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A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee: From Traditional Persian Coffee Houses to Modern Cafes


By Maryam Ala Amjadi, Tehran Times

Regardless of its humane or inhumane face and impact, time inevitably passes through us. So, what seems important and inspirational is how human beings look for and create ways to pass the time. And that leads us to the amusing concept of pastime and hangout. A hangout is generally defined as a specific place where individuals gather at specific timings and converse with each other. These conversations could almost be on any topic, from everyday issues and politics to literature and social changes. But perhaps, more than anything a hangout is actually a place that you find so that you could be found or even found out later. A hangout gives one the opportunity to create a kind of personal space within the public sphere. 

An obvious example of a modern hangout that almost includes the above features is a cafe.  The cafes of Tehran in particular are mainly popular for these reasons as they somehow serve as a social and cultural hub where people get to bond and meet on a regular basis. There are perhaps those who are under the impression that cafe and cafe culture is an imported concept from the West and a commercial and cultural imitation of the cafes in France and Russia. It may be true that modern cafes were initially built and maintained on Western models but the notion of people getting together in public and conversing over tea or coffee could be traced back to as early as the 17th century in Iran. In fact cafe culture in its traditional sense began during the reign of Shah Abbas Safavi but actually burgeoned during the Ghajar dynasty (late 18th century). 

Of course back then, there was no concept of the cafe as we know it today but there were places known as ghahveh khaneh (literally means coffee house). People from different walks of life who were free of work by sunset would gather at these spots, recline, and sip tea or coffee and converse freely with their fellow customers. Of course, there were other types of hangouts for them like the bazar or the city gardens but ghahveh khaneh was a place that gave them a sense of belonging and a form of social and emotional security as they visited regularly and conversed on mutual topics. In fact different coffee houses were home to different sectors of the society. For example, goldsmiths, silverware workers and other tradesmen had their own particular coffee house to hang out after work. This was a male oriented place and the presence of women was strictly forbidden and was even considered dishonorable.

The ghahveh khaneh was therefore an important place mainly for three reasons. Firstly, it was a venue for intellectual gathering and criticism of the present ambiance. In fact, sometimes they also served as the venue for the local council. If people needed to settle an argument or even seal a deal, the coffee house was a suitable place. The owner (known as ghahveh chi) was mostly known as the amin of the people (meaning trustworthy, someone who keeps secrets of others safe). He would have seen many people, heard many life stories, been witness to conducts and transactions and therefore he was also a good judge of character. Secondly, the coffee house was also primarily a site for relaxation from the day’s work, to recline and chat casually. Friendships were formed over tea and arguments were proved right or wrong as people smoked the water pipe, hooka (known as ghalyoon). Thirdly, ghahveh khaneh was also a place and even an occasion for literary activities. Poetry was recited and praised. Anecdotes were narrated and the moral of story was nodded to.

Even the interior structure of the coffee house was not without purpose. There were usually paintings on the walls known as naghashi ghahveh khaneh-ei (ghahveh khaneh paintings) which were mainly portraits of the great men and leaders of a tribe or Persian myths and heroes as depicted in the Shahnameh (national Persian epic poem). One could say that traditional Persian coffee houses were a bridge between the past and the present as they helped to preserve various Persian traditions. Naghali (telling stories ceremoniously), marsiyeh soraei (reciting eulogies about religious and fictional characters) and other literary activities were also popular.

With the advent of modernism and development of urban living, gradually ghahveh khaneh shifted to the background and lost its initial purpose. Soon it became a mere place of relaxation, particularly for the lower classes of the society to recline and drink tea after a hard day’s labor. It was then that the cafes as what we know them today came into existence (early 1920’s). The bubble hubble of the hooka was replaced with the puff of cigarettes. Instead of the clink and clank of traditional Persian see-through glasses (estekan) with saucers and the sound of brooks that sometimes ran by or within the coffee house garden, now there was the sound of music and china cups and saucers. People took on a new look, colors took a new tone and music had a new tune. Intellectual circles gradually began to take shape as people looked for intimate and yet public places to discuss issues of the day.

Many cafes were built during the 1950s and 1960s but only a few became popular and this fame was not because of the music they played or even the food they served but mainly due to their regular customers who were artists, thinkers, writers, journalists and diplomats of their time. The tables of time were turned as once again cups of coffee became an excuse to come, meet, and trade ideas and leave with even more thoughts. And soon, going to the cafe became a strong sign of being an intellectual in those times, an assumption that obviously did not last very long.

cafes of Tehran, measuring art in coffee spoons

From Enghelab Square till Kakh Avenue and way into Karim Khan Street, stretched with numerous bookshops, publication houses, cinemas and theater houses and of course, the University of Tehran, the Enghelab Avenue is undoubtedly the beating cultural heart of the  city.  Stretched along the Enghelab Avenue where the daily cultural walkabout of the city takes place, are also many old and new cafes that are home to the presence of students, writers, painters, actors and even ordinary citizens. Because not everyone who goes to a cafe is deemed as an artist or an intellectual and not every cafe has the capacity and capability of providing that kind of space. Moreover, the cafes of Tehran are no longer what they were a generation or even a decade ago.

The Wonderful Cafe Mahtab in Tehran (photo by Anna Vanzan)

Previously, cafes were places intellectual circles were formed. Old cafes of Tehran like cafe Azar, Shemiran, Naderi, Ferdowsis, Firouz and Nooshin were mainly famous because they were a hub to artists, writers, poets, politicians, sportsmen and intellectuals of their time. They would come, sit down, talk, even write and they were important because these individuals who formed groups were socially and culturally active. Their conversations were centered on literature, politics, latest news and intellectual gossip.

Some of these features are still preserved in the present cafes of Tehran. They are still home to artists and the walls are filled with photos of writers and poets and artistic posters. Sometimes poetry reading is done in small circles or a play is performed. And at times, there is even a call for photography or poster contest. It is also a place where artists can display their work. There are also cafes that are situated inside or above a bookshop.

Tehran's New Wonders: Cafe Ketab & Cafe 78
- phot by Syma Sayyah


In a cafe eating and drinking become tasting and sipping. The aesthetical pleasure of conversation slows the pace of the instinctive desire, which is quite ironical as cafes came with the birth of modern life and its rat race. The dim lit ambiance gives it a mysterious tone. Some come for the food and some for the mood. And some come to see others who are regular customers like them. Sometimes going to the cafe is a hard habit to break. 

Cafe Naderi and the aroma of nostalgia

On Jomhuri street, between Hafez and Ferdowsi Avenue (named after two great Persian poets) stands one of the oldest and most famous hangouts of Tehran known as Cafe Naderi. The cafe is currently a national heritage site as it has witnessed a part of the social, cultural and literary history of Iran.

Related Story: From Naderi Cafe to Kafka's Soup

The cafe-restaurant was founded in 1927 by an Armenian migrant named Khachik Madikiyans who introduced beef stroganoff, cafe glace, cafe au lait and other Western recipes to Iranians for the first time. But it was not only unconventional food or even the spacious ambiance which made the cafe famous. The place like any other social-cultural hub gained its reputation mainly due to the people; its regular customers who were diplomats, artists, painters, poets, writers, journalists, in one word, the so called “intellectuals”.

Located almost in the center of the city and near the embassy of UK, the cafe was particularly a very happening place during the 1970’s. It consists of two halls with the capacity of 140 people and a small yard which could pass for a garden. Previously live concerts were performed in the yard during the summer season. The first hall is the actual cafe where beverages and desserts are served and the second one is the restaurant where mostly Western food is on the menu.

Cafe Naderi (photo by Syma Sayyah)

cafe Naderi is indeed a reminiscent beacon of another age. It has even preserved its old Polish chairs since it was founded. Even its tables and pictures on the wall speak of a different time. So do not be surprised if you are occasionally served food in a chipped but beautiful plate with an antique look. Amazingly, even the waiters are very old and some of them have been working there all their life.

The old look of the cafe, however, has given it a special and unique tone, making the place equivalent with the word nostalgia for those who crave the shadow of a meaningful hangout. cafe Naderi has been a setting in modern Persian fiction and it is even mentioned in quite a few songs. 

Tea tradition: Persian black tea lightens the day

Tea (chay, pronounced Cha-ee) is an all-time beverage in Iran and it would not be an exaggeration to call it the national drink of the country. The color of Iranian tea is red and it is tasty even without milk and sugar. It is mostly drunk, however, along with sugar cubes and on occasion with sweets. The sugar cubes are taken between the teeth and then the tea is sipped. Iranians are known to drink tea any time of day and in fact they are heavy tea drinkers. It is almost the first refreshment that a guest is offered. Even in the heat of the summer tea still manages to remain as the main drink of the day.

Persian Tea (photo by Michele Roohani)

Even its preparation is an art and a ritual. The water is first boiled in a ketri (Kettle) and then it is poured over dry tea leaves in a ghoori (teapot). The teapot is then placed over the kettle and is allowed to brew over a slow fire for a few minutes. In this way, the tea leaves are brewed with the steam that comes out of the simmering kettle. This also keeps the tea nice and hot for a longer time. The tea is poured from the pot into a cup and then hot water is added from the kettle to make it lighter. Traditionally, Iranians drink tea in see-through cups (estekaan) as this allows the person serving the tea to determine the color and consistency of the drink according to the taste of the drinker. Sometimes tea is also brewed with rosewater, cinnamon and other spices.


  1. Ghahveh khaneh (traditional Persian coffee house) was a male oriented space and the presence of women was strictly forbidden. The cafes, however, opened a new social and cultural circle where female artists, writers, journalists and women in general were also included.
  2. Although a ghahveh khaneh is known as coffee house, tea is the main beverage that is served. Traditional tea houses are still existent and active in various parts of the city.
  3. The law prohibits smoking in cafes and public places in general and the government has taken certain measures to that effect. Hooka lounges, however, are still existent in specific places. Additionally, traditional Persian dishes like kababs and dizi (traditional soup stew meal usually cooked in stone pots) can be found on the menu.
  4. In addition to the traditional ghaveh khaneh and modern cafes where people can meet over coffee, internet and game cafes are also other popular hangouts.
  5. History of tea culture in Iran began by the end of the 15th century. Interestingly, before that coffee was the popular beverage but it was difficult to ship because the countries producing it were far from Iran. Lahijan in north Iran was the first town to have tea plantations and to this day it has the greatest tea cultivation area in the country. Presently there are up to 107 tea factories and a total of 32,000 hectare of tea farms in Iran. Tea first came to the country from China via the Silk Road.
  6. Some would say that tea and coffee are also known as a pastime and a reason to get together. Tasseography or the art of reading tea leaves (faal-e chaay) and coffee grinds (faal-e ghahveh) in the hope of fortunetelling, though not common are also existent.
  7. Tehran’s parks and mountains surrounding the city are also another popular hangout, particularly for the youth. Favorite mountain destinations are Tochal, Darakeh and Darband. These places have a suitable climate almost all year round. The trails leading to them have many hooka lounges and ghahveh khanehs and are therefore visited by locals and tourists in the evenings and particularly on the weekends. 

Bizarre Buzz!: A distasteful name for a tasty sandwich

Situated on Niloofar Street, near Apadana district in Tehran is a small and not quite tidy sandwich shop fondly but strangely known as Feri Kasif (dirty Feri). Feri is short for Fereydun which is the name of the owner and founder of the place. Considering the shop’s name and its appearance, it is hard to believe that it could be famous for serving delicious fast food.

There is a very small corridor in the front where not more than two people can stand at a time. There is no separate kitchen and everything is prepared before the eyes of customers who stand in long queues for their parcel as there is no place to sit and most people prefer to eat in their cars parked. Despite these shortcomings, Dirty Feri’s sandwich is surely one of the most popular fast food hangouts in Tehran. After all, what’s in a name? That which we call a sandwich, by any other name would taste as delicious!

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