At Kafeterija, a popular cafe in downtown Belgrade, a crowd of customers spills out of the outdoor terrace. On a Monday morning you’ll find people there smoking, doing business and meeting friends—it seems no one is in a rush to be anywhere else. This is Belgrade in its most natural state.
Artwork by Lori Camarata for Lindsay
“Although coffee is central to daily life in Belgrade, it’s not the bean or roast that matters most, it’s the ‘going for coffee’ that is the art form—a chance to reset, slow down and unwind with friends.”
Although coffee is central to daily life in Belgrade, it’s not the bean or roast that matters most, it’s the “going for coffee” that is the art form—a chance to reset, slow down and unwind with friends. In his book The Magic of Belgrade, Serbian writer Momo Kapor notes that unlike espresso, which is usually knocked back while standing, Turkish coffee is a drink “which one sips slowly while sitting and chatting.”
Dating back to Ottoman times, drinking coffee is a longstanding, everyday ritual throughout the Balkans. In his recent book, Coffee Culture, Timothy Hutchins explores the evolution of coffeehouses throughout the world and its social significance in the former Yugoslavia. According to Hutchins, Belgrade’s coffee culture dates back to the sixteeth century with the city’s (and Europe’s) first coffeehouse established in Dorćol, a popular trading district at the time. It was in 1739, once the Ottomans regained power from the Austro-Hungarians, that coffeehouses became known as kafane (from the Turkish kahve-hane).
Traditionally, kafane were seen as a place for men to meet and drink finely ground, black coffee poured from an ibrik (coffee pot) into a fildzan (a small handleless mug). The Serbs soon introduced alcohol to the menu and eventually served food, turning kafane into a one-stop shop: equal parts restaurant, tavern and bar.
“Kafana is a place not easily explained to foreigners,” says Jelena Knežević, a festival director and Dorćol resident. “It’s the combination of simple, home-style food served in large portions, laidback atmosphere and domaća kafa [domestic coffee],” she says, that all add to its appeal.
In the twentieth century, live, folk music was introduced as a way to draw customers, and thus, kafane became artistic and intellectual hubs, frequented by writers, artists and activists. Zlatna Moruna (The Golden Beluga) is perhaps the most notorious example: the kafana where young Bosnian conspirators plotted the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, proposedly kick-starting the First World War.
Its colourful history and popular culture references has stereotyped kafane as a place where gamblers, criminals, drunks and other ‘lost souls’ gather together to drown their sorrows. Folk songs such as ‘Kafana je moja sudbina’ (‘Kafana is my destiny’) ‘Čaše lomim’ (‘Breaking glasses’) and ‘I tebe sam sit kafano’ (‘I’m sick of you, kafana’) capture the public sentiment and ubiquitousness of kafane in society.
Nowadays, kafane continue to operate as traditional-style restaurants, popular, yet without quite the influence or intrigue of their heyday. The lively and cobblestoned Bohemian quarter of Skardalija street—lined with many historic kafane still in operation, such as Tri Šešira (The Three Hats) and Dva Jelena (The Two Stags)—is a present-day reminder of their charm.
For the new generation of Belgraders, coffee culture has evolved beyond the kafane to incorporate cafe bars (established in the 1970s), splavs (floating river barges) and more contemporary, Western European-style cafes. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the political and social upheaval that followed, newer venues tend to veer away from traditionalism. This transformation is also a result of the gentrification of many historic Belgrade neighbourhoods such as Dorćol, now home to a varied and vibrant nightlife—with some cafes hosting DJ sets and jazz nights—and an emerging speciality, or “third-wave” coffee scene, as popularised in Australia and New Zealand.
What does this new wave of speciality coffee mean for the humble short, black coffee? Knežević is unperturbed. “Domaća kafa is still popular—young people drink it too,” she says. “[It’s true that] in cafes other types of coffees are more popular now, but at home everyone makes and drinks the traditional style.”
A city of diverse influences and well-honed survival instincts, Belgrade proves coffee coexistence is not only possible but something to be celebrated.