Everyone’s first Viennese café should be the Sacher.
Not the one on Kärntner Straße, with its high stools and people taking pictures of their slice of cake from three different angles, then up beside their face, then up beside their face with their fingers in a peace sign. This is the Sacher Eck, and later, it’ll be fine if you want a quick cake and a chat.
But not your first time.
Your first time should be around the corner at the Rote Bar on Philharmoniker Straße. The Michelin Guide refers to it as a restaurant, it says it’s a bar, but if you sit in the black-and-white tiled conservatory facing the opera house, it’s a café. Order the Sacher-Torte mit Schlagobers (whipped cream) if you like, or try their yeast dumplings with yogourt called Gebäckene Mäuser, which means “baked mice.” Or their other torte, the Sacher-Ganselebertorte, a goose liver tart with elderberry and apricot on a hazelnut brioche.
You’ll be seated by one person, have your order taken by another (make it a piece of Sacher-Torte and a mélange), have it delivered by a third, cleared away by a fifth, get your bill delivered by the second, but you’ll have to pay a sixth, who will almost certainly be a redoubtable older gentleman, possibly large, who is in a longstanding tradition of Austrian and German commerce, the only one allowed to handle the money. Though it’s more extreme than you’ll get in most other cafes, this is the essence of the Viennese café experience. They take their shit seriously, have for a few hundred years. They know what they’re doing.
Everyone’s second Viennese café should be the Central. This one’s been around a long time (opened in 1876), though it was originally in a less grand space in the same building, a former bank. It closed for 30 years at the end of the war, and re-opened in time for its centenary, and it’s been a tourist attraction ever since. But don’t let that deter you. There will probably be other tourists there, but it’s still a grand café, with vaulted ceilings, a grand piano, where you could smoke until 2018 (so you may still catch a whiff). In the 19th century, at the height of Vienna’s café society, everyone in the city hung out here: Freud and Tito, Stalin and Stefan Zweig, Trotsky and Hitler all drank and smoked and talked, drawn to the Palaisviertel, or Palace Quarter, a centre of Viennese energy since the aristocracy built their small palaces there (including the Palais Ferstel, where the café has been since the aristos moved out) to be close to the big palace, the Hofburg, where the emperor was.
When many of us in North America think of a cafe society, we think of Paris. And Paris does have some fine cafes, the people of Paris do tend to spend a lot of time in them, and the servers tend not to clear away plates or cups or in any other way imply that you should be spending less than four hours over a small coffee and a large book. Now, it’s been a few years since I’ve been to Paris, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Vienna over the past couple of years, so maybe my perspective is skewed, but here’s what I think: Vienna puts more effort into their cafes, and incorporates them into more aspects of its urban life. In Paris, with a couple of notable historic exceptions, time spent in a café represents a break; in Vienna, it’s part of life.
The Café Imperial is a good case in point. There’s a fine room inside, but the best seats are outside, on a busy, noisy street (the Kärntner Ring). There are pictures inside of early 20th-century notables sitting and discussing on this little terrace, and you can see early 21st-century notables doing the same thing now, on any given weekday. In Paris, there’d be a wide sidewalk separating the seats from the traffic, and its patrons from the trucks and buses. Not here. And the spot is better for it. Because you don’t need to escape from Vienna.
I’d recommend a mid-morning visit to this one. Order a Mozartkaffee and a piece of Imperial-Torte. Less famous than the Sacher’s cake down the street, it’s at least as good: square, almond- and marzipan-based, entirely enrobed in milk chocolate. It’s $10 a piece (about the same price as at Sacher) which, you know? They could charge more. You’ll want to take a look around the hotel. Queen Elizabeth II said it was the most beautiful hotel she’d stayed in back in 1969, after she’d stayed at lots of beautiful hotels. It was the first of the grand hotels, the model for places like the Plaza in New York and the Ritz and whatnot, and when Richard Wagner stayed there just after it opened, it marked what’s turned out to be a permanent shift away from notable/rich people staying in the grand homes of other rich people when they travelled to staying at grand hotels. The bar is gorgeous, and the staircase just to the right after you pass reception is a model of the modern major staircase, with a classical nude sculpture at its apex both referring to the classical staircases by Bernini and Borromini, and requiring covering (management told me) when friends and family of its new owner, the UAE’s Chalaf Ahmed al-Habtur, come for visits.
Not to harp too harshly on Paris cafes — (luv u Paris ♥) — but the best pastries in Paris come from patisseries, most of which you’re meant to order, bag, and leave with. You can get a good croissant in a café, sure, and even though they’re made down the street (or across town), that’s fine. But it’s not quite Vienna, where the best cakes in this cakiest of caketowns are often where they’re made, where they can be eaten at leisure.
Across the street from the Sacher (which is also a hotel) is the Hotel Bristol, the third of the Viennese triumvirate of extraordinary hotels and world-beating cafes. Like the Rote Bar, the Bristol’s (excellent) restaurant, called the Bristol Lounge, has a conservatory that juts out into the pedestrianized Mahler Straße. Try ordering a Großer Brauner with a slice of Bristol-Torte. Attentive readers will by now have noticed at least a couple of trends, one of which is that a lot of places have their own cakes. It’s an Austrian thing. Bristol’s is creamy, unlike the moist but not unctuous cakes at the other two hotels, which means that unlike those cakes, the Bristol’s can’t be put into a box and mailed, because the cream would curdle. So if you want a slice of Bristol, you’ll have to come to the Bristol. This is one of the distinct and exquisite pleasures of travel, doing things, seeing things, getting things and tasting things that you cannot back home. I won’t rank the cakes; I love them all (though I will say that the Sacher, mass produced now for global consumption, is perhaps a little dryer than it might once have been), but the Bristol is the one not to miss when you’re in town since, if time runs out and you don’t get to one of the others, you can always order one up online. (The Bristol is another hotel you’ll want to wander through a bit; Mahler and Caruso used to stay here, and this was where the Prince of Wales and Wallace Simpson used to tryst before their relationship became public.)
Another trend you may have noticed are those coffee names. It’s part of that effortfulness I mentioned. The French have their cafés (espresso), cafés au lait, café crème; Italians have espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte, macchiato, ristretto, Americano, and sometimes espresso Romano. Austrians have the Schwartzer (sometimes called a Mokka), the Brauner, the Verlängerter, the mélange, Kaffee verkehrt, Franziskaner, Mozart Café, Einspänner (which has unaccountably become popular in Korea), the Fiaker, Wiener Eiskaffee, Maria Theresia, Biedermeier, and the Häferlkaffee. (Some decent local definitions and pics here.)
There are levels to Viennese cafes, strata, if you will, that determine who you’re most likely to meet when you go there. The Sacher Eck is the most touristy of them, and one of the most touristy spots in all Vienna. The Rote Bar will be mostly foreigners, though many will be hotel guests. The Imperial will be local high rollers and foreigners. Café Central (pronounce it French-like) will be a mix of tourists and locals of the studentish or otherwise underemployed variety (at least in my limited experience). Ditto Café Hawelka, an engagingly low-rent café, still right in the centre, whose 1940s founders only recently died, leaving it to their children and grandchildren, who continue to run it, mostly unchanged, with the days newspapers laid out on their eclectic collection of otherwise bare wooden tables.
But at the top of the next stratum down (or up, as the case may be), the cafes more loved and frequented by locals than foreigners, is the Café Landtmann. At least as formal as the Rote Bar, this is the café most likely to host the mayor’s retirement party, for instance, with its sumptuous upholstery, its dark and light woods, brass fittings, and strict attention to the highest surviving levels of Austrian propriety. Also on this list is the Café Drechsler in the Naschtmarkt (don’t miss the semi-hidden private room, the décor unchanged since the 1950s), Café Sperl (with regular operetta performances in honour of a deceased regular who was a star), and Café Prückel, a mid-century modern masterpiece (its chandelier design’s become eponymous), which is also a literary and music hub.
On another level entirely is Mozart Café, a chain with flagship in the middle of everything on the Albertinaplatz, near the famous Albertina museum. Just take a look at its description of itself and you’ll see why no Viennese person, or even knowledgeable outsider, is likely to recommend it. It’s disingenuous, which is something Austrians, and Austrian cafes, do not like to think of themselves as being. Of course, this is a country only now (only just now) coming to grips with the fact that the story it’s been telling itself for the past 75 years as being the “Nazis’ first victims” is exactly, villainously that. Café Mozart wasn’t founded in 1794 (three years after the composer died). It’s just in a nice 19th-century building in a good location owned by the enterprising Querfeld family (which also owns the Landtmann). But step inside, and you’ll hear a lot of locals in there among the tourists who didn’t read anything about what cafés to go to. It’s convenient, has a lot of seats, and so people go, for the same reasons you might go to a food court. There used to be a funny Starbucks across the street from the Sacher; funny, because in this city of glorious cafés, you were more likely to run into a local there than across the street. So, if you’ve got extra time on your hands, stop at the Mozart, too (and have an Übwerstürtzer Neumann – a little bit of coffee poured over whipped cream, kind of like an affogato, which not everyone does).
But do not under any circumstances leave Vienna without visiting Julius Meinl. Once a large chain that’s contracted into – as far as I can tell – a single café in Vienna’s tony Goldenes Quartier (golden quarter, where Gucci, Vuitton, Europe’s biggest Prada, etc. are) and two in Chicago for some reason, concentrating instead on the presumably more profitable business of selling coffee beans to other cafes. But this one café in Vienna has become a sort of shrine to the Vienna coffee, with full descriptions and explanations of all the styles, artefacts on its walls (and a grocery store in the back for some reason). They do what they do well, their whorled cups (which you can find in cafes across Europe that sell their coffee) and my favourites, and their high tables have plenty of room for all your shopping bags underneath. (They’ve also got a poetry fetish, and apparently used to — possibly still do — accept poetry in payment for coffee; check out their sometimes inexplicable website.)
You can do other stuff in Vienna — I’d suggest an opera, buying a hot dog at a stand that also serves Champagne (Austrians love their Champagne), and checking out Augarten’s porcelain and Lobmyer’s glass — but if you set aside enough time for three coffees a day, quite aside from any you might have incidentally with your breakfast, and spend a week, you’ll be able to get a good start on the city’s best cafés.