John Hagan tours the traditional cafes of the Austrian capital
IT was the bags of strange green beans that started it all. Left behind by the Turks following an unsuccessful siege of the city in 1683, the citizens of Vienna initially thought they contained camel fodder. However, when roasted and soaked in hot water, the beans produced a magnificent aroma and a surprisingly stunning taste.
Since then the locals have been hooked on java, with the brew now central to Viennese culture. Today, more than 300 coffee houses are congenial social centres for locals as well as the many millions of tourists who visit the city annually.
The first step to enjoying the Viennese coffee house is understanding the menu, coupled with a passing appreciation of the long-established traditions.
Most coffee houses offer a choice of up to three dozen varieties of the brew. Melange (coffee with steamed milk; a good substitute for latte) and einspanner (mocha served in a glass with whipped cream) are the most popular.
Brauner is the basic drink (coffee with a little milk), while the more exotic choices include turkische, a strong black coffee brewed in a copper pot, Turkishstyle; fiaker (mocha with rum or brandy) served in a glass; and wiener eiskaffe, a concoction of vanilla ice cream with cold mocha and whipped cream.
Best not to upset Herr Ober (or head waiter, as every waiter in Austria appears to be called) by simply asking for a cup of coffee.
Whatever the selection, the coffee arrives on a small oval tray, accompanied by a glass of water, with a spoon balanced delicately on top. The water symbolises the establishment’s desire to let the patron know they are welcome to stay indefinitely.
Some coffee houses offer chess, cards and even billiards, and provide local and international newspapers and journals. Just the place to relax, read, and observe the Viennese at large: businessmen consummating deals, students swotting, lovers tete-a-teting, shoppers reviving, matrons gossiping, politicians lobbying and retirees browsing.
The surroundings may be sumptuous or simple, humming or hushed, illustrious or insipid, but every cafe worth its java cultivates its individual reputation and character.
The visitor will know when they have found their coffee house: the chemistry will be just right.
Close to the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) is Demel (Kohlmarkt 14), one of Vienna’s most celebrated establishments. Its baroque decor, ornate murals of frolicking water nymphs, coterie of opulent chandeliers and sugar-plum fairy elegance can all seem a bit overdone and unsettling.
Famous for its torte, Demel dispenses delicious, decadent and expensive pastries. It is a shrine to the sweet-toothed, with nusscafetorte (nut and coffee cream cake) and gerollte mandeltorte (rolled layers of meringue, almond, ganache and buttercream) nestling in glass cabinets groaning with kilojoules.
Adjacent to the Vienna Opera House — and arguably Demel’s most bitter rival for decadent pastries — is Hotel Sacher (Philarmonikerstrasse 4). A favourite among tourists, Sacher Confiserie displays a sumptuous array of confections including its most famous, Sachertorte. To the purist, Demel and Sacher’s cafe are not considered coffee houses but are known as konditoreien or pastry shops that also happen to sell coffee, and where the pastry is served to complement the coffee rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, because of their popularity patrons often have to wait for a table.
Cafe Landtmann (Dr Karl Lueger Ring 4) is probably the city’s favourite coffee house. Next door to Vienna’s renowned Burgtheatre (Imperial Theatre), it is easy to reach. Transformed in 1873 from a chocolate shop, it combines the old and the new to perfection, while reflecting understated elegance. Here, many receive a coffee house knighthood: they are not only known by Herr Ober but also addressed by name.
Landtmann has an interesting a la carte menu, but book ahead to dine between noon and 2pm. A house specialty is the legendary marmorgugelhupf, marble coffee cake.
Famous clients have included Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Sigmund Freud, who practised nearby before fleeing to London. Landtmann’s location makes it a magnet for many theatrical, political and society figures.
According to the Viennese, Cafe Central (Herrengasse 14) has changed little since the early 1900s. Located near historic St Stephens Cathedral, it is an institution that, at the turn of the 20th century, counted chess-playing Lev Davidovich Bronstein and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin among its patrons.
A few years later Bronstein (aka Leon Trotsky) and Lenin enmeshed continental Europe in turmoil.
When he heard of the Russian revolution, the Austrian foreign minister is reported to have asked in amazement: You are not going to tell me it was that chess-playing Bronstein from the Cafe Central who started it!
During the Lenin-Trotsky era, about 250 newspapers and journals were available at Cafe Central. Although this array of reading matter has somewhat diminished, patrons still have access to a wide choice of foreign and local publications. Renovated during the early 1980s, the cafe’s Byzantine-inspired vaulted ceilings, Corinthian columns, marbletopped tables, grand piano and simple wooden chairs capture an air of refined grandeur. A non-smoking area is reserved to the left of the Peter Altmann statue.
In a narrow alleyway also in the vicinity of St Stephens Cathedral (Dorotheegrasse 6), is Cafe Hawelka, which has probably not changed much since it reopened after World War II. The sign outside, Kunstler und Lebenskunstler (artists and artists of life), has encouraged the patronage of many famous painters such as Friedensreich Hundertwasser who, like many of the other artists, paid his bills with paintings that still adorn the walls.
Owned and operated by Leopold Hawelka and his family, it is the classic Vienna kaffeehaus. Intimate, austere, smoky, noisy, dark, with wooden floor and marble-topped tables. Hawelka is a bohemian haunt popular with students, intellectuals, actors and artists, probably the most colourful clientele in the city.
Because of its cramped quarters, Cafe Hawelka is always crowded, adding to its atmosphere. There is not much in the way of nibbles offered here, but the fine coffee is lovingly prepared.
One of the pleasures of the Viennese coffee house is that no matter how modest the order, once served, customers can stay as long as they like. Herr Ober is in no rush to present the bill. John Hagan was a guest of the Vienna Tourist Board. www.austria.info www.wien.info
Sugar heaven: The cake-laden, kilojoule-rich interior of legendary Viennese cafe Demel, a shrine to the sweet-toothed