Savoring the Flavor in Vienna's Coffeehouses
By Antonia Malchik
Unperturbed by the modern world, Vienna's high-ceilinged coffeehouses represent the essence of its society: value tradition, engage in intellectual debate, and remember how to linger over a meal.
Despite the invasion of several Starbucks cafes in the city, it is the traditional coffeehouses that still define the life of the Viennese. When we visited friends there in January, I begged hard for a stop at Cafe Schwarzenberg, whose continental breakfasts I dream of year-round.
Cafe Schwarzenberg sits at the end of Schwarzenbergplatz, one of Vienna's many wide squares populated by trams and flanked by the city's Franz Joseph-era architecture.
In the summer the cafe hangs a large yellow awning out over the tables sprinkled along the sidewalk, but in winter the entrance is inconspicuous. Inside, the chandeliers hang from a minutely-tiled ceiling fourteen feet high.
“Grüss Gott,” said the waiter as we slid into a booth upholstered in worn leather. It's a traditional Austrian greeting that translates as ‘greet God,' but is so old that its religious tone has little or no significance.
Cafe Schwarzenberg is one of the few places in Vienna that has a non-smoking section, but I always sit in the smoking section. For one thing, the smoking area is much larger and has more window seats, and for another, mirrors cover the walls in the non-smoking area.
The melange is the classic Viennese coffee. It is a cross between a latte and a cappuccino served in a squat, eight-ounce cup. In every coffeehouse across the city, waiters bring it on a little silver tray with a short glass of mineral water, sugar in packets or a dish of cubes, and a spoon.
What I looked forward to besides the coffee was Schwarzenberg's soft-boiled egg served in an egg cup on a small saucer. I've never managed better than a medium-soft egg at home, and restaurants in America never serve them. At Cafe Schwarzenberg the white was hard and the deep yellow yolk perfectly runny every time.
I lingered over the food, salting each bite of rich, runny, egg yolk and carefully buttering coin-sized pieces of bread. When I was finished, I sat back, eyes half closed, to sip my coffee and stare out the window.
“Happy?” asked Ian.
“Deeply,” I said.
The Viennese are proud of the city they rebuilt after the Second World War, protective of it. The public transportation system is clean, efficient, comprehensive, and subsidized.
Popular Cafe Diglas
“They do have the best food in the city. Everything is homemade, and fresh,” said John. We hung our coats and hats on one of several brass coat stands near our table. Diglas has no drapes on its windows, only sheer curtains covering the lower third. In the summertime, the six-foot-high windows are wide open to the sidewalk outside.
The man serving us was tall, wearing round glasses with thin black wire frames. He had been working at Cafe Diglas since long before I started coming there. Waiting tables seems to be a viable career in Austria, even with tips reaching ten percent at best.
Our waiter brought John and Ian a heavy Austrian classic, a sausage wrapped in cheese and bacon, served with fries. They swallowed a rich pilsner to wash it down. At Diglas, where it comes melting hot and sumptuous, I always order a baked Emmentaler cheese served with preiselberen , a tart, syrupy sauce made of wild cranberries. I cleared my palate after each bite with a sip of my white g'spritz — half wine, half mineral water .
Afterward we sat back with a melange each. “Do you miss living in Vienna?” John asked.
“Definitely, at times like this,” said Ian.
I agreed. Nowhere else in the world could I buy the sense of private importance the waiters' offhand efficiency gave me. In Vienna, nowhere else, could I buy contentment and well-being for three euros—the price of a melange.
Other Cafes we recommend:
Cafe Central: Herrengasse 14, 1 st district
Vienna's most well-heeled residents meet here to be seen, and the cafe boasts an intellectual tradition that includes Goethe, Mahler, Beethoven, Trotsky, and Lenin.
Cafe Landtmann: Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 4, 1 st district
Landtmann's high-backed booths have been the meeting places of sophisticated students and fashionably dressed socialites since 1873.
Café Hawelka: Dorotheergasse 6, 1 st district
While not elegant or high-ceilinged, Hawelka is a necessary stop for locals and travelers alike. Frau and Herr Hawelka have been serving coffee and shuffling patrons together in their small space for decades, and have become a Viennese institution in themselves.
Cafe Prückel: Stubenring 24, 1 st district
Prückel has perhaps the highest ceilings and largest windows in Vienna, and many of the windows look out over Stadtpark, the city's central park. It is most popular with students, and has some of the best pastries in the city.
Antonia Malchik is an MFA student in Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston.
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