(life!.Travel, the Straits Times, Singapore, March 2011) Wien
Tips from Viennese residents to give your feet a rest in the coffee houses without you missing out on the action.
Vienna, the Promised Land for caffeine and cake addicts, is steep to the gills with cafés that are historical, artistic and cultural points of interest in their own right.
Back in the 19th century when humble abodes had no heating, kaffehäuser doubled as the living rooms where impoverished writers, artists and intellectuals sought refuge. Today, locals huddle in the cafés year round to read the complimentary international papers, seal business deals, gossip or play card games. Unlike in Italy, where the locals treat the cafés as quickie pit stops for quick swigs of espressos, here, everyone lingers for hours at any time of the day nursing no more than a coffee.
“Viennese cafés offer an impressive number coffees like einspänner and kapuziner which you cannot find anywhere else,” says Cosima Steiner, a Viennese native working for Advantage Austria, the nation’s internationalisation agency. For newcomers, the coffee menu reads like gibberish. But you’d be surprised how quickly you start remembering that an einspänner is a double espresso with whipped cream and a kapuziner is petite mocha with creamy droplets. Though melange (Viennese-style cappuccino) is the capital’s signature, Cosima favours the intense kleiner brauner (little brown, meaning a single shot with cream on the side). The beverage is delivered to your table on a rectangular silver tray accompanied by a small glass of water.
“You choose a kaffeehaus for life. It’s one that matches your profile, and a reflection of your character,” explains Franca Kobenter, a director of Austria.info that promotes the fun factors of the country. In and around the First District, there’s a café that matches your mood whether you’re the character that goes for the belle époque aura, tempting pastries or just to kick back and people-watch after an intensive round of close-up’s with Mozart and Strauss or the masterstrokes of artists Klimt and Schiele.
The younger set would gravitate towards Café Phil for its modern music and salvaged furniture. Bejewelled plunging necklines and black tailcoats congregate at Café Schwarzenberg, located within walking distance of the Vienna State Opera house is, for pre and post-opera banters. Café Landtmann, near the Burgtheater, also enjoys a clientele of stylish artists, socialites, and politicians. Those pining for the-way-we-were would seek out the old school variants.
A famous one from the old shrines is Café Central. The only residents you’ll see here are those playing host to their out-of-town guests. Once the hangout of literary greats and revolutionaries like Trotsky, it’s now cashing in on the tourist trade by packing the tables closely together. But even if you have had your fill of grandiose Habsburg Empire bricks and mortar, the premises’ ornate columns and vaulted ceilings are still beguiling.
Another old-timer is Café Hawelka. Founded in the year World War II broke out, the Chinese wise say of “if the old don’t go, the new won’t come” doesn’t swing any weight here. After a recent renovation, it came out looking unchanged with the sepia glazing intact. “It is a real institution,” says Cosima. “Songs have been written about it. Josefine Hawelka, who founded Café Hawelka with her husband, was famous for baking her traditional buchteln (a type of yeast cake) every evening after 10pm.” Austrians are born with sweet tooth and cafés know to treat them well. At Hawelka, the price for a cake plus coffee would come up to about 10Euros.
My host, Andrea Klement, packed me off to her fave living room: Café Sperl. It hasn’t made it to the big time tourist circuit, though it’s not far from the Naschmarkt food market that is near the Secession Building and frequented by foodies from around the word.
“I like the architecture [of Café Sperl]. The big, old lamps. The place looks very elegant and traditional. It is one of few coffeehouses in Vienna run by waitresses,” observes Hansel Sato, a Peruvian-Japanese artist residing in Vienna. Among their regulars was Sigmund Freud.
This being the backyard of the influential shrink, it gets you pondering about the mind-bending powers of the Sachertorte. Now almost 180 years old, it’s essentially a layered chocolate sponge cake with a glossy dark brown coat. Work in a secret recipe spiel and pull some royal strings, you have visitors throwing Euros at them. It’s a gig every cake wants to nab.
“It has to be fresh and homemade,” says Franca. When she can’t home make them, she gets the slices from Hotel Sacher, which won the legal tussle to the claim as the source of the original recipe.
The loser in court is no loser in sales. At Demel, be prepared to queue for the tarted up treats. Demel’s competitive advantage, in addition to the open kitchen where you can watch pastry chefs at work, is the track record as bakers to the royals. The clients included Empress Elizabeth (or Sisi, as she was known), the Original Princess Di in that she was also a beauty whose fairytale marriage went awry and her life was cut short tragically.
Present day street-artists impersonating the empress pose with visitors on Stephansplatz outside the St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s here you’ll find a cheaper source of the Sachertorte at the flagship store of Aida. Locals seem to take to this brazenly pink konditorei manned by peroxide blondes.
The locals also take to the apple strudel. Franca points to Café Tirolerhof as a good strudel source. The café sports the 1920’s Jugendstil décor. For more close-up’s on the Jugenstil era, hop over to the absolutely fabulous MAK (Museum of Applied Arts). But that’s really just an excuse to get near to Café Prückel, opposite the museum.
Like other Viennese time capsules, Café Prückel applies the principle of “if it isn’t broken, don’t facelift it”. The original 50’s design has mellowed gracefully, winning it the loyalty of the arty mob and celebs.
A similar custodian of 60’s retro shabby chic, but less expensive since it’s further from the First District, is the family-run Café Weidinger. “She was the first woman to learn kaffeesieder (coffee brewing) in Austria,” says Kerstin Kellermann from the Art In Migration mag, drawing my attention to the dignified silver-hair Mrs. Weidinger.
Like many addictive pastimes, the kaffeehaus culture comes a health warning: so traditional are these social hubs that most still tolerate unbridled serial smoking even though many EU countries have already stamped out public puffing.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” says Cosima of the nicotine particles. “I think it is part of the Viennese cafés.”
- In the true spirits of kaffeehaus as a place for meeting people, share a table with strangers and strike up a conversation. The younger ones speak English effortlessly.
- Bring your own reading material. The choice of papers and magazines is wide but largely in German.
- Note the red and green dots. Green means the premises are fully non-smoking. Red and green means they have separate seating for smokers. Red means smokers rule.
- Get coffee beans at Alt Wien near the Naschmarkt. The beans are roasted on site and there’s a coffee-tasting counter for sampling the house blends, such as Alt Wiener Gold. Prices start at 5.30Euros for a 250g pack. You pay a couple of Euros more for fair trade and organic beans. The Blue Mountain roast at 50Euros is for connoisseurs with deep pockets.
- Decode the types of coffee. In addition to those mentioned, there’s kurzer, kaffee verkehrt and kaisermelange, plus alcohol-spiked ones like pharisäer. And more.
- Call the melange a cappuccino though they look like identical twins. The Italian rendition is an espresso with hot milk and a frothy top. The Viennese version is a weaker coffee with equal parts of hot milk and foam. It sometimes comes with a dollop of whipped cream and speckled with cocoa or chocolate powder.
- Leave without handing over some tips (trinkgeld) even if the waiter was haughty. There’s no minimum tip, you simply round up the figure.
- Rush the waiters. They, not the guests, call the shots on the speed of service.
(life!.Travel, the Straits Times, Singapore, March 2011)