Coffee, Cake and Literature: The Viennese Coffeehouse
For visitors to the city it is an attraction, for locals a second home, and for artists and literati an institution: the Viennese Coffeehouse. Viennese coffeehouse culture was officially added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list in 2011.
Coffeehouses in Vienna are much more than just places to drink coffee – they are a way of life. The city boasts in excess of 800 of them – in addition to the numerous café bars, café restaurants and pizza cafés throughout the city. Around 150 are classic coffeehouses, where the waiters are still dressed in black, and the décor is as unpretentious as it was in the ‘good old days’: wooden floors, marble-topped tables, and seating that is simple and plush.
Every ‘scene’ in Vienna has its own café: workers at the ministries have Café Ministerium on Georg-Coch-Platz, art students Prückel at Stubenring, and politicians Landtmann at Universitätsring. The coffeehouse is a place for philosophizing, meditating, idling, reading the newspaper, gossiping, canoodling, playing billiards or chess, discussing everything under the sun with strangers – and, of course, enjoying coffee and cakes.
The great novelist Heimito von Doderer wrote in 1960 that Vienna was “a city of Roman origin aspiring to the Mediterranean”. To him this explained why the atmosphere in a Viennese café was one of “meditative quiet and idle passing of time” familiar to anyone who had visited an Oriental or Turkish café.
However, such an ambience is less prevalent in the city’s most popular coffeehouses. Griensteidl on Michaelerplatz is a former meeting place for literati, which was reopened in new premises on the original site in 1990. It lies directly on the Hofburg-Kohlmarkt-Graben-Stephansplatz tourist route, making it a good place for visitors toVienna to rest their feet and enjoy a hot pick-me-up. Café Central in Herrengasse, whose large columned hall was painstakingly restored in 1986, is just 100 meters further down the street as you head towards the university and Votive Church.
Both establishments can look back on a long tradition. The atmosphere in the “old” Griensteidl was legendary. For 50 intensive years, from 1847 to 1897, the café in the former Palais Dietrichstein wasVienna’s most famous cultural “institution”. There was hardly a writer, actor, critic, architect or musician of note in this fin-de-siècle world who did not frequent it. The main pioneers of Viennese Modernism were present practically in their entirety: Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Hugo Wolf, Fritz Kreisler, Arnold Schoenberg and many more. A “compact system of energy circles”, wrote Edward Timms, from which an “astonishingly creative energy” emanated. In 1897, Griensteidl was demolished. With a nostalgic and an ironic regard, Karl Kraus lamented in Die demolierte Literatur: “Our literature has entered into a period of homelessness; the thread of literary production has been cruelly cut.” Fortunately, other cafés continued to exist. The regulars at the Griensteidl simply moved to Café Central.
Today the poet Peter Altenberg – or at least a papier-mâché version of him – still presides over Café Central in Herrengasse. In the first third of the 20th century this was the eccentric bohemian’s postal address and where he had his Stammtisch (“regulars’ table”), meeting up with Adolf Loos, one of the most important Modernist architects, his wife Lina, the actor and essayist Egon Friedell and the writer Alfred Polgar.
Altenberg, whose short prose pieces and sketches, once described by Egon Friedell as “thousand section magazines full of small and miniscule observations”, even established rules – albeit not to be taken too seriously – for his regular Stammtisch. For example: “It is forbidden to cut one’s nails at the table, even with one’s own old-style personal scissors, but particularly with the new-fangled nail cutters, as the cuttings could land in a beer glass and would be very difficult to extricate.” It is at one of these tables that the 20-year-old Caroline Obertimpfler (pen name Lina Loos) is said to have spontaneously accepted the proposal of marriage by Adolf Loos, twelve years her senior. Her later celebrated Buch ohne Titel, contained articles, sketches and recollections holding a mirror up to this fin-de-siècle generation.
Today the atmosphere in Café Central is businesslike, bourgeois and cultivated. During the week it is frequented by staff of nearby banks. At weekends, tourists, genteel old ladies and retired civil servants join the papier-mâché poet and listen reverently to the piano player.
Another favorite meeting place of the big names of turn-of-the-century Vienna (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, Georg Trakl, Elias Canetti, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Leo Perutz, Alban Berg, Franz Lehár, Oscar Strauss and Otto Wagner) isCaféMuseum, which first opened its doors in 1899 in a prime location by Naschmarkt and the Secession building. The original, pared down interior was created by Adolf Loos, who would go on to become a regular. Featuring Thonet pieces, it provided a striking contrast to the historicist fashions of the day, earning it the tag of Café Nihilismus. In 1931 the interior was replaced by Josef Zotti, who although one of the most successful of all Josef Hoffmann’s students has today faded into obscurity. After several closures and a number of redesigns the café reopened in 2010 with the Zotti design concept restored.
Another traditional café in the 1st district is Café Hawelka. Its popularity and arty image go back to the post-war years when Hans Weigel, himself a writer, promoter of talent and cultural institution, chose the tiny coffeehouse run by Leopold and Josefine Hawelka as his home from home. The reason was simple: it was open until midnight. Following the death of Josefine in 2005 the café upheld the legendary tradition of serving fresh baked Buchteln (a bohemian specialty) every day at 9 p.m. On December 29 2011 Leopold Hawelka passed away in his 101th year, having spent a couple of hours in his café virtually every day up until a short time before his death.
Hans Weigel’s example was soon followed by other writers, artists and intellectuals – “on the snowball or avalanche principle” (Weigel). In the 1950s and 1960s Café Hawelka became the home of the anti-bourgeois oppositional artist movement. It was a public meeting place for individualists, an ideas exchange and an island of unconventionality. It is little wonder that the naked man in Georg Danzer’s song Jö, schau doesn’t raise an eyebrow in Café Hawelka.
Many literati used to meet regularly at Hawelka and theViennagroup – H.C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer, Gerhard Rühm and Oswald Wiener – used to spend long nights there. Artmann said of the small, smoke-filled establishment in Dorotheergasse that without it “much would have remained undone, unsaid or even unthought of”. The great novelist Heimito von Doderer also felt at home there. André Heller visited the café for the first time at the age of 14 and, as he wrote in 1982, immediately molded his behavior. He fantasized and made up stories like there was no tomorrow – from writing to travel – and by all accounts with great credibility. “Later I often had the feeling,” said Heller, “that these first minutes of my acquaintanceship with the Buchteln paradise already had all the main ingredients for future Hawelka nights: story telling, self-deceit, the urge to reminisce, criticize and stylize. The ground floor of Dorotheergasse 6 was filled with people who did not keep their own promises. […] Yet the gracious waiter took his guests to be what they vainly aspired to be. Fantasy and reality were all one for him – and he was just as incapable of imagining his guests as inhabitants of a real, fug-free world as they were of imaging him without his jacket and grease-specked bowtie.”
Hawelka is no longer fuggy thanks to the smoking ban which was enforced despite protests by regulars and the Hawelka family’s failed attempt to secure listed status for the café’s atmosphere., Its clientele has also changed. Although the tables are now filled with students and tourists, the atmosphere between the thick layers of posters on the walls, the telephone booth and worn-out plush benches remains unique. And the hot fresh Buchteln (jam-filled yeast cakes) at 10 p.m. are not to be missed.
After the great lull in the coffeehouse tradition in the 1960s and 1970s, many cafés were restored to their former glory in the subsequent 20 years, including such well known establishments as Schwarzenberg at Kärntner Ring and Landtmann. Other old Viennese cafés reinvented themselves as contemporary espresso bars, much to the delight of the young and fashionable.
Café Drechsler on Naschmarkt is an outstanding example of how to marry tradition with a stylish and modern atmosphere. Drechsler opened its doors for the very first time in 1919 and was sympathetically remodeled in 2007 by star British architect Sir Terence Conran to create a Vienna coffee house for the 21st century. Instead of the customary pianist visitors will be treated to live DJ music several nights a week.
Coffeehouses might have changed, but the reasons for visiting them have remained the same. As Stefan Zweig wrote in Die Welt von gestern, the café is still “a democratic club where a cup of coffee can be had cheaply and where for this pittance every guest can sit, discuss, write, play cards, receive mail and, above all, consume an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines for hours on end.” The café becomes a home from home where you are alone and yet in company.
In Wittgensteins Neffe Thomas Bernhard described his love for the coffeehouse in his own incomparable fashion: “I have always hated the typical Viennese café – as it is known throughout the world – because everything in it is against me. On the other hand, for decades I felt completely at home in Bräunerhof, which was always strictly against me (like Hawelka), and in Café Museum and other Viennese coffeehouses.”
In Vienna there is always room for fresh ideas in amongst all of the dyed-in-the-wool coffeehouse tradition. Alternative coffeehouses that are a far cry from the typical marble tables, Thonet chairs and liveried waiters are booming in the city. One such example is Kaffeefabrik on Favoritenstrasse in the fourth district. This small, quirkily decorated store sells roasts from its private roastery using beans sourced from all over the world, as well as coffee to go. Akrap Espressobar in Königsklostergasse also has its own roastery, only this time it’s in Milan. The finished product is available in countless different varieties including the caffeine packed Triple Shot.
People On Caffeine have set up shop in a highly unusual location a wing of a church in the eighth district. Here, customers can enjoy coffee underneath the historic vaulted ceilings from a classic espresso machine or according to the latest fashion, made using old fashioned drip filters. In Servitengasse, an idyllic side street in the ninth district, Caffè a Casa offers products from its own roastery. Espressomobil follows a completely different business model having reduced the coffeehouse format to a three-wheeled Italian moped. These mobile coffeeshops park up at some of the city’s busiest squares, switch on the coffee machines and serve up premium coffee to take away.
More than 210 discounts and unlimited free travel by underground, bus and tram for 72 hours. Available in hotels and at the tourist information centre on Albertinaplatz (open daily from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm) and the tourist information point at the airport (open daily from 6.00 am to 11.00 pm), at sales and information points of the Vienna Lines (e.g. Stephansplatz, Karlsplatz, Westbahnhof, Landstraße/Wien Mitte) or by credit card on tel. +43-1-798 44 00-148.
The information, and photos, on our Vienna pages has been compiled with the help of Wien Tourismus – http://www.wien.info/en– to ensure quality, up-to-date information on the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria.
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