Maybe a lot of us couldn’t imagine our mornings without coffee. Some have strict preferences and rituals and others would drink any coffee they find just as long as it wakes them up. Today we’re enjoying different flavors condensed from lands far, far away and we splurge on the luxury of being able to choose between a strong espresso, a soft cappuccino, a lighter coffee, a foamy latte machiatto and we’re even beginning to enjoy the new form of coffee art, visually molded by milk foam, patience and a talented barista.
But coffee came into the life of Europeans as recent as the 17th century and for a while it was quite an exotic thing. It was so exotic that it actually had opponents that called it “the bitter invention of Satan”. Furthermore, in 1615, when it first found its way to Venice, the local clerics condemned it.
Meanwhile, it conquered most of us, so it’s no surprise that there are so many coffee houses around us. Maybe you’re tempted to believe that only in recent times did these places manage to become very active social spaces and even fertile working environments. But coffee houses have always been much more than simply spaces where coffee is sold and drank.
And if you’re starting to wonder about Europe’s first coffee houses, whether they still exist or not and how they look like, we’ll gladly answer that in a second, although our research found some conflicting information.
For example, the oldest rumors say that coffee’s first big bang in Europe was in Istanbul, towards the end of the 15th century. Sadly, there are no documented resources to prove this and the next written information comes from 15555. But this date refers vaguely to the lands of The Ottoman Empire, without further nuances (and at that time, The Empire included large territories of Europe, Asia and Africa).
What is sure is that in the 17th century the phenomena of coffee conquered Europe. It is said that the first coffee houses were in Venice (and there’s no surprise there, considering this city’s place in the trade routes of that time) and they popped up in 1629, the oldest recorded one being in 1645. However, the oldest Venetian coffee house still open is Caffè Florian; it was opened on the 29th of December 1720 by Floriano Francesconi and it was initially called “Alla Venezia Trionfante” (which would roughly translate as “To the Triumphant Venice”). You’ll still find it today in Piazza San Marco and you’ll be finding a space that binds history and modernism in a very special way, with a strong artistic vibe.
The next place the coffee seems to have conquered is Great Britain. England’s first coffee house was in Oxford and it dates as back as 1652. It’s interesting that today, in that exact same spot, after it hosted an inn, a hotel, a shop and even a Postal Office, you’ll still find a coffee house – The Grand Café. London’s first such establishment was also inaugurated in 1652, by a an eccentric Greek (Pasqua Roseé). Today, in that very spot on St. Michael’s Alley, in Cornhill, you’ll find a commemorative plaque and the so called “the Jampot” – Jamaica Wine House.
France quickly aligned to the trend and its first coffee house (that remained opened until today) goes as back as 1686. We’re talking about Café Procope, which wanted right from the beginning to be a place of refinement and it gathered in time remarkable names amongst their clients. It actually was a space where enlightened minds as Robespierre, Danton, Alexander von Humboldt, Anatole France and others regularly met with their contemporaries and exchanged ideas that eventually revolutionized the world.
Antico Caffè Greco is the second oldest and famous coffee house still functioning in Italy (after Caffè Florian, of course) and you’ll find it on Via dei Condotti, in Rome, ever since 1760. It’s no wonder that it was also a Greek who initially opened the place and, just as its Parisian counterpart, it also gathered in its long history a series of huge names such as: Goethe, Byron, Stendhal, Franz Liszt, Wagner etc. Even Casanova seems to have sipped a coffee or two in that place.
Cafe Frauenhuber is the oldest coffee house in Vienna. It opened in its present location in 1824, in a building that stands ever since 1314. Its 800 years of existence meant a long list of owners and almost as many uses, from bath house to hospital or administrative office building. But the coffee house of today, which is almost 200 years old has been keeping its own very special patina and spirit.
How could we not love coffee houses when we know how much of history could be written in those welcoming spaces? How could we not be providing the best furniture for each of these projects when we realize that those who enter must be comfortable enough in order to bind their ideas into something great. Seriously, coffee houses really were the spark of many innovations during The Enlightenment: