they knew from Vienna, including the coat and newspaper racks with their papers fixed in reading frames and Thonet chairs Thonet chairs Thonet chairs are chairs made out of curved wood, named after one of the leading curved-wood manufacturers of the time, who was based in Vienna. . Thonet model no. 14, the Vienna Coffeehouse Chair, became very famous, even though more playful models were actually more popular in Prague.
Everything from green Chartreuse to eggnog
The triumph of coffee was closely related to the development of a consumer society, with “exotic” goods being treated as objects of prestige before becoming adopted by all levels of society. Spending time in coffeehouses thus became a leisure activity to satisfy the need for enjoyment and consumption. Alongside the simple black coffee there were numerous other options: the so-called Kapuziner (cappuccino), Melange (white coffee with equal amounts of coffee and milk), or “inverted” coffee (more milk than coffee); coffee with whipped cream, sometimes a double portion, was a speciality (today still served as so-called Vídeňská káva or Viennese coffee). While this range could be expected as standard in every coffeehouse of the Habsburg Monarchy, some establishments developed into veritable epicurean temples. One of these was the magnificent Café Continental in the Kolowrat Palace (Na Příkopě 1047/17, 1883–1940), where newspaper announcements extolled the “finest nuances of alcohol from green Chartreuse Chartreuse Chartreuse is a French herbal liqueur. to champagne, the most delicate shades of narcotics from cappuccinos to select teas and the most tempting sweet drinks from Chokolade [sic!] to eggnog,” to say nothing of the “manifold kinds of baked goods, which find such willing customers in pastry-loving Prague.” Absinthe, distilled from fennel, anis, and vermouth, enjoyed particular popularity, being permitted for sale in the Habsburg Monarchy and the First Czech Republic, unlike in other countries, despite its hallucinogenic effects.
From news exchange to dance revolution
Around the turn of the century, there were no limits to the varied (inter)national print media made available by coffeehouses for the consumption of information on current affairs. Some cafés would take up to 400 different papers for their guests. Providing this service did not really make financial sense, as author Karel Čapek (1890–1938) remembers, “every coffeehouse guest who ordered a cup of coffee would consume eleven glasses of water and a hundred and twenty newspapers.”1  The combination of coffee and entertainment such as games (e.g. billiards, chess, and cards), music, or cabaret enabled the owner to make a living. Café Montmartre (Řetězová 224/7, 1911–1921), opened by the Czech cabaret artist and singer Josef Waltner (1883–1961), for example, became famous for its dance evenings. In the intellectual quality of its guests, this café-cum-artists’ tavern could match even the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre Montmartre As well as being the name of a hill in central Paris, Montmartre also lends its name to the surrounding area in the north of the city. The area on and immediately surrounding the hill is famous as an artistic and literary stronghold. , Paris. The clientele that such establishments attracted lead to a revolution among the Prague entertainment venues – this was the first place where the Argentinian tango was danced (naturally under special conditions). Even the reporter Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948) is supposed to have danced here regularly with his lovers.
The mayor’s table, traders’ networks, and artists’ inspiration: the social hub
Writing about the coffeehouse clientele, the Prager Tagblatt dated 31 March 1907 remarked on the “regulars’ tables, at which distinguished persons of rank and title, some of the most important people from German and Czech Prague society, had been discussing events in politics, art, and economics for many years.” Serving as venues for discussions about scientific findings, and the latest political and social debates, the coffeehouses became a kind of urban public sphere and a centre for bourgeois intellectuals. If businesspeople met there, it was because it good for managing relationships and making transactions; establishments were always particularly busy when the markets closed for the day.
Among artists, chance encounters often lead to the formation of more formal groups that continued to meet in that particular coffeehouse. They were stimulated by the café atmosphere and realized their creative potential there. Visits to a coffeehouse often became closely associated with literary and artistic production, and important developments in the history of art ran their course from inside a café.
Around 1908 Café Arco (Hybernská 1004/16, 1907–2008, since 2016 again a canteen) established itself as the favourite café of a group of German-speaking writers, the Prague Circle, consisting of Franz Werfel (1890–1945), Max Brod (1884–1968) and Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Café Union (Národní Třída 342/29, 1820–1941), a Czech-speaking equivalent, became a similar social hotspot for the future Czechoslovak artistic elite. The departure of the younger members of the Mánes artists’ association and the establishment of the Visual Artists’ Group (Skupina vytvarných umělců) at Café Union (1911), made this the setting for an artistic revolution. For Czech artists, it signalled the beginning of an extremely fruitful creative period that is almost without equal in terms of originality. Author František Langer (1888–1965) remembers that this period of artistic upheaval

“originated in Café Union and at meetings over coffee and croissants. This was unique, since up to that point all artistic confrontations, conspiracies, and secessions as well as the formation of new cliques, associations, and bourgeois journals had taken place in restaurants, accompanied by beer or sometimes wine.”2

The coffeehouse also became a venue for social groups seeking emancipation, particularly women, for whom it was a way to gain access to education and take part in public life. Following the end of the First World War, they were even able to relocate their coffee parties from the private to the public sphere. For example, Café Louvre (Národní 116/20, since 1902), frequented by the German-speaking philosophically oriented Louvre circle as well as women from the Czech-speaking upper classes, was considered something of a forge for female emancipation in Prague. Pioneers of coffeehouse culture of course included intellectuals and artists such as author Milena Jesenská (1896–1944). As a meeting point for diverse protagonists, who all contributed to the atmosphere in their own way, the coffeehouse therefore became relevant for society as a whole.
A Prague café culture?
The coffeehouses of Prague gradually became essential centres of community life. They compensated for financial hardships and cramped housing by providing relatively cheap food and a place to spend time. Moreover, they fulfilled the need for entertainment, pleasure, and consumption, as well as – in some cases – eroticism. They provided venues for education and discussion, contributing to intellectual exchange, and serving as business premises or clubhouses. The actual drink, the cup of coffee, was seldom the customer’s primary interest. Different social groups would meet in different coffeehouses, as was the case with other European cities. The words of author Friedrich Torberg (1908–1979) seem very apt: “To attempt to reduce the many-layered phenomenon of the ‘coffeehouse’ to a single denominator is a futile undertaking.”3
When considering the coffeehouses of Prague as sociocultural venues one cannot help noticing the specific narratives of the nations that frequented them. Nevertheless, it is clear that coffeehouses served just as much as meeting places as venues to demonstrate different political and cultural positions, or one’s national identity – in particular if they were embedded in the national urban context (e.g. by proximity to institutions with national associations such as the national theatre). Naturally, certain coffeehouses emerged as the favourite haunts of artists and intellectuals, just as people tend to go to their favourite cafés today. Things would not always be harmonious when diverse people and groups came together – this was only natural. But these very differences led to that creative and inspiring atmosphere characteristic of the Czech–German–Jewish urban milieu and the art scene in Prague around 1900. Intellectuals and artists emerged as intermediaries willing to cross social and political boundaries, engage in public dialogue, and, in so doing, open up the possibility of intermediate positions in national discourse.
Above all, coffeehouses gave rise to new, alternative spaces for communication and exchange, which enabled new and different forms of encounter. They became what the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) called heterotopias. As venues for transnational gathering, they effectively served as democratic institutions, gathering diverse individuals around a single table and equalizing differences. The idiosyncrasy of the Prague coffeehouse culture was based squarely on the ethnically and culturally heterogeneous environment that epitomized Prague, a sort of Tripoli with a Czech-speaking majority as well as a German-speaking and a Jewish minority. For a city like Prague, the coffeehouse was exactly the kind of democratic meeting place it needed for its culturally hybrid society.