Taipei is a city well-endowed with coffee shops. While the city is filled with aroma of coffees, Café Astoria is one that deserves a special mention.
Within each cup of Astoria Coffee lies a fascinating story that begins with the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. That year, as the Russian Communists overthrew the Tsarist government, George Elsner, a member of the Royal Guard, fled to Harbin and then onward to Shanghai. In 1922, he and fellow countryman Burin Petter Noveehor opened Café Astoria on Shanghai’s Avenue Joffre. Shanghai fell to the Chinese Communists and the pair again uprooted and finally made their way to Taiwan.
In 1949, Elsner and six other Russians partnered with Archibald Chien, then an 18 year-old graduate of Jianguo High School, to open Café Astoria on Wuchang Street in Taipei. The name, a reference to the Russian word for “universe,” indicates the brightest star in the sky: a fitting name for a cafe that would go on to shine for a span of more than 70 years.
From its northern roots a century earlier to its southern home in the 21st century, Café Astoria has continued the heritage of its Russian royal family lineage. These early roots can be glimpsed from an in-house Russian recipe book, preserved from 1915. The café also continues to serve its distinctive mix of Russian meals, coffee, and fine, exotic pastries. These dishes hearken back to a golden bygone era when foreign embassy officials frequented the café on Wuchang Street, attracted by Astoria’s Russian soft candy and mazurka cakes, both are Russian royal family treats favored by Taiwan’s First lady Chiang Fang-Liang. Astoria’s chocolate cake, the first in Taiwan, further sealed the café’s place in the hearts of the residents of Taipei and made it a byword for mystery and splendor.
Ever since poet Chou Meng-Tieh set up a book stand on its sidewalk arcade, Café Astoria has served as a gathering place for lovers of literature and the arts. Café owners Mr. and Mrs. Chien warmly welcomed young artists, among them writers Sanmao, Huang Chunming, Lin Hwai-Min, Pai Hsien-Yung, Chu Ko, Chen Ruoxi, Chi Chi, and Ming Fang, as well as directors and screenwriters such as Wu Nien-Jen and Chen Kun-Hou. Many of these literary patrons would linger here early in their careers to write, with a pen and a cup of coffee in hand, producing countless legendary works.
Many paintings adorning café’s interior walls showcase local sceneries by artists filled with idealism and ambition. Among them are works of artists Li Mei-Shu, Yang San-Lang, Yen Shui-Long, and Lang Jing-Shan. Café Astoria attracted them with a subdued and caring spirit that, steadily becoming a landmark of contemporary literature in Taiwan and an irreplaceable cultural salon.
In 2004, after a 15-year hiatus, Café Astoria, re-opened to welcome customers old and new with a fresh start. The original wooden tables and chairs remained, evoking the memories and warmth of an early time, as did the café’s original soul and human touch. Its menu continued to highlight a delicious royal Russian fare now so difficult to reproduce, even in Russia. Patrons returned not only for the café’s warmth, a cup of coffee and a meal, but also from a longing for the goodness of old Taipei.
Founder Archibald Chien’s daughter Karen Chien took the helm of the revived café. The Poet Chou Meng-Tieh once composed an inscription from the Chinese characters of Karen’s name: “Simplicity can conquer intricacy; Quiescence can overcome restlessness; Kindness can win people’s hearts.” These words also amply describe the motto in which Karen uses to continue the legacy of Café Astoria. As the current owner, she has adjusted the café business model to meet the times, yet remained faithful to her father’s sincerity and original intention. She has also kept the café true to its core value emphasizing on quality and a spirit that continues to move customers with its purity and goodness.