Café Riche is a cozy temple for the initiated: strangers gather in clusters, exchange book briefs under an undated photograph of Um Kalthoum, and sip sugared, home-brewed tea. There’s an air of knowing, maybe even intrigue; from revolutionaries to renegades, Café Riche has hosted some of Egypt’s greatest thinkers and sweetest songbirds for over a century.
And it has always been this way: select, alluring, enigmatic.
As one of Cairo’s most infamous spots, Café Riche was established in the early 20th century by a French national with a penchant for a good time and a better drink. It was passed down from owner to owner several generations until finding its name intertwined with the Abdel-Malek family. Located in the heart of Cairo’s downtown, a historic location for an enduring cultural landmark, Café Riche has a fabled reputation for accommodating intellect and, on some occasions, danger.
Local legend has it that Gamal Abdel-Nasser organized the Free Officers at the cafe, prior to overthrowing late King Farouk I in a 1952 coup d’état. Ibrahim Mansour, intellectual and El-Sadat detractor, was put in cuffs after an fervent political tirade against the 1970 Israel-Egypt peace treaty at the café. Literary critic Safinaz Kazem’s own arrest followed shortly after, within Riche.
Café Riche was nothing if not riddled with political espionage – but it was also a home for romantics. Riche’s regulars included a famed repertoire of literary names. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz would pen his novels in one corner, as poets Salah Jaheen and Amal Donkul occupied another. Riche was “a meeting point for intellectuals [and] a rallying point for political activists.”
This matchbox cafe was a spot to measure out Egypt’s finest sociocultural revolutions, and curry favor with its most debonair and daunting figureheads.
Over the years, however, the glamorous patina has faded just enough to show some cracks. While the era has moved forward onto grander, sleeker service, Café Riche suffers some undeniable faults in the 21st century light; with “overpriced” and “unseasoned” food, many wonder whether the famous cafe has succumbed to its own legend and become complacent in the process.
Both foreigners and Egyptians are quick to remark about the staff, with strong words such as “tasteless” and “rude” featuring heavily in reviews. It appears that the bygone era steeped in intellectualism has instead been replaced by “shout[ing] matches” between staff members and half-cold meals. Even the very essence of luxury has been stripped, with waiters donning questionable, classist uniforms that connote subservience.
Perhaps most damning, is a Trip Advisor review which summarizes the Café Riche experience as “full of history, alright; with a lot of dirt and dust.”
It appears that despite the grandeur and wanderlust Café Riche emits from the outside, its fabulous history is not enough to overshadow its present mediocrity. If it’s legacy, Café Riche delivers – if its cuisine, perhaps it’s better looking elsewhere for now.