Café Central is the most famous café in all of Vienna. Lenin, Trotsky and Freud all sipped hot beverages at Café Central at some point. Ministry buildings surround the soaring building, so there are lots of counsellors - government workers, many within the diplomatic ranks - here today, or so says my guide and traditional coffee-house expert, Diane Naar, as we take our seats during the first stop on my Viennese café tour.
So how, pray tell, does she know that they are counsellors? "The fact that there are two or three men together," Diane explains, "and they all have laptops with them."
I nod approvingly as I order a café mélange, which quickly becomes my go-to coffee during my week in the city (a mélange is a mokka - strong black coffee - lengthened with a shot of hot water and the addition of steamed and frothed milk). I also take in the Café Central's 1857 interior, an amazing space of vaulted ceilings, Florentine pillars and parquet flooring, all hard surfaces working together in echoing the hiss of the non-stop espresso machine.
Over the past century and a half, different coffee houses grew up with different clientele; be they lawyers or students, accountants or starlets, counsellors or artists, the coffee house was always a warm gathering spot (in a time when there was no central heating) offering hot coffee and a cozy hub where the intelligentsia could meet to read newspapers and discuss the matters of the day. For the most part, Vienna's classic cafés remain largely untouched, with many dating to the fin de siècle (end of the century - in this case, the 19th century). And they charmingly remain a way of life here.
Down a side street between the Spanish Riding School and the Jewish Museum, Diane leads me into Café Braunerhof. "They are all Viennese here," she says as I quickly thumb through the newspaper selection in the middle of the room.
Café Braunerhof is an old school haunt where nothing has changed - ever. A smoky patina clings to the unadorned walls; the air is literally a blue haze. "Tourists don't come here," Diane notes. "They walk in, see the smoke, they see the tables are full and the waiters are grumpy, and they leave."
After hitting more than a few cafés already, we decide a light snack is in order - real classic dishes that you only get at a real classic Viennese café: like my deeply chickeny broth laced with crepes that have been sliced into noodles, and Diane's dark beef broth buoyed by a fat liver dumpling.
"This is not a traditional coffee house," Diane cautions as she leads me into our next stop, Demel. "They earned their name for their pastries, which supplied the Royal Court." Since their pastries were of the utmost importance, the quality of their coffee suffered, she explains. No problem. I order a mug of Demel's soulful hot chocolate instead, along with a plate of powdered krapfen, cheesy topfenstrudel, and apple-packed apfelstrudel - all in the name of research.
Demel's circa-19th-century decor can best be described as eclecticism with a bit of baroque and rococo thrown in. There are English chairs and Parisian marble tabletops. Pastry chefs behind the glass walls framing the central show kitchen make cakes and marzipan bears. Diane says that when the planners were building the grand palaces on the Ringstrasse (the wide avenue that encircles the old city), they all had to have cafés. And because of its proximity to the Royal Palace, Demel is the café that the aristocrats frequented, and descendents of these same dukes and counts still have flats nearby.
"Here's one now," Diane says as she motions toward a woman and her two daughters sitting down for an afternoon snack.
The possibly aristocratic trio make their way to the front to choose their cakes, to be shortly delivered by bow-tied waiters. "If she doesn't have a ring on her little finger, I'd be very surprised," Diane says, referring to a small signet with the family crest engraved in a blue stone that is the subtle calling card for members of the local aristocracy.
Yet when they return, we see no ring. Diane is crestfallen. We move on.
"This is one of the most traditional cafés in Vienna," Diane says as I tuck into a corner banquette at Café Sperl and order another café mélange. The deep room is done up in the neo-classical Ring Road style: an old-time mix of French and Gothic, dark wood and tapestry.
"The coffee here is okay, but you really come to Sperl for the newspapers," she says. A happy carryover from the early days, many locals actually choose their regular café based on the quality and selection of newspapers available. Here, there are more than a dozen international papers as well as tens of local tabloids. As for the clientele, it's mostly art students from the academy around the corner, people who work at the nearby theatre and neighbourhood regulars.
"Michael Kohlmeier just walked by," Diane whispers.
"Who's he?" I whisper back. Turns out he's an Austrian celebrity, a spoken word radio star, making him my first official café intelligentsia sighting.
For my final stop, I bid adieu to Diane and make my way across the street to Phil. There are Vespas propped up outside and hipsters slung over vintage couches within. At night, a DJ spins vinyl at the booth up front. Throughout the rambling space, there are mismatched designer chairs, a concrete floor and DVDs and art books for sale. The Flaming Lips wail from on high, while a few twentysomethings click away on their laptops. It's all a shock to the system, and I suddenly miss Diane and our more traditional Viennese haunts.
"We are the contemporary face of Vienna," offers the nice young woman with face piercings from behind the cash.
Momentarily, I feel a flash of concern for the future of Vienna's café scene. Yet when my café mélange is delivered to my low-slung teak coffee table in the proper Viennese manner - on a silver tray with a bowl of sugar, small glass of water and a paper napkin, I have full confidence that the traditional Viennese café culture will live on.
Especially if the couple making out on the couch across from me don't cool it.
Special to The Globe and Mail
WHAT TO ORDER
Mokka The workhorse; a small strong black coffee without milk
Mélange A mokka "lengthened" with hot water and the additions of steamed and frothed milk
Cappuccino In Vienna it means strong coffee with extra milk, topped with frothed milk and chocolate sprinkles
Kapuziner A large black coffee with a shot of milk
Franziskaner A mélange topped with whipped cream
Einspänner Mokka in a glass with whipped cream
WHERE TO SIP
Central Herrengasse 14; 43-1-533-37-63-24; www.palaisevents.at
Café Braunerhof Stallburggasse 2; 43-1-512-38-93
Demel Kohlmarkt 14; 43-1-535-17-17; www.demel.at
Sperl Gumpendorfer Strasse 11; 43-1-586-41-58; www.cafesperl.at
Phil Gumpendorfer Strasse 10-12; 43-1-581-04-89; www.phil.info
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