History has been – and continues to be – written at ODEON. Starting in 1911, the bar was a place where famous politicians, writers, poets, painters and musicians came to meet. Colonel Ulrich Wille (a General in the Swiss Army in the First World War), Benito Mussolini, Russian revolutionary Lenin and physicist Albert Einstein all frequented ODEON. During Hitler's time, ODEON became a kind of ‘centre-point for emigrants’. Regulars included Klaus Mann, Alfred Kerr, James Joyce, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch and Rolf Liebermann.
In 1972 ODEON had to close due to the riots taking place at the time. When it reopened, one third was kept as a café, two thirds became a boutique and then – as it remains today – a pharmacy.
The fact that it was worth protecting soon became clear and the building was placed under a preservation order. The red marble, the wardrobes and even the table legs are all present-day reminders of its former glory.
The ‘Grand Café ODEON’ first opened its doors on Sunday 1 July 1911 at 6.00 pm: a magnificent Art Nouveau coffee house with its own confectionary production in the cellar and a billiard room on the first floor. In line with Art Nouveau style, the room was large with high ceilings, large windows, chandeliers, brass cladding and marble-clad walls. This opulent style is still the hallmark of Café Bar ODEON today. The opening took place under Munich restaurateur Josef Schottenhaml, who managed ODEON for many years and was personally known to all its famous guests.
If all the writers, poets, painters and musicians who passed in and out of ODEON were quoted here, the result would be a full cross-section of the artistic elite spanning well more than half a century. For this reason, only a few of those who regularly crossed the threshold – and gave ODEON its reputation as a meeting place for intellectuals – are listed here: Franz Werfel, for instance, the Austrian poet and storyteller, who came to Zurich in 1918 to perform the play "The Trojan Women" which led to peace demonstrations the like of which had never been seen before; Stefan Zweig, Frank Wedekind and Karl Kraus, authors of the "The Torch", and William Somerset Maugham, author of plays and short stories, as well as Erich Maria Remarque, author of the anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front". Plus: Kurt Tucholsky, Ernst Rowohlt, Klaus Mann and Alfred Kerr, not to forget Irish author James Joyce who spent a total of around 5 years in Zurich, countless hours of which at ODEON. Names of certain Zurich streets and squares, pubs and people frequently appeared in his works in coded form. A confidant to the emigrants and another regular ODEON guest was Dr. Emil Oprecht, publisher and bookseller at Rämistrasse, who helped many writers by printing and selling their works.
In 1915, staff and guests were baffled by the bizarre talk coming from a table of young bohemians. Sculptor and poet Hans Arp and his girlfriend, dancer, arts and crafts teacher and artist Sophie Taeuber, as well as writer Tristan Tzara, actor and dramaturge Hugo Ball, his girlfriend, diseuse and poet Emmy Hennings, poet and painter Richard Huelsenbeck and sculptor Marcel Janco set up their quarters at ODEON – and gave the café the long-lasting reputation of being the birthplace of Dadaism. With their statements and slogans, the Dadaists protested not only against the war, but also against established bourgeois beliefs.
Amongst the famous musicians who visited ODEON were Wilhelm Furtwängler, Franz Léhar, Arturo Toscanini and Alban Berg. Regular guests also included scientists such as Albert Einstein, who was seen enjoying discussions here with groups of students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. And the politicians among the clientele were represented by Benito Mussolini, still a fiery anarchist at that time, along with Lenin, who devoted himself to reading the newspapers, and Trotsky.
One regular guest for many years was Ferdinand Sauerbruch, Director of the Surgical Clinic of the Cantonal Hospital, a controversial figure in Zurich society due to his astounding consumption of Champagne: every day after work, he would order and empty a whole bottle. He then supposedly abandoned the habit under public pressure but, in fact, had merely chosen the diplomatic route: the giant coffee pot from which waiter Mateo, with a wink, poured him his drink did not in fact contain steaming coffee but… bubbly champagne.
In the years leading up to the First World War, drinkers could sit here all night: a statutory ‘closing time’ was unknown. The newspaper shelves were piled high with international publications still leaving room for an encyclopaedia and a tin of petrol to fill up the lighters. A thick smoke haze was a standard feature of true Viennese cafés just as were experienced waiters and a collection of games. Chess was a firm favourite at ODEON and, every Friday, Colonel Wille, later General, would appear for his weekly round of cards.
In the thirties and during the war, ODEON became a hub, but also home to an intellectual, political and social elite on the run from the wave of fascism sweeping across Europe at the time.
After the Second World War, ODEON continued to be a central meeting point for a younger generation set on achieving new economic prosperity and a future in the new decade. In those days, all a young person could afford was a rented room so, for many, ODEON became something of a substitute home and a place to gather together.
At the beginning of the seventies, a certain element of society whose life was set on destruction chose Bellevue as the central – and most publicity-generating – location for its destructive efforts. Due to the prevailing drug scene, ODEON was also affected. Rioters destroyed parts of the Art Nouveau interior and the restaurant had to be renovated. For the sake of better visibility and control, the restaurant area was reduced in size and henceforth ODEON could only be accessed through the western entrance. With these structural changes and other strict measures, the drug scene was eventually banished from ODEON for good.
Times have changed – yet tradition remains. Zurich would not be Zurich without ODEON. Guests of all ages and from all social and professional strata come through our door: early risers, tourists, business people and night owls all find something on the ODEON menu at any time of the day, and a place to sit and relax. Our kitchen is open continuously until one hour before closing time. And did you know that the Cüpli (the Swiss-German term for a single glass of Champagne) was invented in ODEON? ODEON was the first place in Zurich that served Champagne – once a luxury drink reserved for the rich – by the glass.
Our history of a hundred years and more continues to thrive thanks not only to our guests but also to our determination to maintain ODEON’s reputation as a place where people come to meet in the heart of the city of Zurich (and in the hearts of the Zurich people).