Just a few blocks away from the infamous Tahrir Square is a café that has been witness to Egypt’s ever-changing political and social scene. Founded more than a century ago in 1908, Café Riche is a throwback to the country’s glorious past and is a place where intrigue and conspiracy might as well be items on the menu.
A family-owned enterprise, Café Riche has been the stomping ground for intellectuals, politicians, Middle Eastern glitterati and, yes, even spies. It’s the place where they drank away the stresses of the day and sought inspiration, secured alliances, finalized political plans and hatched new policies and agreements. It’s the locale where Umm Kalthoum performed, Ismail Yassen drank coffee, Naguib Mahfouz held discussions and Yasser Arafat popped by for a bite to eat. Rumor even has it that Café Riche was the backdrop for meetings organized by Nasser’s regime; the place where they orchestrated the coup that overthrew King Farouk.
Care for a side of political intrigue with your shish tawook?
Though the café isn’t as busy as it used to be, it’s still charming and manages to pull in a steady and loyal following of both flamboyant and academically-minded clientele. The 2011 uprising certainly managed to breathe new life into the place and during the late afternoons many university students from the AUC can be found seated at the wooden tables gossiping about their professors or talking about the current political situation in Egypt.
Arabic music from the 30s, 40s and 50s vibrates through the sound system and the décor transports you – like a time machine – back to the days of yore when life in Cairo was pregnant with possibility. Wait staff dressed in flowing blue galabeyyas efficiently move between tables and not only are they friendly, but they have a knack for English and French if you find your Arabic isn’t up to snuff.
The menu is capacious with more than enough to choose from. In terms of drinks there’s espresso, fresh juice, tea and Turkish coffee (a must have at Café Riche…it’s delicious). There’s also beer and wine if you’re in need of something with a marked alcohol content.
If you’re looking for something to eat, the traditional favourites are available including vine leaves, molokhia, the aforementioned shish tawook, falafel (tameyya), lentil soup (worth throwing elbows for) and other Oriental delicacies. If you’re feeling bold there are more fanciful dishes including fried sole, Egyptian moussaka and liver and kidneys sautéed in red-wine sauce. Have no fear though if you’re a vegetarian (or a picky eater) as there are plenty of meat-free soups, pastas and mezzes along with a handful of dairy and gluten free dishes.
Though it’s a tricky part of the city to get to these days (the proximity to Tahrir has kept many away) I think it’s well worth the jaunt. I’m still not sure how Café Riche does it, but it manages to cast a spell on everyone who walks through the front door. If you don’t love the food, you’ll at least appreciate the atmosphere and spend a couple of hours letting your mind wander as you wonder what this place must have been like “back in the day.”
If only the walls could speak.
17 Talaat Harb St.
Downtown, Cairo, Egypt