Though it refers to the table itself, which was sometimes literally a round table with the large stump or root of a tree for a base, the idea of a Stammtisch is a regular gathering. A “Treffpunkt” (meeting place) for conversation. Originally, the table was reserved local dignitaries or politicians, to gather and play cards, or discuss philosophy, politics, or important topics of the day. If a stranger innocently wandered in and took a seat at the Stammtisch, he would be shooed away to another table. The Stammtisch was exclusive, only for men, and only those of a certain rank. There is a long tradition of the Stammtisch in Germany, some of it quite sinister. Encouraging conspiracy theories at these local gatherings played a role in the growth of fascism.
But artistic Stammtische have also flourished, particularly in the early days of coffee’s popularity, and notably in Leipzig. Café Zimmermann in that city was host to the Collegium Musicum, a musical society founded by composer George Phillip Telemann, and many of Bach’s secular works, including the Coffee Cantata, had their debuts in that space. (An exception to the “no women in the coffee house” rule was made, so women were allowed to attend these performances.)
But I have also heard the word used in contemporary Germany simply to mean an individual’s regular spot. The restaurant you might drop into more or less daily for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This is your Stammtisch. A restaurant in the Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin, on the corner of Pestalozzi Strasse and Krumme Strasse, was my Stammtisch. Café Feliz. Run by a husband and wife, a German woman and a Turkish man, it was often their daughter who waited on me. Like the American diner, Café Feliz was an all-purpose restaurant with a deliberately broad menu. I lived nearby, and might go for breakfast and have a “Spanische Frühstuck,” a Spanish breakfast, which was diced tomato in olive oil with herbs on toast. Or I might go for lunch and have a salad or omelet, or on a cold day a big plate of “Kartoffeln ohne Speck, bitte.” Potatoes without bacon, please. Later, I might go for dinner and have a Pizza Marguerita. And still later, close to midnight, I might pop in after attending the Deutsche Oper and have a Sambucca, handily lit on fire by the same waitress who made my morning coffee. The staff was always thin at Café Feliz, with one guy in the kitchen, helped by the husband and wife, and two waitresses, at most, for the large space which also had outside tables. It would never work in America, where people are in a hurry, and the Starbucks barista apologizes t if you have to wait thirty seconds before being asked for your order. But there it functioned perfectly. Twice a week the Platz opposite the restaurant had an open air market, and on those busy days you might wait ten minutes or more before anybody got around to you, which only helped you feel at your leisure. And while the service was excellent, it was not obsequious, which was also ideal for the Stammtisch feeling. Between mealtimes I could hog a table for hours, working on a novel. The family who ran the place would take time to chat with me during the lulls. I always felt welcome.
When I’ve had more time in a place, I have cultivated a Stammtisch more deliberately. In Paris, there was a café near a bridge, quite picturesque, I went every day. One morning a photo shoot took place on the bridge, with a handsome male model seated on a vespa. Made to order with my croissant. A book café in Vilnius was dark and unpretentious. The woman behind the bar used her downtime to make tiny, hand-carved wooden earrings. I had some tomato soup from a can, and found a ragged old copy of a Sue Grafton mystery I had read before, because a book can also be a Stammtisch.
When travelling, a temporary Stammtisch is a restorative. Before a day of newness, which may be hit or miss, one gains confidence that once a day, or twice, you’ll know what to expect. This is only natural. It’s what philosopher George Santayana once called “the instinct for self-repetition.” And its evolutionary. If our ancestors ate the berries of a certain bush, and were nourished and did not die, it only made sense to return safely to that same bush, rather than brave a different, unknown food source. But there’s another reason for this less adventuresome choice. You become at home in a public place, and become part of the wallpaper. You begin to feel like a local, or as if you are wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Thus ensconced, you can truly observe. My nephew is a barista and coffee roaster in Los Angeles. He is also a writer and novelist. What a genius job for him to choose. He will never want for stories, even if he must fill in some of the details about the man with the friendly dog, or the woman who is always in a rush.
Much of the lure of restaurant work is to be on the inside of the Stammtisch. To be a purveyor of that sought-after sense of belonging. And it’s always a thrill for the staff when a celebrity chooses the restaurant as his Stammtisch. Kurt Vonnegut used to write and drink coffee at an unassuming cafeteria-style lunch spot called Miss Brooks Restaurant at the corner of 53rd and Third Avenue in New York. As a writer, I couldn’t carry Kurt Vonnegut’s water, but working at Miss Brooks, I did pour his coffee. In my time waiting tables at Spring Street Natural, also in NYC, I waited on the comedienne Nora Dunn. Already a star on SNL, she came in during a quiet lunch shift and didn’t speak to me at all, but left me a five dollar tip on a seven dollar salad, a gesture that said, “the service was good, and I’ve been where you are.” But any regular becomes a celebrity to the staff and, in a certain way, beloved. Even the difficult ones give the crew something to talk about, to help pass the time. And the pleasant ones are nothing less than a treasure.
But the character of a Stammtisch is not always social, or even fun. Dunn only came in the one time, but there was a regular at Spring Street Natural I will never forget. She was a young woman, still in her twenties. She always came in around dusk. She sat by the window, never ordered food, and had one glass of white wine which she lingered over, staring out the window for the better part of an hour, and then paying the bill in time to leave before the dinner rush began. “Her husband died,” my friend told me one night. A small man, this waiter had a musical accent and a gentle demeanor that inspired confidences and large tips from the customers. I almost gasped when he told me. She was so young! I had so many questions. How did her husband die? Did they used to come in together? Is this a pilgrimage? How does she fill the rest of her days, and nights? I never asked any of those questions. But I did try to bring a little more friendliness to the table on those nights when I was the one to pour her wine.
Long, long ago, I had my first Stammtisch, though I didn’t know it at the time. Almost daily my high school friends and I would extend our lunch hour at a place on University Avenue called Au Coquelet, where we hogged a cluster of tables pushed together at the center of the room. I’m sure we felt very sophisticated, and just as sure we talked prattle, nursing our nascent coffee addictions and discovering the joys of a simple gateau Basque.
Perhaps my all-time favorite Stammtisch was a place in the West Village called Sandolino’s. I discovered it my first year in New York, which was coincidentally my first year of adulthood. The menu was fairly typical of a New York diner, though they had a few more items that were part of the new health food. Unlike most diners, the ceilings were two stories high, and there were many climbing plants up in the rafters. The tables were not formica, but a golden wood. Something about the decor spelled California to me, and I felt immediately at home. When a friend from Berkeley visited me at school, I took him to Sandolino’s and felt proud to show him my place. When I got a new boyfriend, Sandolino’s was one of our first stops, and also a test. If he didn’t appreciate Sandolino’s, he obviously couldn’t appreciate me. (He did come to appreciate Sandolino’s, and we later married.) Years later we lived together right behind a family-run grocery store in Berkeley, ducking in the back to pick up a loaf of bread, or a bag of onions. A grocery story can also be a Stammtisch, even without the Tisch.
The Edison’s coffee shop is now a restaurant. Strictly fine dining, no blintzes to be had. Sandolino’s closed a long time ago, so did Spring Street Natural. Café Feliz in Berlin seems not to have survived the Pandemic. And Au Coquelet is no more. But right now, I am blessed with several nice establishments nearby. The pub my neighbor enjoys has food designed to comfort, and an occasional trivia night or musical act. There’s also a rather snazzy pizzeria, and a hole-in-the-wall bakery. Like a lot of people, the housebound reality of the pandemic made me much more aware of the importance of the Stammtisch. As a single person working mostly from home, I cherish being greeted with familiarity when I stop in for a drink or a meal, or to pick up takeout. And even on the days I don’t stop in, a friendly wave from the woman behind the bakery counter as I walk by with my dogs can lift my morning spirits. I staunchly refuse to quote the theme song from Cheers, because at a Stammtisch, it doesn’t matter if everybody knows your name or not. You are the woman with the dogs, or the man who likes extra mustard. You are that important person, a regular. And on both sides, waiter and waitee, how pleasant or unpleasant we are in these seemingly transient relationships, well, it says a lot about a person. And word gets around. The next time you see Nora Dunn on TV, you might think of that big tip she left me. And did you know that my niece once waited on Meryl Streep? And she was just lovely!
Though it started as a privilege for the town’s elite, the Stammtisch has also been an instrument of revolution, providing steam for the Reformation through seemingly innocuous societies like Telemann’s Collegium Musicum. Berkeley’s most famous chef, Alice Waters, encountered this revolutionary spirit the hard way when she announced she was closing César’s, a casual tapas bar next door to her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse. For twenty-four years, César’s had been enjoyed and beloved by both customer and staff, who had formed a social, commercial, and gastronomic bond so strong that it seemed an outrage that the actual owner of the property might want to do something else with the space. Signs and placards were colored in. Protests in the Berkeley tradition were held. César might’ve been Alice Water’s property, but now it had become something else. It had become a Stammtisch.
I wasn’t a regular at César’s, but I do have an aspiration in the Stammtisch department. My image is based on someone I used to seat when I was a hostess at an Italian fine dining spot in Newton, Massachusetts. He was a slightly rumpled man. I imagined him having a difficult job, perhaps with numbers. He used to come in once a week, never wanting a table, always taking a seat at the bar, usually the noisiest least desirable one, right by the swinging door to the kitchen. He would order the fish, and have a second glass of wine but no dessert. He was always friendly and kind to the bartender, Tim, and to anyone else who happened to occupy the seat next to him. My goal is to be that kind of weekly regular, perhaps somewhere a bit fancy. I imagine I will gift myself that experience when I decide to consider myself a successful writer, which could be any day now. I will go religiously, once a week, probably on Thursdays. I’ll sit at the bar and have a particular drink, something people can recognize, and remember. Maybe the waitstaff, behind the kitchen door, will call me “Aperol Spritz.”
“Aperol Spritz” is here again, they’ll say. “She looks happier this week, but she’s reading Tolstoy, isn’t that an odd combination?” That’ll give them something to talk about.