- January 18, 2013
Venues in Vilnius: cafés and restaurants
Before the First World War and during the interwar period Vilnius was famous for its good and cheap cafés and restaurants. Alfred Kalantor, a Polish resident, and Rapolos Mackonis, a Lithuanian, share their memories in Iš kavinės į kavinę (From café to café). The most notable cafes of that time belonged to Bolesław and Kazimierz Sztall and functioned until 1945.
On the ground floor of no. 26 Zamkowa street (currently Signatarų namai) there was a confectionery established in 1852. At the end of the 19th century, the 17th century house was bought by Kazimierz Karol Sztrall, a merchant who remodelled it in accordance with Alexey Polozov’s project and established a confectionery on its ground floor. After the First World War the contemporary residents of Vilnius dubbed it “White Sznall”, as a way of differentiating it from “Red” and “Green” Sznalls.
The café owed the name to its white chairs and walls. The confectionery was very popular: in the interwar period it was frequented by university professors along with notable Polish men of words, like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, who enjoyed his black coffee there. The coffee house was also regularly visited by priests, which is why it was also dubbed “Priest Sztrall”, or “Post Sztrall”, since it was located opposite the Central Post Office which functioned there until 1945, as did White Sztrall itself.
The confectionery served great coffee, tea, hot chocolate and delicious cakes. It is worth mentioning here that Kazimierz Sztrall owned a chocolate factory. The confectionery provided Polish and foreign press, and it did not play music in the evenings, as opposed to other cafés, as e.g. Rudnicki’s. “This cafe served delicious coco or hot chocolate and cake”, recalls Kolator. “It was best to choose sponge cake, moist with rum as honeycomb with fragrant honey” (my translation). Rapolas Mackonis recalls that the café was also frequented by wealthy personae from the suburbs, who feasted on Sztrell’s delicacies. The rooms buzzed with such small talk as:
“Ah, good sir! What a sweetness. This is utterly delightful. Waiter, i beg of you to bring me another piece” or
“Indeed, the earl was right. I have never tasted better scones in my entire life. Could I have another piece as well, please?”
Rapolas Mackonis recalls that the second, cosier room of the confectionery was a place for lovers who cuddled on sofas upholstered in plush. The cafe, however, was never visited by Don Juans or hetaerae which were quite common in Vilnius.
During the occupation, a Polish cabaret “Ksantypa” performed in White Sztrall, as well as famous actors from “Lutnia”. In Soviet times the café was converted to a shop, and in 1990s it became a confectionery again, but only for a short time. In the 21st century the whole building was called “Dom Sygnatariuszy” (signatory house). The first floor is converted into museum, for it was where the Council of Lithuania held meetings between 1917 and 1918. On February 16th 1918 the members of the council signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania
Kazimierz’s brother, Bolesław Sztrall, established his own confectionery in 1912 on the corner of Świętojańska (today Gedimino) and Tatarska (Totorių) in an 1876 building. The café was called “Red Sztrall”, because its armchairs were upholstered in red plush. It was frequented by actors from “Lutnia”, which was close by, and bank clerks from Mickiewicza street (currently Gedimino).
The café was considered the most elegant in the whole interwar Vilnius. At the time it was managed by Jan Sztrall and his mother. Rapolas Mackonis writes that it was a favourite place of the Vilnius elite. It was visited by beautiful dames, aristocrats who were looking for romantic thrills, and all those who considered themselves important. It was always crowded, even on Sunday afternoons, when the intelligentsia popped in after Mass at St. George’s church. It was a place where journalists used to meet and exchange the most interesting news.
Another former resident of Vilnius, Henryk Siwicki, recalls that the confectionery was beautifully decorated, with a large refrigerated showcases and a wide range of different tortes, cakes, biscuits and ice cream. Each cake lay on a pleated paper tray, with the café’s logo printed on it of course. The whole confectionery was beautifully garnished, ice cream glittered in silver cups, fast and kind waiters meandered among marble tabletops. All this created a nice, positive atmosphere. Moreover, a wide range of different dishes – plates, saucers, glasses, coffee and tea cups, pitchers, pots, sugar bowls, napkin holders and tongs – created this unique ambience.
During summers, the café was brought outside, to a garden which reached as far as Wileńska street and was separated from the road by a fence The customers sat at wooden tables in wicker armchairs. Colourful lamps were hung among tree branches, creating a romantic mood in the evenings.
One of Red Sztrall’s singularities was its black cloakroom attendant, who was quite a sight in the castle-town upon Neris at the time. Guests could listen to a live orchestra and drink tea with lemon and a biscuit. After the war, a fast-service café was established in the building of Red Sztrall. Until 2002 it was briefly occupied by another nice confectionery. Visiting customers were often unaware that they drank coffee in the former Red Sztrall. After 2002, the coffee house was turned to a bank.
The said Bolesław Sztrall established a second confectionary after the First World War on Mickiewicza street (currently Gedimino), behind George’s Hotel. The residents of Vilnius called it “Green Sztrall”, because the interior was green in colour. It was frequented mainly by soldiers of the Vilnius garrison, wealthy merchants and clerks. In the 30s, male customers could listen to a female band consisting of seven young and pretty girls in white dresses, all standing in a row. The place was less elegant and did not attract dames other than exclusive hetaerae. Its frequenters were mainly middle-aged men, mostly merchants.
Rapolos Mackonis recalls that he did not like the place. It was seldom visited by men of words, actors or artists, and secondly, the coffee was not exceptional. He sometimes popped in when he noticed two bearded friends sitting there: Ludwik Abramowicz, a journalist of Przegląd Wileński, and Bolesław Szyszkowski, a lawyer, who often wrote for the same periodical and sometimes protected the journalist in court. Those two inseparable gentlemen did not sip coffee – they drank beer from large tankards.
The Sztrolls have been associated with Vilnius since the first half of the 20th century. Some family members were buried in the Rasos Cemetery and its last member, Jan Sztrall, died in Toruń in 1970.
Rudnicki’s confectionery was also well-known and appreciated by the Vilnius intelligentsia. It was situated on the corner of Mickiewicza and Arsenalska streets (currently Literatų kavinė). Rafał Mackiewicz, after 1945 Rapolas Mackonis, the contemporary journalist of Vilniaus rytojus recalls that in winter, the entrance to the café faced the street and during summers the confectionery could be accessed also through corner doors (currently walled up). When entering from the street the customers passed a counter where the silent, plump owner stood from dusk till dawn. Everyone pictured him with a pair of tongs in his right hand. On the left there were plates, on which he solemnly placed – according to order – pieces of cake. He never took one note and he never had a teller.
After entering through crude and damaged door, we go right. We stop and look for a vacant seat. The customers were not always lucky. The U-shaped room was buzzing and filled with smoke up to the ceiling. It looked like a Russian banya. One could here surrounding voices: “Mr Emil, half a black please”, “Mr. Karol, one small black, please”. The two waiters literally dived among a mass of tables closely put together.
Visitors were always promptly served. There was no need to wait and stress. They did not know the term “book of complaints”. Steams of hot, fragrant coffee cumulated above the tables, the rustling of newspapers filled the room and together with the clutter of utensils created one harmonious buzz. Anecdotes and jokes combined with heated discussions about this and that article, a new première or a book.
The term “coffee house politician” had functioned in the Polish dictionary for a long time. It described various frequenters who discussed complicated political issues over a cup of coffee. When one listened to such comments, one could assume that real diplomats and politicians were ignorants when compared with coffee house thinkers.
For a long time two journalists from the Mackiewicz family were the most prominent writers in the Vilnius press. Both Stanisław and Józef Mackiewicz worked for the journal Słowo. The former wrote introductory articles about politics, whereas the latter was a famous reporter. Although they were brothers, they differed from each other like day and night. Stanisław, plump as a partridge, used to stroll proudly with his paunch in the front and his head tilted back. He seemed to not notice anyone on the street.
With a camera on his stomach, although he never used it, he sometimes popped into Rudnicki’s. If he found a vacant seat next to the window, he briefly sat down, always alone. And when he could not find a place, he gazed grimly around and trudged out, back onto the street.
Both Mackiewiczes were closely related to Stasys Lozoraitis.
“We are cousins”, Józef used to say, “Children of two sisters”. How ever it happened that children of one sister called themselves Polish, and children of the other – Lithuanian, is beyond any knowledge. One Stasys is Lithuanian, the other – a Pole. A true Polish-Lithuanian mix.
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.