Vienna Austria’s Classic Old Traditional Cafes: Tradition and Service
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.
A Cafe with a Window Seat
There is something disconcerting about seeing oneself drinking coffee from every angle first thing in the morning. We took a window seat and immediately ordered a Wiener Frühstuck, Vienna Breakfast, with a melange.
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.
The waiter brought the eggs with tall, slim glasses of orange juice, a basket of bread rolls, organic Austrian butter, and a plate of sliced, salty cheese.
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.
One would never guess that St. Stephen’s, an intricate gothic cathedral, was half-destroyed in the war. It towers over the city center, which is built for pedestrians only.
This area, the first district, is also the central focus of social life for the residents living in districts two through nine, which surround the first like sections of a color wheel. On the far side of St. Stephen’s sits Cafe Diglas, one of e city’s best-known cafes. We took a friend there one Sunday afternoon for lunch.
Popular Cafe Diglas
“Cafe Diglas is my favorite coffee shop in Vienna,” said our friend John, who is from Mississippi but has lived in Vienna for thirty years. Diglas is always overrun with far more customers than it can seat on Sunday afternoons.
We stepped inside past the heavy curtains that kept the draft from coming in through the door. I kept my coat on, sure we would have to go elsewhere. John, however, knew how to act like an Austrian. They never wait in line if they can help it.
He edged into the main part of the cafe and stood next to a booth facing the windows until the women sitting there finished wrapping themselves for the cold outside.
“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.
Waiting as a Career
The man serving us was tall, wearing round glasses with thin black wireframes. 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.
There is a short, nearly bald waiter at Cafe Schwarzenberg who is probably entirely unaware that he has become a sightseeing stop for visiting friends of ex-pats. “He’s been here forever,” they are told. There are dozens like him. They always serve in the same tails and bowties, always with the same impeccable cool politeness and sense of balance.
Sausage Wrapped in Cheese and Bacon
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.
Our waiter flew by with four plates stacked on one arm and three beers clustered in another. I asked him for another coffee. Yes, he told me, with barely a glance.
Other Vienna Cafes we recommend:
Cafe Central: Herrengasse 14, 1 st district. website
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 website
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 website
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 website
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.