Coffee and the Writer: Six Legendary Literary Cafes

Coffee and the Writer: Six Legendary Literary Cafes

Writers and coffee shops go together like… well, writers and coffee shops. Writing is a solitary occupation, so throughout history there has been a tradition of writers connecting with the world while they work via their local café. The tradition most likely stems from a time when the coffee houses of Europe were meeting places for artists and intellectuals. But even now, many Starbucks play host to would-be authors. While there are other places where writers go to work – libraries and bars are also historically popular – there is something truly creative about holing up at a corner table in a lovely little café, and whiling away the hours drinking coffee and writing. Here are a few of the world’s most famous literary cafes.

The Elephant House, Edinburgh

While Harry Potter walked into author JK Rowling’s mind fully formed when she was on a train, much of it was written in a café. Rowling was a single mother, with very little money. She would find warmth over a coffee at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, often writing while her baby daughter slept beside her. The cafe is now like a shrine to Rowling, her bestselling series and beloved characters, with fans scrawling their love for them on the walls. But JK Rowling wasn’t the only famous author to frequent The Elephant House. Other authors who were regulars were Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series and Alexander McCall-Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Vesuvio Café, San Fransisco

Vesuvio bar and café was established in 1948 and became a popular hangout spot for the writers, poets and other artists of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would hang at Vesuvio drinking, talking and writing. Other famous patrons include Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and Francis Ford Coppola.

The Literary Café, St. Petersburg

Established in 1816, the Literary Café in St. Petersburg is said to have been frequented by the Russian writers Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky. In 1837, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin ate his final meal at the café before dying in a duel. Today, its walls are covered with pictures of Russian writers.

Café Central, Vienna

The Viennese take their cafes so seriously that “Viennese Coffee House Culture” is listed as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in the “National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage” (a part of UNESCO). The Viennese coffee house is described as a place, “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”

There are many famous cafes in Vienna that boast of clientele including royalty, famous musicians and composers (Mozart anyone?), and artists like Klimt. Freud and Jung often sat in cafes with other intellectuals of their time. But the most legendary literati café is Café Central. Writers, philosophers and poets such as Schnitzler, Polgar, Zweig and Altenberg mingled over Wiener Melange und Apfelstrudel. Today it remains a popular Viennese café and tourist destination.

La Rotonde and Les Deux Magots, Paris

Writer Léopold Zborowski and friends at Cafe La Rotonde in 1924. (Public Domain photo)

Like Vienna, Paris is full of cafes and bars where you can soak in the city’s literary history. Two of the most famous cafes are La Rotonde and Les Deux Magots.

Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot and Hemingway were all regulars at Cafe La Rotonde. Hemingway even wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises: “No matter what cafe in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde.”

Another Hemingway haunt was Les Deux Magots, one of the oldest cafes in Paris and now a famous tourist spot.  Other legendary writers who were patrons included Rimbaud, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Paul Sartre.

Have you visited any of these cafes? Do you know any other cafes that have famous literary patrons?

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