In Budapest, a great deal of cafés appeared in the second half of the 19th century. Similarly to theatres, they were institutes of the middle-class lifestyle, thus visiting them regularly was part of the urban existence. One of the main reasons for going to a café was the bad housing conditions. Even middle-class people had little chance to have a well-equipped flat that fitted to their lifestyle, comfortable and not crowded, just like people belonging to the lower classes of society. Thus, people escaped to public places from their reduced living-space. They used to spend almost their whole days there working and creating. Writers, artists, engineers, doctors, journalists had separate tables; for example critics had a so-called ‘kidney-table’ at New York Café.
Sparkling cultural and spiritual social spaces were formed at these places. Some writers, poets considered coffee houses as their second homes, but the ‘literary coffee houses’ did not mean that. Only the café where the editorial office of a newspaper operated for a while can be called a literary coffee house. For example the New York, where the Nyugat (‘West’) was edited. Due to that, many famous artists visited the place, including Jenő Heltai, Pál Ignotus, Endre Ady, Gyula Krúdy, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi and Ferenc Molnár. There is also a legend about Ferenc Molnár: he threw the keys of the coffee house into the Danube in the eve of the opening ceremony so that New York cannot be closed anymore. It must be only a legend, because Molnár was only 16 years old when the coffee house was opened in 1894. Dezső Kosztolányi was also inspired by the place. In his poems Spiritual séance in New York Coffee House and You, New York Coffee House, where I spent so many days and his writing Budapest, the coffee city he put down a perfect panorama about the era, about the why and the how, giving us a taste of the world behind the vast windows.
The editorial office of the literary weekly paper the A Hét (‘Week’) operated in Centrál Coffee House. The paper lived its heyday there, while it was printed in the neighbourhood in Athenaeum and its main subscriber base was the 400 cafés of Budapest. Its young authors – Endre Ady, Mihály Babits, Simon Kemény, Oszkár Gellért, Géza Csáth, Margit Kaffka, Frigyes Karinthy, Gyula Juhász, Ernő Szép, Árpád Tóth, Aurél Kárpáti, Dezső Kosztolányi and Miklós Surányi – were looking for a new voice for themselves, thus they founded the Nyugat (‘West’) and moved to New York Coffee House. Mihály Babits wrote about this period and certainly about Centrál Café in his novel Halálfiai.
Another emblematic café called Japán (Japanese) – at 10 Liszt Ferenc Square – was rather an art café, because mostly painters, actors and (owing to the nearness of Broadway) theatrical people attended it, but writers, poets and journalist also turned up there. You can make sure of the varied clientage if you look at the portraits of Lajos Szentgyörgyvári Gyenes, including sculptor Imre Simay, painter Ede Balló, composer Tibor Kazacsay, Lajos Nagy and poet Attila József (sitting in the corner of a café). Presently, the Writers’ Shop can be found on the place of the coffee house.
As it was expected in these haunts, waiters must have known by heart the guests’ meal choices, times of arrival, table-companions and if they also needed ink and paper with the coffee. The 16-volume Pallas Encyclopaedia was at hand in the New York, just in case someone should get stuck in work. Sitting by a cup of cold black coffee all day long or falling asleep in a leather armchair did not cause the slightest problem. The café meant a second home for these extraordinary people. So we ought to be grateful to those, who helped them be able to create, to relax, to have fun and to be inspired at these wonderful places.
Translated by Zita Aknai