Friday, July 19, 2013


'Beethoven was here'
If a restaurant has been around since 1447, you’d expect it to have a memorable guest list. Griechenbeisl, in a side-street in Vienna, is rather proud of its guest list: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, Strauss, Brahms, Mark Twain, Johnny Cash, Zeppelin, Bismarck. And being canny inn-keepers, they have over the years ensured that such famous guests sign the walls and vaulted ceiling of their inn. Where you, dear non-famous guest, can view them in awe today.

I'm blessed with a healthy skepticism where things historical are concerned, and I don’t know if all the signatures at the Griechenbeisel are authentic. I ate my adequate dinner in the small vaulted room surrounded by these etchings of the great. They are covered with perspex, and the waiter keeps handy a long stick for pointing out the various highlights amongst them. Despite said skepticism, I found myself sufficiently over-awed by the proximity of the (possible) hand of Beethoven and Mozart that I could barely digest. A little research has not - yet - revealed any in-depth rejection of the authenticity of the signatures.

A pretty entrance.
Griechenbeisel is clearly very old. The exterior is delightfully picturesque and the interior convincingly low-ceilinged, dark and maze-like. The restaurant operates in several rooms. If you eat in the ‘signature room’, expect a steady stream of patrons from the others rooms visiting to ooh and ahh over the artefacts, and even tourists outside the low bowed window poking their camera lenses in. 

The inn has this to say about itself:
An ancient building with bay windows and many small vaulted rooms - that is the Reichenberger Griechenbeisl, a piece of medieval Vienna. The first mention of the building in the faded registers of the City of Vienna was made in 1350, when the house was owned by the knight-commoner Lienhart Poll, who was a very distinguished and rich citizen. The tower with its steeply rising double pitch roof...was built in the late middle ages. Structurally it is one of many residential towers in Vienna to survive to this day. As early as 1447, what is today the Griechenbeisl is mentioned in the old chronicles as an inn called “Zum Gelben Adler” (“The Yellow Eagle”). Since then, although it has often changed its has always been an inn. 
And waxing ever more lyrical:
Twice the Turks attacked Vienna, and the walls of the house, which was situated near the line of defence, shook with the impact of the attacker’s cannon balls. Earthquakes and conflagrations, floods and plague swept through the city, leaving fear in their wake. But each time the joie de vivre of the Viennese triumphed over fear and hardship...When trade with the near East increased, Greek and levantine traders came to Vienna and settled on the Flieschmarkt (the Meat market). The Griechenbeisl (‘the Greek’s Inn’) became their local hostelry. When cloth dealers from Reichenberg followed, the inn ultimately became known as the ‘Reichenberger Griechenbeisl’.
'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart'. I think.

A fuzzy 'Bismarck'

'Richard Wagner'. For sure.

Always interested in the ‘Rough Guide’s take on such matters, I consulted its entry for the Griechenbeisl. The RG does not impugn the signatures, merely saying sniffily that the inn 'milks the connections’. I couldn't help but share a little of this opinion when I discovered that the restaurant refers to the room with the signatures - of Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner! - as the 'Mark Twain Room.' This apparently draws the American crowd, to whom Huckleberry Finn, it seems, means more than Parsifal.

Mark Twain is up there somewhere.

An inviting entrance.

Griechenbeisl's medieval side-street, Vienna


  1. I suspect that Mark Twain's was the first authentic signature there, thus validating the room's name and providing the precedent for later celebrities to add their own. That would have been in 1897-98.

    I cannot imagine that earlier patrons of the restaurant would have been motivated or persuaded to write their signatures on a wall. One would have signed a letter, a legal document, or a manuscript which one was proud to acknowledge as one's own. To have signed a wall would have been a vulgar debasement. But as Arthur Digbee writes (in a book review on Amazon), "In 1897-1898, Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) lived in and around Vienna for almost two years. As one of the world's most famous writers, he was an instant celebrity. He also experienced the city deeply, becoming acquainted with many of the personalities who made up remarkable fin-de-siecle Vienna." By that year, one could well imagine the proprietor of the restaurant asking him to leave an autograph for all to see.

  2. Brilliant background, Vincent - thank you. That all sounds very likely. My inner skeptic is feeling smug :-)