Where Freud, Lenin, Trotsky, Beethoven, Hemingway and Hitler got their fix
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This is was originally published on the website TheDharmaBums.com on December 18, 2002 as David Allan and Kate Rope traveled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. You can sign up for David’s CNN column, The Wisdom Project, here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
VIENNA — There was a time, not too many decades ago, when it wasn’t standard for city apartments to include heat, running water and access to telephone and cable television. In those days, for warmth, plumbing and comradeship, the coffeehouse was the place to go. From bourgeoisie parlor to beatnik lounging pad, the history of the coffeehouse has pulled together and provided shelter for artists, musicians, poets, chess players, conversationalists, readers, writers and revolutionaries (in short, some of my favorite types of people). And here in the Austrian capital, the coffeehouse is still king.
Because I write my best letters and prose, and play my best chess, in this atmosphere, I have been a coffeehouse connoisseur since college. Planet X, an arty space of puzzle-piece tables and church pew seating with a Buddha lamp I was always tempted to steal, host of poetry readings, serving vegetarian fare, and void of sweatshirts sporting puffy Greek letters, was my college hangout of choice. And since then I have sought out the best coffeehouses in cities where I’ve lived: Phoenix (the people-watching hot spot of The Coffee Plantation), Dublin (the fin-de-siècle Parisian-lavish Café en Seine), San Francisco (the eclectic and vibrant Cafe Macando in the Mission) and Bangkok (the jazz-happy art deco Atlanta Hotel cafe). In Vienna, the old coffeehouses were practically a second home to local writers and intellectuals, accepting mail for them, letting them hold roundtables, and always keeping a supply of pens and paper available.
The Viennese love of the crank dates back to the 1680s when the Turks of the Ottoman Empire invaded Austria and nearly seized Vienna. Thanks to a Polish army the Turks were forced back, and in their haste, legend tells, they forgot to take their sacks of coffee with them. It didn’t take long for the locals to figure out what to do with the beans (coffee was the rage in Constantinople at the time) and soon coffeehouses were opening on the streets of Vienna.
So, knowing the Austrians and I had a love in common, I made a pilgrimage to the top kaffeehäusers in Vienna. Here are the best I found among, by one recent count, the city’s 1,700:
Probably the most famous coffeehouse in Vienna, Central has now become a mecca for tourists. Although this Baroque coffeehouse was a favorite hangout of Freud, Goethe, Beethoven, Mahler, the poet Alfred Polgar, Felix Salten (author of the famous story, Bambi), Lenin and Laib Bronstein (also known as Trotsky, who liked to play chess here), I think if the proletariats started playing board games in the current incarnation of Café Central, they’d kindly be asked by the tail-trimmed waiter to refrain. Café Central is positively bourgeois now: gilded vaulted ceilings, overpriced coffee served with a little chocolate biscuit, and a grinning piano player tickling out Sinatra, Christmas music, the theme of the Vienna-filmed The Third Man, and musical numbers. It may have lost its old vitality and atmosphere (it was heavily renovated in the mid-80s), but it has found a lucrative new one. (Herrengasse 14; Tel: 43–1–533–37–63–26)
At first glance you might not understand why this place is, I believe, the best coffeehouse in the city. The place is smoky and crowded, the paint is peeling off the walls and it seems seedy and dark, swathed in maroon upholstery and oak paneling, heavily etched with ancient graffiti. But after you’ve jockeyed for a seat at one of the tilty marble-top tables and you get settled in, you begin to see the appeal. The waiter, in formal attire, brings your coffee (consult the menu glossary below because Hawelka has no menus) on little silver trays and there’s an old bohemian flair created by the students and artists who flock here (on the mud-colored walls are framed poems and sketches). Hawelka has had its share of celebrity fans as well: Arthur Miller, Gene Kelly, Peter
Ustinov, Omar Sharif and Richard Burton, along with German expressionist painters including Ernest Fuchs, Wolfgang Hutter and Canetti, and one American writer who particularly liked the place, Ernest Hemingway.
Sitting contently at one of the tables was a slow-moving but dapper man wearing a vest and bow tie, occasionally rising to direct traffic in the cramped dining area. This was Leopold Hawelka, age 91, a Vienna institution (we later saw his picture on a postcard outside an attraction on the other side of town). His cheery 50-something son, Gunter, sat down with Kate and me and gave us a history of the bar. Originally built in 1905, the then Je T’aime (French for “I love you”) café was the first “American bar” in Vienna. And amazingly it was spared from bombings in both World Wars so the interior, just under 100 years old, is unchanged. Leopold bought the place in ’39 and it’s been named after him ever since. Before we left, Gunter had his son, Amir, and Leopold pose for a group shot and then gave us a poster of the three of them and the café as a souvenir. It was the warmest reception and the hippest atmosphere we found in the city. If you only go to one coffeehouse in Vienna, make it this one. (Dorotheergasse 6; Tel: 43–1–512–82–30)
Bustling on a Sunday morning, I was lucky to find a seat. There’s no chess or card playing or newspaper reading going on here, just eating, smoking and talking. For a Vienna coffeehouse is was rather loud, with patrons (mostly out-of-towners talking above the music coming from the baby grand at one end of the L-shaped dining area. The interior was pretty with vaulted ceilings, big windows, and chandeliers. I sipped a pricey hot chocolate prepared “Old Viennese style,” (see below) which was quite delicious. Shwarzenberg may be one of the most popular venues in the city for it’s beautiful interior, good music and yummy drinks, but the weekend bustle is at the detriment of its charm. (Kärntner Ring 17; Tel: 43–1–512–89–98)
This infamous kaffeehauser is near the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts (Akademia der bildenden Künste) where one of Café Sperl’s regulars applied to be a student, twice, and was rejected, twice. The failed artist was known to loudly subject patrons to his political opinions and eventually left his native Austria as a nobody and returned to Vienna in 1938 as head of the Nazi Party. But Adolf Hitler wasn’t the only famous regular of Café Sperl. The seat I took near the front door was the favorite operetta-writing spot of composer Franz Lehár; above me was his picture.
Celebrity coffee-drinkers aside, Sperl is well-known as one of the great old coffeehouses still in its original design (it’s also a registered landmark). High ceilings and plush padded seating around the edge of the large sipping room compliment antique glass, brass chandeliers, old billiard tables (one covered in newspapers and magazines) and a dark wood bar. The German word for this kind of atmosphere is gemütlichkeit (“cozy charm”). I guessed that most of the patrons were locals since they were pouring over the free publications while they slowly sipped their drinks. I asked one of the waitresses (they wear French maid outfits) to bring me a slice of the apfel strudel, for which Sperl is renowned, and it was heavenly teamed up with light cream. (Gumpendorfer Straße 11; Tel: 43–1–586–41–58)
Pronounced “too-nehl,” this large all-wood place has plenty of upstairs seating and a menu generous with delicious vegetarian food. A nice soundtrack of jazz and Rat Pack hits lingers through the place and live music (usually jazz) is on every night after 8 p.m. The choice seat in the house is the sofa built into what looks like a fireplace, but the alternative is wooden booths next to huge windows and under high ceilings (good for escaping the smoke). Even if you don’t choose to hunker down with a beverage and a book, this is still a great spot for a cheap veggie dinner and beer. (Florianig 39; Tel: 43–1–405–34–65)
Alt Wien: This dark bohemian watering hole is a coffeehouse full of students and fledging artists during the day and a lively bar with the same crowd at night. (Bäckerstrasse 9; Tel: 43–1–512–52–52)
Café Bräunerhof: Escape from the tourists at this reading-heavy coffeehouse that plays classical music 3–6 p.m. on weekends. (Stallburgasse 2; Tel: 43–1–512–38–93)
Café Drechsler: The most outstanding thing about this otherwise nondescript coffeehouse is its opening hours, 3 am until 8 pm. This isn’t your classical music, waiter service, tourist spot; it’s where late-night revelers go when they aren’t ready for bed and is a second home to the Naschmarkt (night market) traders playing billiards. (Linke Wienzeile 22; Tel: 43–1–587–85–80)
Café Griensteidl: Worth mentioning because this was considered the original of the literary cafés, but it bares no resemblance to its former erudite self. Travel guides to Austria are about the only books you see patrons reading these days. (Michaelplatz 6; Tel: 43–1–535–26–92)
Café Landtmann: Freud took his morning coffee at this old café sporting red leather booths, velvet upholstery and plush drapes. It makes its own strudel and has a good selection of international newspapers. (Dr. Karl Lueger Ring 4; Tel: 43–1–532–06–21–0)
Café Museum: Formerly Café Nihilism, it has chess, newspapers, outdoor seating and an art deco architecture-style created in 1899 by Adolf Loos. It was also a favorite of Viennese avant-garde artists such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. (Friedrichstrasse 6; Tel: 43–1–586–52–02)
Café Sacher: Sharing its name with its claim to fame, the famous Viennese chocolate-apricot cake, this hyper-tourist scene is old Viennese luxury incarnate, with thick carpets, chandeliers, professional wait service and prices to match. (Linke Wienzeile 22; Tel: 43–1–514–56–0)
Demel: Demel was the Royal Confectioner to the Imperial Court so they take their sweets very seriously, including daily made chocolate. The coffeehouse itself is luxurious and multi-mirrored, the menu pricey. (Kohlmarkt 14; Tel: 43–1–535–17–17–39)
Here are a few things you should know before you visit one of these fine coffeehouses: The only protocol you need to remember is that you are expected to linger over your cup of coffee. There is no expectation for you to leave or order another cup once you’ve finished your drink. The waiter won’t bug you to order or expect you to leave. Stay as long as you like and when you’re ready to leave just ask for the check (but don’t expect anyone to be in a big hurry to get it for you).
As for the coffee itself, it is, strength-wise, somewhere between normal filter coffee and an espresso. You won’t get a large cup if you order it black but usually your drink is accompanied by a glass of water for you to either cut the coffee with or hydrate yourself separately. Traditionally the water provided a reason to keep your seat and linger long after your coffee was finished. The rich taste of Vienna’s local and dark roasted beans has been attributed to the fresh mountain water from Rax and Schneeberg (or “snow mountain”) about 45 miles south of the city. Below are vocabulary and a menu glossary that can help you translate or order something special.
Although English is commonly spoken or translated on the menu, here’s some vocabulary in case you’re stuck ordering without the benefit of either:
Black Coffee = Kaffee Mocha (more trivia: “mocha” is the name of the original coffee-plant in Africa)
Milk = Milch
Cappucino = Kapuziner
Hot = Heiß (pronounced “heiss”)
Cold = Kalt
Hot chocolate = Hieße Schokolade
With Whipped Cream = mit Schlagobers
Old Viennese Style = Alt Wiener Art
Requesting the check; “to pay” = “Zahlen bitte!”
Waiter = Herr Ober
Glossary of menu items:
Brauner = Coffee with a dash of milk or cream
Buchteln = Warm cake with jam
Coffee Maria Theresia = Espresso with orange liqueur and whipped cream (named after an Austrian Empress in the 18th century)
Einspänner = Espresso with Schlagobers or Schlag (whipped cream)
Eiskaffee = Cold coffee with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream
Fiaker = Espresso in a glass with sugar and either brandy or rum, topped with whipped cream
Franziskaner = Mélange (see below) with whipped cream and chocolate flakes
Fruchtmilch = Milk with fruits
Goldener = Coffee with milk
Kaffee Creme = Coffee with a miniature pitcher of milk on the side
Kaisermelange = Mélange with an egg yolk and honey
Kurz = A single shot of espresso
Malt coffee = Filtered coffee with malt
Mazagran = Cold coffee with ice cubes and Maraschino
Mélange = Half espresso, half steamed milk
Old Viennese style Hot Chocolate = Hot chocolate with vanilla, cinnamon and whipped cream clumped on top
Pharisäer = Espresso in a glass with sugar, whipped cream, cocoa, and a shot of rum
Sacher tort = Chocolate apricot cake
Schwarzer = Strong black coffee. A kleiner Schwarzer is the equivalent of an espresso; a grosser Schwarzer is a double shot
Verlängerter = Coffee with water added; milk and sugar served separately