The English have pubs, the French their cafes, Italians their ice cream parlours, the Greek Tavernas and we, Serbians, have Kafanas or second homes as we spend more time there than at home. The word Kafana is derived from the Turkish kahvehane (“coffee house”) which is in turn derived from the Persian term qahveh-khaneh and the first kafana in Serbia was opened by the Turks in the part of Belgrade called Dorcol, in 1522, at the start of their 400 year occupation of the Balkans.
Kafanas are a cult for Serbian people and any self-respecting Serb has kafana or two. Maybe three depending on what your average Serbian citizen needs one for at any given time in his social life.In the past a kafana always had red or blue checked tablecloths and tin ashtrays but today many kafanas masquerade as restaurants or cafes or even clubs, but at heart they are simply a kafana. So there is a kafana for a social gathering which includes lots of alcohol interspersed with breaks for tasty food, loud live folk music, with smashed glases on the floor and dancing on the tables.
There are kafanas near the office where all the office games and intrigue take place, always described however as ‘business meetings’. There are a few kafanas which are always full even though there is never any live music or good food, but which still live on their reputation as a haunt for long-ago heroes or intellectuals who would freely discuss politics during the communist era when there was no reliable information except what could be gleaned in such places – nowadays people still go there to be seen and to gossip. And there is a new breed of family kafanas where there is no live music only a kids’ garden in the back, and very good food!
You know you have succeeded in life if the waiter of your kafana knows you by name, your favourite table has a reserved sign on it just for you and when you get your favourite drink served before you even take your jacket off. If you are well known and short of money you can drink and eat free and pay when you get money. You waiter is your best friend and confidant as he knows where you are and never tells anybody. Not even your other half.
If you are coming to Belgrade you must explore a bohemian part of town called Skadarlija where live music and good food last until the early hours. The most famous kafana here is Tri Sesira (the three hats) but there are many others, such as the Dva Jelena ( Two stags ), Ima Dana and the famous Znak Pitanja (the question mark, the kafana with no name). This is in an old traditional house, typically Serbian, very rustic, with laid-back service and good food.
A small tip for foreigners going to a kafana with Serbians – your host will never allow you to pay for dinner or drinks, so don’t even try to pay. Just raise your glass, look at your host and shout cheers – ZIVELI!!!!!