The Viennese Coffee House
Many poets and writers rhapsodized about the Vienna coffeehouse, all searching for the essence of what has become the most Viennese of all Viennese institutions. With limited success – coffeehouses have acquired a certain mythical quality; in short, they are the stuff legends are made of.
How did the exotic coffee-bean find its way into Vienna? Numerous legends abound. One version which seems the most plausible concerns Georg Franz Kolschitzky, who served as a scout between the two opposing camps during the unsuccessful Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. It seems he was quite fluent in the Turkish language and familiar with Turkish customs. After the end of the siege, Kolschitzky supposedly asked for (and received) large bags of green beans as a reward for his services. In one version, these beans were at first taken to be camel-fodder by the Viennese. However, when roasted and brewed with hot water, they produced a strong aroma and a delightful taste. Kolschitzky eventually opened one of the first coffeehouses in Vienna.
Vienna was not the first city to boast a coffeehouse. In fact, the first coffeehouses were built in the harbor cities of Venice and London. But in Vienna, the coffeehouse has been brought to a perfection never equaled elsewhere.
What actually is a coffeehouse?
Some of the very old Viennese coffeehouses are beautiful in and of themselves, with crystal chandeliers, plush sofas, and marble-topped tables. But most of them are quite unprepossessing. Their hallmarks are large rooms, small tables, uncomfortable chairs, non-descript décor and creaky floors. A bit shabby, but quite gemütlich. In fact, a bit like home. Of course, unlike at home, the level of interaction with those around you remains at your discretion. As noted essayist and coffeehouse habitué Alfred Polgar said: “A coffeehouse is a place for people who want to be alone but need company to do it with.”
Décor plays its role and other guests make a difference, but that is not all. So is it the coffee that draws people to coffeehouses? It is true that, for more than three hundred years, coffee has played a major role in the lives of the Viennese. But even the coffee does not account for the popularity of coffeehouses in Vienna. After all, it is easy to find small coffee bars (as in most of the world nowadays) where excellent coffee is served to a standing clientele as a quick pick-me-up.
A State of Mind
In fact, a coffeehouse is far more than the sum of its parts. Tangible though it may be, it is really closer to an abstract idea. A state of mind. A way of life.
A novice might wander into a coffeehouse and order “a cup of coffee,” gulp it down, pay and leave. To the true coffeehouse connoisseur, this approach would demonstrate that he has no idea about the art of coffeehousing.
First, one does not simply wander into just any coffeehouse. You don’t pick up a cup of coffee on your way to other amusements. A coffeehouse should be an end in itself. And the coffeehouse you frequent usually says a lot about you.
You don’t merely order “a cup of coffee.” You wouldn’t expect to be taken seriously if you ordered “pasta” in Rome, “beer” in Munich or “wine” in Paris. So too, in Vienna, you would, according to your predilections, explicitly specify which of the twenty-odd different types of coffee you would like to be served (see glossary). If you simply say “a cup of coffee,” the “Ober” (or headwaiter, as every waiter is called in Austria), though he will not bat an eyelash, will know you for an outsider.
Your coffee will arrive on a small silver platter accompanied by a small glass of water with a spoon balanced precariously over it. The glass of water symbolizes the establishment’s desire to let you know that you are welcome to stay indefinitely. You sip your coffee, you nurse it along, you cherish it; and even long after you have finished it, you may sit and do whatever you are doing for as long as you wish.
What is it that one actually does in a coffeehouse?
In effect, almost everything one might do as well or even better at home. One can read all of the day’s newspapers. They are provided free of charge, of course, along with a vast collection of current periodicals. And, at many of the larger coffeehouses in the center of the city, you are provided with a selection of foreign-language newspapers as a matter of course.
Students do their studying, tutors their tutoring, writers their writing in coffeehouses. You can play chess, cards or billiards if you are so inclined – many coffeehouses provide you with a chessboard, cards or a billiard table.
And it is a place to meet people. Friends meet just to chat or gossip, or – depending on their outlook – to conduct stormy political or philosophical discussions. Business partners negotiate deals involving great sums of money over a Melange. And whatever lobbying is done in Vienna, it is likely to happen in a coffeehouse – for there are several good ones near City Hall and Parliament. Lovers also meet in coffeehouses – a date where you can sit for hours on end on a single cup of coffee is surely easy on the pocketbook.
If you are intent on spending all day at a coffeehouse on your one cup of coffee, that’s fine: however, all coffeehouses also serve light fare such as Würstel (Frankfurters) or sandwiches. Many of them offer full-fledged and often delicious meals. This being Vienna, delicious pastries are invariably offered at coffeehouses. However, here, as opposed to the ubiquitous Konditoreien (pastry shops), where coffee is also served, the pastry serves to complement the coffee and not vice versa.
Viennese coffeehouses mean different things to different people
If a Viennese says, “I’ll go to the coffeehouse,” everyone who knows him well will most probably know which one he means. Then as now, coffeehouses, like people, have different personalities. And not every coffeehouse fits every personality – even the selection of one’s very own coffeehouse, as it were, is often the result of long process of evaluation and elimination. And, just as there is no predicting when, how and with whom one falls in love – you’ll simply know you have found “your” coffeehouse. The chemistry will be just right.
Some typical coffeehouses
A visit to three typical well-known Viennese coffeehouses demonstrates their variety:
The Café Hawelka in narrow Dorotheergasse has been a hangout for artists and intellectuals (and their disciples) ever since the Austrian writer Hans Weigel chose it as his second living-room after the Second World War. “Following the law of nature of a snowball or an avalanche,” as Weigel described it, the Hawelka quickly took off. Over the years, such famous painters as Friedensreich Hundertwasser and many others paid their bills with paintings which still hang on the walls of the café. In between, there are posters with announcements of art exhibitions. Due to its cramped quarters, the Hawelka is always crowded – which seems to add to the atmosphere. And in keeping with its Bohemian flair, its clientele is probably the most colorful in all of Vienna.
The interior of Café Prückel, across from Stadtpark on the Ring Boulevard, is reminiscent of the fifties. Nevertheless, it is one of the most authentic coffeehouses in Vienna: in its back room, one is likely to find some pensioners playing cards and chess, while the guests in the front range from civil servants from nearby ministries to students. There is no pretense whatsoever, either of bygone splendor or current trends. One simply feels comfortable in the café’s well-worn velvet seats and its slightly, but not quite, dilapidated atmosphere.
Café Landtmann, on splendid Ring Boulevard, is probably the single best meeting place in Vienna. Next door to Vienna’s renowned Burgtheater, across the street from the University and City Hall with Parliament not far off, the location of Café Landtmann is easy to reach from both inside and outside the city center. The lavishly decorated Landtmann seems to combine the old and the new to perfection. There is nothing seedy in its oldness – rather it reflects the splendor of bygone days as well as some of the affluence of today. Here one may receive one’s “coffeehouse knighthood” by being not only known by the headwaiter but also addressed by one’s name. And it is the best way to observe a cross-section of Viennese society, be it in its spacious and elegant interior or outside on the large terrace, which is covered by a canopy when rain threatens.
At the Landtmann’s terrace, the pundit who described coffeehouses as the perfect place “because one isn’t at home and yet, one does not have to be in the fresh air,” is proven wrong: Viennese love to sit outside their coffeehouses in small sidewalk serving areas, called “Schanigärten,” enjoy their coffee, maybe eat some pastry and watch the world go by.
A Sense of Continuity
Some of the coffeehouses that, at the turn of the last century, were what now would be called “in” places, have disappeared forever. And, in the years following World War II, there was great anxiety in Vienna, as one famous coffeehouse after another closed its doors due to the exigencies of modern life. This period of “dying coffeehouses” is over. And another renaissance of the Viennese coffeehouse is in full swing. In fact, some of the old coffeehouses, such as the Café Griensteidl, which used to be a haven for some of the most famous Austrian writers, artists and philosophers – this is where Karl Kraus read all the newspapers he would eventually blast in his incendiary magazine Die Fackel – or the Café Central where one of Vienna’s foremost coffeehouse literati, Peter Altenberg took most of his meals, had his mail delivered, wrote, socialized, in fact, resided, have been resurrected and now welcome a different clientele, in keeping with the fact that another turn of the century has arrived.
Some pessimists are of the opinion that “coffeehouses are not what they used to be.” That may well be true. It may safely be assumed that these words were first spoken right after the first coffeehouse opened in 1683. Some wit along the way clarified that statement by saying: “Coffeehouses never were what they used to be.” In that spirit, today is as much the “golden age” of the coffeehouse as it was in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After the turn of the millennium, one suspects that Viennese coffeehouses will be around at the turn of the next millennium – and even then, they might not ever be “what they used to be.”
A Sample of Viennese coffees
- Kleiner Schwarzer – small espresso
- Grosser Schwarzer – double espresso
- Espresso – basically the same as Kleiner Schwarzer
- Kleiner Brauner – Kleiner Schwarzer with milk
- Grosser Brauner – Grosser Schwarzer with milk
- Melange – a less strong Grosser Brauner with a little steamed milk
- Mocca – klein oder gross – synonymous with Schwarzer
- Kapuziner – black coffee with milk added until its color is that of a Capuchin monk’s robes
- Franziskaner – black coffee with still more milk, to achieve the lighter color of a Franciscan monk’s robes
- Nussbraun – coffee that resembles the color of nuts
- Nussgold – lighter still, like a “golden nut”
- Gold – coffee the color of gold, i.e. quite light
- Milchkaffee – half coffee, half milk
- Verlängerter – an espresso that is “lengthened” by a shot of hot water
- Einspänner – originally, the name meant a one-horse carriage. In coffeehouse parlance, it means a Grosser Mocca with whipped cream on top, sprinkled with cocoa and served in a tall glass
- Fiaker – named after Vienna’s horse-drawn carriages and their raucous drivers. Strong, black coffee laced with hot kirsch, topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry
- Türkischer – Turkish coffee, sweet and black, served in copper cups
- Eiskaffee – cold black coffee with vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream
- Capuccino – in some Viennese coffeehouses, black coffee topped with whipped cream; in other coffeehouses and Italian restaurants you get it the original Italian way: topped with steamed foamy milk
- Kaffee Maria Theresia – Mocca with orange liqueur and whipped cream
Article Author: Susi Schneider Vienna Tourist Board