Print this page
Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Waltzing through the Grand Cafés of Vienna

Written by John M. Edwards
Rate this item
(1 Vote)

 

John M. Edwards sings the praises of Vienna’s unique “Grand Café”  Kaffeeklatches, perfect for any time of year

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

“The [Café] Central is a place for people who have to kill time, so as  

not to be killed by it. . . .”

--Alfred Polgar

-------------------------------------------------------------

“I AM SIGMUND SPIELBERG!!!”

 

    The obviously unemployable flaneur with umlaut eyes landed at my 

marble-topped table without a proper invite, brusquely pushing aside a  

Thonet wooden chair.

 

    Brandishing a copy of Der Spiegel on a wooden rolling pin in his left  

hand, and reeking from an unfortunate cologne resembling turning fruit  

or female arousal or even Cutter ™, Sigmund sighed, coughing up and  

swallowing a leech-like phlegm ball.

 

    “Wow!” I breathed in snarky disbelief. “Any relation to the American  

filmmaker Steven Spielberg?!”

 

    “Why yes!” “Siggy” fogged up his Rayban aviator sunglasses and  

polished the lenses on a starched white napkin (mine), smiling like a  

demon out of Hieronymous Bosch. “Steven Spielberg is a distant cousin  

of me. . . .”

 

    We were at the legendary Grand Café (a classic Fin de Siecle  “grand  

café”), where reservations are suggested: (00 43 1-580 9120), and which  

is perhaps Vienna’s most storied meeting place.  Easily located right  

on the first floor of the Grand Hotel Wien  (9 Kaertnerstrasse) on  

Vienna’s romantic Ringstrasse, this atmospheric kaffehaus (coffeehouse)  

resembled any Danté-like circle of hell, with dark exhaust-spewing  

Mercedes-Benzes prowling around outside on the famous circular road  

like canny reef sharks, just waiting to take you on a “luxus” ride into  

the other side of night.

 

    However, inside, with its vaulted ceilings, marble pillars, wooden  

hatracks, bentwood chairs, and foreign periodicals on roller sticks,  

the Café Grand (or Grand Café) was once the haunt of such dastardly  

villains as Lenin, Trotsky, and Freud.

 

    It almost seemed like at any minute an anarchist, perhaps a Serbian  

terrorist from “The Black Hand,” who assassinated The Archduke  

Ferdinand in Sarajevo, thus sparking World War I, would come in and  

roll a bowling-ball shaped bomb down the elaborately laid parquet  

flooring.

 

    In point of fact, though, I couldn’t tell offhand if “Siggy” was just  

an apparent poseur dressed in a 19th-century-style frockcoat, more  

Fraud than Freud. I instead took him at his word, mostly wretched  

Englische.

 

    “Wellkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome!” Siggy sang like Joel Gray in  

“Cabaret.”

 

    Everything was oh-so perfect, an epiphany: even if this spectacle was  

one of the only non-smoking demesnes in all of Vienna. Why? Nothing  

goes better with a cigar or a cigarette than a “machiatto”!


 

    Ah, at last the al fresco!

 

    Siggy and I left the Café Grand, much like a quick gay pickup (even  

though I am straight), in order to direct me on a walking tour of  

Vienna’s favorite sites, taking in as many Kaffeeklatches as we could  

muster. In retrospect, I never drank more cups of coffee in my life.

 

    Arriving at the Café Central (14 Herrengasse), frogmarched there by my  

newfound friend, as confident a tour guide as Rick Steves, if not  

Anthony Bourdain, I decided that this was one of the  best cafés in Die  

Welt.

 

    Get this? Vienna was the site of Europe’s very first Kaffeehaus,  

opened in 1685 (name unknown) with a busybee umph and a royal assist.  

According to legend, when the Ottoman Turks retreated from their deadly  

siege of the Austro-Hungarian city in 1683, they left behind bags of  

coffee beans, which were promptly “brewed” by the Habsburgian army,  

then led by “Prussian” Polish general Jan Sobieski. Austrians poured  

hot water on the crushed-up beans, and presto!

 

    Thus, both kaffee (based upon Islamic loot originally derived from  

Ethiopia) and the croissant (based upon the sickle in Turkish flags)  

overtook the city, and later the entire Eurasian continent. Today,  

Austria has the second-highest coffee consumption per capita in the  

world, topped only by (curiously) Norway.

 

    With coffee being a 300-year-old tradition, a favorite of visiting  

vampires Moliere and Voltaire (as well as many other philosophers),  

Vienna proves that coffee isn’t just a right, but also a privilege. It  

just happens. One Holy Roman Emporer, a Habsburg, once suggested  

banning coffee as the “devil’s drink,” but nobody in the Holy Roman  

Empire (800-1806) or subsequent Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918)  

cooperated with the decree, nor paid any attention to it.

 

    By 1900, there were over 600 kaffeehaus in the city, while now there  

are only a couple of hundred left. The then-closed-down Café Ritter  

(1867) almost declared bankruptcy recently, even though it once upon a  

time ruled with its “Wienerschnitzel” and “Tafelspitz” and “Guglhupf.”

 

    At the corner of Tuchlabenstrasse and Brandståtte, Siggy and I entered  

the little-known Café Korb (1904), intentionally not included in my  

Best Of List, and then quickly exited without ordering. “Too crowded!”  

Siggy fumed with force majeur. “We will go for real ‘Eiskaffee’!”

 

    Not long after, assisted to our chairs in a fairly nondescript but  

opulent café, whose name I spaced, Siggy removed his feet from the  

floor and placed them on a neighboring seat. His pointy leather shoes  

were ugly, scuffed. While my Rockport walking shoes were the envy of  

every foot fetishist on the continent, which I secretly suspected was  

what Siggy was: a feet man.

 

    A waiter resembling a young Gustav Klimt, in a starched white apron,  

took our orders on a notepad, as I asked, “What’s the name of this  

café?”

 

    “Wass?”

 

    “Der nomen, dis Kaffe?”

 

    “Ah-so, Kaffe Sperl!”


 

 

    Somehow Siggy and I had landed at one of Vienna’s most famous and  

atmospheric cafes, the Café Sperl (11 Gumpendorferstrasse), built in  

1880 with a Waspy yellow-and-black exterior facade—all smoke and  

mirrors, on a difficult to pronounce thoroughfare. This Belle Epoch  

building topped even the tacky Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. I felt  

like a character from Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” (1949)--also a  

classic film with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, which made the iconic  

“Big Wheel” (built by British architect Walter Basset in the 1880s)  

justly famous. We both ordered cheesecake and café du lait, recommended  

in my guidebook.

 

    But unfortunately, I had to give the “Sperl” an unhurried hurl and a  

vigorous Holy Roman Emporer’s thumb’s down: poisoned!

 

    “Now we go very important Platz!” Siggy enthused, laughing at my  

coughed-up “Type II diabetes”- endangering sweet yuck. “Yes, we go to  

only the best next!”

 

    Of course this next-best coffee stop turned out to be the  

tourist-mobbed “Café Demel” (14 Kohlmarkt: 00 431-5351 7170), the only  

café, really a confectionary, that might require a phoned-in  

reservation in advance. Even so, we settled down after a long wait for  

some “Mohr Im Hemd” (chocolate soufflé pudding), “Lakronene”  

(macaroons), and ginger hot chocolate.

 

    I didn’t mind paying for everything up to so far, but the bill was too  

steep to cover on my own. I politely asked for a donation and Siggy  

handed me a crushed-up ball of euros.

 

    “Nein Deutschmarks!” Siggy bruited.

 

    Switching to native white “Gerwertzentraminer” (dry white wine), I  

realized that it was kind of fun to be lost. . . . In fact, the  

Kaffeehaus poet Peter Altenburg often gave up his personal address as  

“Vienna I. Café [blank],” as an ode to way opulent monumentalism and  

romantic historicism.

 

    After ducking into the Diglas Café (10 Wollzeilestrasse), with,  

believe it or not, see-through toilets, for a touristic bathroom break,  

I sanitized my hands before ordering their signature vanilla custard  

and a cuppa. Not bad, but not good enough for my Must-See List.

 

    Ditto, the “Adolf Loos”-designed Café Muzeum (1899), Egon Schiele’s  

favorite pit stop for high-octane fuel. Although we just barely stepped  

into its shadows, Siggy assured me that for the Preis (all nouns in  

German are capitalized) of a single espresso you could stay here for  

hours undisturbed, writing postcards.

 

    Then as a joke (I wasn’t laughing), Siggy pointed out one of the  

city’s local Starbucks (49 Kartnerstrasse), with free Wifi. At least,  

this chain is preferable to the Indian-owned “Coffee Day,” which  

lingered around the city off-puttingly  like butt-stinky curry or stale  

cigar smoke.

 

    Somewhere around the impressively forbidding Gothic Schoenbrun Palace  

(architect: Fisher von Ehrlich), I lost Siggy in the crowd of en vogue  

boulevardiers and fashionistas with ponytails while I continued my  

architectural waltz past monuments such as are covered in my Berlitz  

Guide. And at last I started waltzing back to my “Zimmer” (private  

room) in the Centrum, whose “comedia dell arte” common room served  

5-euro coffee and “Streissekooken” for mostly impecunious backpackers  

and Roma (gypsy) musicians, even though it didn’t make my Top Twelve  

List. . . .


 

    But how about those free Hershey’s Kisses ™, rather than Austrian  

chocos (comparible with Swiss brands) resembling chess pieces or pert  

tatas?!

 

    In the end, I felt the spiritual uplift of the sine qua non  

musical-chairs-loving charmingly unctuous city around me, “a place  

where time and space is consumed,” as well as plenty of pretty polly.  

With the bile of the “Blue Danube” rushing by me I could tell why  

Wien’s (Vienna’s) café culture tradition is designated an (intangible) UNESCO  

World Heritage Site, much like reading a poem by Rilke on the sly.

    

    Even so, my literary walking tour (“on spec” with a “kill fee”) did  

not follow an either-or proposition. A tingle of dread adventure moved  

around in my stomach like a Stuxnet Worm stuck in cyberspace, as I  

eventually submitted to a monotone phonomat guide in German, sounding a  

lot like suppressed swearing. (I decided to skip the Art Nouveau Hohe  

Brucke, Parliament, and Stock Exchange.)

 

    Catching my second wind, I ducked into the nearby Judenplatz, the  

former Jewish Ghetto, where I paid a quick visit to the Café Alstadt,  

which didn’t move me.

 

    Oho! Maybe it was time after all to check my e-mail, exercise my  

pop-up-menu eyes and football-shaped occipital lobe even though I did  

not have a regular job to go back to and could travel indefinitely if I  

had my druthers.

 

    Hence, I suddenly had an ah-ha experience, like an unsold soul  

illumined by an MRI, while the light wind suckerpunched my windbreaker,  

combined with little bouncing baubles of holiday hail. . . .

 

    Thus, I retreated into an open opulent palais, the Kunsthistorisches  

Muzeum, and sat among the displays, reading Richard Basset’s “A Guide  

to Central Europe” (Penguin Books, 1987). Mostly to relieve the  

lonelies of the road, antsy with apercus.

 

    I read about St. Stephen’s Cathedral (bombed during World War II but  

rebuilt according to the original blueprints), the beating heart of the  

city like a trot of Lippanzeer stallions in the Winter Riding School  

built in 1722. I could not believe that Habsburg rule lasted over 800  

centuries! In fact, the empire from Otto I (crowned in 962) to Francis  

I (rule ending in 1918) stretched all the way from the North Sea to the  

Mediterranean Sea. At its zenith the Austro-Hungarian Empire included  

not only Austria and Hungary (albeit eventually divorced from Germany  

and Italy), but also much of present-day Romania, Czech Republic,  

Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Slovakia, Luxembourg, and parts  

of Poland and Serbia.

 

    Incidentally, my friend Erik D’Amato, an American expat publisher of  

the Magyar website Pestiside (www.pestiside.hu) claims he met the last  

known Habsburg, Otto van Habsburg, while ogling the awesome spires and  

domes of the Austrian capital, at an undisclosed location, or perhaps  

he was just pulling my leg.

 

    In some ways, reading about the “sights” was preferable to actually  

visiting them, in the same way that grainy reality only becomes clear  

in retrospect and in revisionism. Forget Moto Photo. For example, I  

didn’t know that the progressive Emporer Franz Joseph (ruled 1780-1790)  

freed both the Serfs and the Jews. I also wondered about Vienna’s  

“Mannerism Movement,” which seemed to claim that art was only a  

mannerism. At least, this beat pub-crawling through Vienna’s  

“Bierstubes” (beer banks) and “Weingartens” (wine gardens).

 

    After a quick pick-me-up at an undisclosed location, serving  

“Schlosserbuben” (chocolate nut pudding), similar to Nutella ™, I went  

to see the embalmed hearts of all the Habsburgs in the “Loretto Chapel”  

of the Neo-Classical Augustine Church. Yick.


 

    And then on I wended to Café Hawelka, run by an impressive Frau off  

the beaten paths of the Herengasse, Graben, and Kohlmarkt, which look  

like they were built specifically for tourists. But this city is still  

filled with ”hidden neighborhoods,” such as the Jasomirgottstrasse (“So  

Help Me God Street”) and the Schonlaterngasse (“Land of the Beautiful  

Lanterns”). Jesus, I felt like a frankfurter with “liberty cabbage”  

(a.k.a., “sauerkraut” or “choucroute”) with all the info overload.

 

    Heading down the Singerstrasse to the Deutsch “Ordenskirche” (The  

Church of the Teutonic Order), I checked my tourist map for the Hofburg  

“Crib,” which purportedly held Charlemagne’s Sword.

 

    Last stop: Café Landtmann (4 Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring)—once a hangout for  

the Emporer Francis I and the Empress Maria Theresa, back when linoleum  

was a new invention.

 

    I felt fortunate enough to step backward in time, surrounded outside  

the awesome edifice by horse-drawn “Fiakers,” to the age of the Holy  

Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman.

 

    What about the Café Mozart (2 Albertinaplatz)? Nah!

 

    Instead, with my Walkman tuned in to the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir, I  

stopped awhile at the “Nachtung Markt” to buy prezzies like elderberry  

balsamic vinegar, sweet palatschinken (sweet pancakes), and a fanciful  

piece of Marzipan resembling Homer Simpson. . . .

 

    “Doh!”

 

    Or, maybe I am biting the head off of a “kugelyn” Obama!

 

©John M. Edwards

 

------------------------------------------------------------------

 

THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE TOP 12 GRAND CAFES OF VIENNA:

 

1. CAFÉ GRAND: (1880): (9 Kaertner Ring)): This typical Fin de Siecle  

“grand café,” often confused with the Café Central, on the first floor  

of the Grand Hotel Wien, is on the Kartner Ring near the Vienna State  

Opera. Try, the excellent spongy “Guglhupf” (Ring Cake) and coffee to  

die for, while wallowing in their excellent musical taste: Austrian  

Flamenco guitarist Otmar Liebert included.


 

 

2. CAFÉ MOZART: (1794): (2 Albertinaplatz): This traditional  

“kaffeehaus,” is one of the oldest cafes in Vienna, and also one of its  

most famous, perfect for writing in your moleskin notebook, even though  

the radio speakers no longer play much Mozart (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”  

anyone?), but instead blast at low volume Soundgarten’s “Black Hole  

Sun” and Beck’s “Dark Star.” Try, a “cappuccino” which comes with a  

gratis glass of “Wasser” (tap water) and a chocolate amuse bouche  

called “Mozart Kugelyn” (Mozart Candies), little golf-ball-shaped  

Marzipan sweets which Germanic peoples pop like Prozak addictions.

 

3. CAFÉ HAWELKA: (1939): (6 Dorotheestrasse): This charming café, with  

so-called Jugendstil décor, feels a little like an “extended living  

room,” a place to be alone, but with company, and a touristy soundtrack  

from both Strausses: Johannes and Ricard. Try, the “Buchteinn” (sweet  

buns), with a strong shot of espresso.

 

4. CAFÉ SACHER: (1880): (4 Philharmonikerstrasse): This lesson in  

Mittel Europa opulence is less dangerous than one would think, until  

the bill arrives at least. Try, the chic pulled 100% Arabica shots in  

small cups along with the--yeah, you guessed it—signature jammy or  

creamy “Sacher Torte”: the forerunner of modern-day bodega-bought  

chocolate Yodels ™.

 

5. CAFE LANDTMAN: (1873): (4 Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring): This landmark  

coffee stop right behind the Burgtheater is perhaps the least romantic  

café in Europe, even though it was once a favorite of Marleine Dietrich  

(and more recently incognitoed Paul McCartney and Hillary Clinton),  

still with brisk waiters and bored baristas in starched-white aprons  

and Prussian “Walrus” mustaches. Try, the ghoulish “ghoulash,” which  

resembles cannibalism on spaetzle.

 

6. CAFÉ GRIENSTEIDL: (1847): (2 Michaelerplatz): This utopian Belle  

Epoque pretender is one of the most storied of utopian kaffehauses,  

claiming that Checkov once arrived here with a female companion: a lady  

with a lapdog. Try, the Austro-Hungarian-style “Linzer Torte.”

 

7. PRINCE COFFEE CLUB: (2013): (8-9 Hoher Markt ): This “functional”  

recently revamped and reopened Space Age “moderne” café was built by  

the architect Peter Døllman and boasts probably the best regular joe in  

Vienna, as well as “Kapuziner” and “Einspanner,” better even than  

McDonald’s. Try, the “Wiener Blut” (Vienna’s blood sausages with  

“kraut”—whoops, “No have. . . .”).

 

8. CAFÉ SCHWARZENBERG: (1890): (17 Kartner Ring): This storybook  

“Bohemian” grand café is popular with perpetual students and local  

flaneurs practicing Import-Export—euphemistic slang for “chronic  

unemployment. Try, the “mokka” (chocolate and coffee), along with a  

hookah smoke (allowed here).

 

9. CAFÉ ALT WIEN: (1936): (9 Båckerstrasse): This dark and gloomy  

film-noir café, founded by Leopold Hawelka, owner of the famous “Café  

Hawelka,” pretty much sums up what life is all about: doing absolutely  

nothing in particular. Try, “Fruhstuck” (breakfast) along with some  

dynamite joe, again served up with a glass of water and a freebie  

chocolate turd.

 

10. CAFÉ PRUCKEL: (1950): (24 Stubenring): This mockup of a grand café  

from the era of B-flicks, is a corner café which corners the market in  

people watching, mostly dapper old men and femme fatales, right on the  

legendary Ringstrasse. Try, the Austrian version of creampuffs filled  

with clotted crème fraishe.

 

11. CAFE SPERL: (1880): (11 Gumpendorferstrasse): This eye-opening  

“sitch” with a Waspy yellow-and-black exterior is a good-enough reason  

to expatriate yourself here for a year or more, maybe washing dishes,  

what George Orwell called being a “plongeur.” Try, the bratwurst with  

whatever you want, maybe a “Brauner” (milky espresso) or “Verkherter”  

(foamy latte).

 

12. CAFÉ CENTRAL: (1876): (14 Herrengasse): This opulent classic café  

evokes time travel at its best, with a literary scene bar none, and  

most foreigners personal fave upon the lively Viennese café scene. Try,  

the “Flaker” (coffee with rum and whipped cream) and fly like an  

eagle--or perhaps, make a monarchical game of cards with an obvious  

“Damen und Herren” pickup.

 

------------------------------------------------------------------

 

ORDERING LIKE A PRO: TYPES OF WIEN COFFEE

 

1.    SCHWARZER (espresso)

2.    BRAUNER (espresso and warm milk)

3.    VERKHERTER (latté)

4.    MELANGE (cappuccino)

5.    VERLANGERTER (Americano)

6.    FLAKER (coffee with rum and whipped cream)

 

 

John M. Edwards, an award-winning travel writer and Mayflower 

descendant directly related to William Bradford, has written for such  

magazines as CNN Traveler, Salon.com, Islands, and North American  

Review. He turned down a job as lead bassist for STP (The Stone Temple Pilots) way back when before they were big, plus he helped write  “PLUSH” (the opening chords), voted The Best Song of the 20th Century by Rolling Stone Magazine.

 

Last modified on Friday, 02 May 2014