The history of the Café ODEON reveals all the political and economic turmoil of
the last nine decades. They were survived with more or less stability and are also
mirror the various influences it went through. Here, politics were discussed and
artistic movements found their cradle, people from most different nationalities,
cultures and religions seeking refuge or distraction from every day life.
It was Julius Uster, a merchant and a former colonel in the Swiss army, who built the "Usterhof", situated at the corner of “Sonnenquai" and Rämistrasse. And thus, a cafe in the style of Viennese coffee houses came to be in this multi-storey building with a tufa facade (limestone).
On Sunday, July 1, 1911 at 6 pm, the "Grand Café ODEON" opened its doors.
The first clients discovered a magnificent Art Nouveau café with its own pastry shop in the basement and a billiard room on the 1st floor. It had typical Jugendstil attributes such as a very large and high-ceilinged room with large windows, chandeliers, brass linings (with linear vegetabile ornaments) and marble-clad walls. Up to this day, this superb style is still the hallmark of the Café Bar ODEON. At the time, the opening took place under the direction of the Munich's restaurateur Josef Schottenhaml who led the ODEON during many years and who knew its famous guests personally.
Listing the names of all the writers, poets, painters and musicians who came and went in ODEON would certainly render a valuable cross-section of the celebrities of well over half a century. Only a few of those who thronged there and gave the ODEON its reputation of an intellectual meeting place are mentioned here: Franz Werfel for instance, the Austrian poet and storyteller who had come to Zurich in 1918 to perform his play "The Trojan Women" which led to peace demonstrations as there had never been before. Stefan Zweig, Frank Wedekind and Karl Kraus, author of "Torch", as well as William Somerset Maugham, the author of plays and short stories, or Erich Maria Remarque, the writer of the anti-war novel "All Quiet on The Western Front" also belong to them. Then come Kurt Tucholsky, Rowohlt, Klaus Mann and Alfred Kerr, not to forget the Irish author James Joyce who spent a total of about five years in Zurich, of which countless hours at ODEON. In his books, names of Zurich's streets and squares, bars or people appeared over and over again - in encrypted form. A confidant of the emigrants and a regular at the ODEON was dr. Emil Oprecht, a publisher and bookseller on Rämistrasse. He helped many writers by printing and selling their work.
In 1915, a group of young bohemians confused waiters and guests with their strange discussions. The sculptor and poet Hans Arp with his girlfriend, the dancer and arts and crafts teacher Sophie Taeuben, the writer Tristan Tzara, the actor and playwright Hugo Ball with his girlfriend Emmie Hennings, the poet and painter Richard Huelsenbeck and the sculptor Marcel Janco set up their quarters at ODEON – thus conferring to the café its long-lasting reputation for being the birthplace of Dadaism. In their theses and slogans, the Dadaists protested not only against the war but also against all well-established civil convictions.
Amongst the famous musicians who were regular visitors of the ODEON, we have to mention Wilhelm Furtwängler, Franz Lehar, Arturo Toscanini and Alban Berg. Even scientists like Albert Einstein, who enjoyed discussing here with students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, was one of the regulars. Benito Mussolini, then still a fiery anarchist, and Lenin, fully devoted to reading all the available newspapers, as well as Trotsky, are just a few representatives of the politicians who came in and out.
Another long time regular guest was Ferdinand Sauerbruch, director of the surgical clinic of the Cantonal Hospital. Because of his astonishing consumption of champagne, he offended some Zurich citizens as every day after work, he ordered and emptied a bottle. Supposedly, he renounced this habit under the pressure of public opinion. In fact, he had merely become more diplomatic: the giant coffee pot from which waiter Mateo, with a wink, poured something liquid did not contain steaming coffee but… sparkling champagne.
In the years leading up to the First World War you could sit here all night, curfew being an unknown word. The newspaper shelves were filled with international titles still leaving enough room for an encyclopaedia and a can of gasoline to fill up the lighters. Thick smoke haze was a norm in real Viennese cafés just as were experienced waiters and various games. At the ODEON, chess was always paramount and every Friday, Colonel Wille, the later army General, would walk in to join to a small group of cards players.
In the thirties and during the First World War, the ODEON became a hub, but also a home to a certain intellectual, political and social elite, on the run from the rampant fascism in Europe.
After the Second World War, the ODEON remained a central meeting place for the younger generation totally focussed on a new economic upswing and on the future the fifties would bring. At that time, all you could afford as a young person was a rented room, so for many, the ODEON was a kind of substitute home and a place of gathering.
At the beginning of the seventies, certain individuals who had decided that destruction would and should be their life mission, turned Bellevue square into the central and thus most popular place of their destructive activities. Due to the drug scene that then prevailed, the ODEON was also greatly affected. Rioters destroyed parts of the Art-Nouveau interior which had to be completely renovated. For the sake of more visibility and better control, the restaurant area was reduced and henceforth, the ODEON could be accessed only through the western entrance. With these structural and other rigorous measures, the drug scene was eventually banished from the ODEON.
Times changed, but the tradition remained. Imagining Zurich without the ODEON is clearly impossible. Guests of all ages and from all social and professional strata walk into the ODEON every day. In the mornings, one will mainly see business people who meet clients or who indulge in their daily coffee ritual, quietly reading a newspaper. We have vowed to remain loyal to this morning tradition of coffee drinking clients and even to promote is. However, many guests do not only come because of the inexpensive morning coffee but because of its acknowledged, good and always consistent quality.
At noon, daily changing menus are offered and after lunch, mostly employees from the nearby businesses and shops as well as students from the nearby university meet at ODEON. All like eating and drinking here because the quality is good and the prices well worth it.
In Zurich, the ODEON was the first bar in which champagne - the once luxury
drinks of the rich - was served by the glass. The “Cüpli” (the Swiss-German term
for a single glass of champagne) has long since become a gastronomic selfevidence,
still in vogue today. Likewise at that time, the ODEON was a wellknown
meeting place for homosexuals. This trend declined somewhat in recent
years, but still –anyone and everyone is welcome in the ODEON.
We shouldn’t forget to mention the notorious and extremely popular Boulevard restaurant with its typical bistro seating. From early spring to late autumn, it beckons you to linger, to see and to be seen. And so, one can observe passers-by who, in summer, could not be more colourful, interesting and international, whilst simply enjoying the beautiful weather and imagining oneself in Paris or in Rome for a while.
Night owls and those who set off for their evening gigs late in the day know that they can expect hot meals in ODEON until one hour before closing time. Something frequent use is made of!
These were, in a nutshell, nine decades of a Coffee House History. We also owe it
to our guests who – some of them since decades – have been coming here daily and
stayed loyal. Therefore too, we have committed ourselves to cultivate the ODEON
as a welcoming meeting place in the heart of Zurich city (and of its inhabitants) so
that it may continue to live in the spirit of this tradition.