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October 2006

Munich’s Saloon Salon


Even if it’s difficult to imagine a vibrant art scene flourishing amidst the Imbiss and party-mile clutter of Schwabing, every mention of the neighborhood lauds its bohemian roots. Though creative circles have gelled in different areas of Schwabing throughout the years, no location has been more integral to the development of its cultural milieu than the Alter Simpl restaurant and bar. The one-time patrons of this dark and smoky hole-in-the-wall went on to write history and, in some cases, world-class literature.
In 1903, Kathi Kobus closed her Schwabing restaurant, “Dichtelei,” and moved to Türkenstrasse 57. Dichtelei had been a gathering point for Schwabing artists, and when Kobus moved, customers including Frank Wedekind, Ludwig Thoma and Thomas Theodor Heine followed. Kobus named the new locale “Simpl,” after Simplicissimus, a weekly satire magazine they, and their friends, produced. Illustrator Olaf Gulbransson created a logo for Kobus that would clarify the close nature of the relationship between the eatery and the publication: On the cover of Simplicissimus, a red bulldog ripped apart the chains of censorship, and on the restaurant’s sign, the same dog gripped the cork of a champagne bottle in its jaws.
Linking the new restaurant to Simplicissimus was a serendipitous business decision: At the time, it was one of the most important publications in Munich. Albert Langen and Thomas Theodor Heine published the first issue of the magazine in April of 1896. Contributors scripted and sketched witty attacks against the church, Wilhelmine politics, the military and other bourgeois institutions. Before long, in 1898, the government brought defamation charges against Langen. He fled to Switzerland in the face of a 30,000 Mark fine, but the drama was great publicity for the magazine. Sales rose to 85,000 per week in 1904.
With Simplicissimus scribes camped out at the tables, Kobus’s restaurant was imbued with an unmistakably literary air. She also engaged such “house poets” as Joachim Ringelnatz and served free meals to those who entertained fellow diners with spontaneous wordplay. Visual artists could also pay tabs with creative contributions. Works by such patrons as Franz Marc and E.M. Engert constituted interesting and valuable wallpaper. The walls were so crowded that during the day, wrote Simpl regular Erich Mühsam, it looked “more like an art store than an artist’s bar.” At night, however, the atmosphere was entirely different. Mühsam wrote, “The air was practically visible with wine particles, tobacco and body odor, which didn’t quite give the impression that the Simpl was frequented by tasteful Schwabing artists.”
At the center of this heady scene was the makeshift cabaret that played host to many future legends. Though the tiny dimensions of the locale could barely support it, Kobus outfitted a back room with a stage, piano and podium. She even “encouraged” performances by supplying free champagne: Bavarian comedian Karl Valentin, who made his first appearance at Simpl in 1906, was one of the many to take her up on her offer. Other guests soon agreed to entertain on a more regular schedule.
Even amidst flowing liquor and racy cabaret humor, Kobus kept Simpl from degenerating into debauchery. She was known for having a steel backbone behind the friendly exterior of a Bavarian innkeeper: Though she addressed everyone with the informal Du, she wasn’t afraid to throw out drunk and rowdy patrons herself.
Kobus was a significant aspect of the Simpl mystique, but even when she retired temporarily in 1912, the Simpl continued to be a cultural hotspot. A frequent performer at the establishment, Hugo Ball wrote a poem for a 1914 Marietta di Monaco recitation, in which the term “Dada” appeared for the first time. Kobus took the helm again in 1919, but the golden age of Simpl was already coming to an end. More and more, local students filled the tables as old regulars passed away or moved to other local bars. Social changes in Germany also put a damper on the art scene. The rise of Nazism was accompanied by the suppression of avant-garde creativity, and political disagreements disturbed the balance of relationships between Munich’s artists. When a bomb destroyed Alter Simpl on July 13, 1944, an era came to an end.
After the war, Alter Simpl was rebuilt. New owner Toni Netzle managed to renew its reputation as an artists’ haven during the 1950s and 1960s. This motherly actress was infamous, among other reasons, for bringing a young G.I. named Elvis Presley to a local strip club. The members of the ’68 generation met at Simpl during this time. Later owners have also tried to reignite the old atmosphere of cultural dynamism with literature readings and concerts. Guests today, however, are most often local university students or tourists hoping to eat under the gaze of Franz Marc and Thomas Mann—in photographic form or otherwise.

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