Discover the Budapest Coffee House Culture (Part One) | Budapest Local Discover the Budapest Coffee House Culture (Part One) | Budapest Local
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Discover the Budapest Coffee House Culture (Part One)

budapest coffee house

One of the best things about Budapest is that while it’s a truly modern metropolis, locals and visitors are constantly reminded of the city’s great history. Besides the architecture that obviously provides an excellent way to learn about Budapest’s history, you can also experience the old Budapest while relaxing in a Turkish bath, walking on the streets and stepping on a Stolperstein, or while having drinks in one of the ruin pubs. And then there are the coffee houses that help you experience the early 20th century, often referred to as the golden age of Budapest. In this two-part interview, Noémi Saly, a literary historian, will introduce you to the world of Budapest coffee houses.

budapest coffee houseNoémi Saly. Photo: Szabolcs Takács

How did you become interested in the coffee house culture?
By profession, I am a literary historian and so I often came across the different literary coffee houses and just like many other researchers, I also fell in love with the idea of poets sitting in a coffee house writing poetry. Then in 1996, Gyula Zeke, a friend of mine, worked on an edition of the Budapest Quarter magazine around the theme of coffee houses and as he was telling me about it, I said I would love to write about a coffee house. However, I didn’t want to write about any of the well-known coffee houses on the Pest side because there had already been so much literature about these places. And since I was from the Buda side, I wanted to do research on one of the coffee houses in this part of the city. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t that easy because also on the Buda side, many of the coffee houses had already been widely researched. Eventually, I chose the Philadelphia Coffee House and I also did some research on the neighborhood called Krisztinaváros.

Download our Free Coffee Culture in Budapest Guide to learn about the best coffee houses, cafés and small coffee shops in the city.

budapest coffee housePhiladelphia Coffee House. Photo: szerelmembudapest.blog.hu

Were these coffee houses in Budapest any different from other cafés, such as the ones in Vienna, for instance?
Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the coffee houses were very similar in style and quality but still Budapest somehow represented an even higher quality, and it was because there was an incredible competition between the coffee houses to serve the population of a recently formed metropolis. In 1873, the three parts of Budapest – Buda, Pest, and Óbuda – were united and the whole city started to develop incredibly fast, and the population also increased dramatically.

There were a lot of immigrants in the city and the population was extremely heterogeneous as almost everyone was coming from somewhere else and almost everybody was first a generation budapesti. As a result, Budapest became a very exciting city and a real melting pot with a rich cultural scene. This was the audience that the coffee houses had to serve: people with different backgrounds who spoke different languages (at that time in Budapest, almost everybody was bilingual as, besides Hungarian, the other official language was German), so no wonder why there was such a strong competition between the coffee houses. But those, who managed to stay on top, made a fortune, so that’s how Gyula Steuer, for instance, could buy a huge apartment building at Oktogon.

budapest coffee houseAbbazia Coffee House. Photo: egykor.hu

Download our Free Coffee Culture in Budapest Guide to learn about the best coffee houses, cafés and small coffee shops in the city.

budapest coffee houseAbbazia Coffee House. Photo: szerelmembudapest.blog.hu

Who were the people who ran these coffee houses?
Running a coffee house was a profession and people actually went to school to learn this profession. They not only had to learn about coffee and how to make excellent coffee, but they also learned how to run a coffee house: they learned about leadership and they even had to study psychology. So in fact, it was a profession just as serious as running a hotel. Until the Second World War, there was even a school where students could learn this profession and during their studies, they spent some time abroad, so they also learned at least one other language.

What kind of services did these coffee houses offer to their customers?
There was a huge selection of newspapers in different languages. And there were also trade directories that the customers could use. In some coffee houses, the owners operated small libraries. Music was also very important, and about one third of the coffee houses provided live music to their guests.

Download our Free Coffee Culture in Budapest Guide here to learn about the best coffee houses, cafés and small coffee shops in the city.

What kind of music did they play?
Basically, all kinds. Musicians, including jewish and gipsy musicians, learned anything and everything by ear. And a lot of guest musicians came to Budapest because the scene was very lively. So these musicians brought their own music, while our musicians traveled as much as they could, for instance, the best musicians went to the big spa towns in the summer, such as Pöstyén and Karlsbad, or to Nizza and Ostend, and of course to the Balaton. So if there was a new song in Paris, then the sheet music was available at the Rózsavölgyi store two days later. There is a story about Puccini’s Madame Butterfly: by the time it premiered at the Hungarian State Opera House, the gipsy musicians played the popular arias at the coffee houses the same night.

If the coffee houses provided all these services, there must have been other businesses, too that developed alongside.
Yes, coffee trade was of course a huge business but also other businesses were built upon the coffee houses, such as the billiard factories and other businesses that provided all the facilities. Then there was the card factory, and the places where cards were painted and even places where the used and greasy cards were cleaned with talcum powder. These cards were actually cheaper to rent in the coffee houses. Other business opportunities around the coffee houses included selling beer, milk, and baked products. And of course, the list is really long, for instance, there were the tailors who made the waiters’ suits.

Click here for the second part of the interview and to watch our video about Budapest coffee houses.

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