of Vienna’s traditional coffeehouses date from the latter
half of the 19th century, when the decision was made to remove the
broad medieval ring of the city walls. In their place, the ring was laid
out-a broad, tree-lined series of boulevards encircling the old city,
with pleasant parks, squares and sedate public buildings every few
hundred yards. Essential to that development was the construction of
coffeehouses spaced around the ring itself or within a few minutes’
Within that broad band, several of the original coffeehouses
still flourish: Prückel, facing the Museum of Applied Arts and the
City Park; Schwarzenberg, the oldest of those on the ring, opened in
1861; Rathaus, dating from 1843 and located outside the former city
walls, just behind City Hall; and Landtmann, easily accessible from
Parliament, City Hall and the National Theatre.
This was the period when the Austrian Empire achieved its
greatest power. The construction fever was palatial in style,
reflecting the confidence of the era. The coffeehouse salons were
grandiose-six meters (20 ft) from floor to ceiling, with classical
columns, lavish chandeliers and red velvet upholstery around the
The furnishings have likewise remained traditional. Essential
elements are marble-topped tables and bentwood chairs with a
wickerwork seat. These coffeehouse chairs were designed and
manufactured by a company founded by Michael Thonet in 1849.
Around 50 million of model number 14 had been sold by 1930. The
company still flourishes and has supplied restored coffeehouses with
Most of the top coffeehouses can lay claim to famous patrons
from the past. Typical is Café Central, established in 1876; it occupied
the Ferstel Palace which had been built to house the Viennese Stock
Exchange. The interior is truly extravagant, with columns, archways,
chandeliers and dignified windows.
Among Café Central’s patrons in the early years of the 20th
century were most of the leading Austrian writers and politicians
like Lenin, Trotsky, Masaryk (who became founder and first
president of Czechoslovakia), and Karl Renner (who later became
president of Austria). At their reserved table-the Stammtisch-this
coffeehouse intelligentsia discussed how to European revolution.
An earlier habitué was the Hungarian Jewish journalist,
Theodor Herzl, who founded the Zionist movement to establish an
independent Jewish homeland. Other visitors included pioneers of
psychoanalysis Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, who held sway at
the Landtmann coffeehouse.
Artists and writers likewise had their regular tables. Two of
Austria’s leading Jugendstil artists-Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele-
were leaders of the Secessionist Movement, which broke away from
the late 19th-century Viennese art establishment. Another artist was
a would-be student who had failed to gain admission to the Academy
of Fine Arts. According to the memoirs of an actor named Rudolf
Forster, that artist tried to sell his watercolors to the Café Central
guests, but otherwise nobody paid any attention to a failure like
Without exception, all these old-time coffeehouses can boast
about the great names of literature, music and science who were
regular customers. Café Sperl lays claim to Brahms and to the
operetta composer Franz Lehár. Music-lovers today can drop in for a
coffee before or after a performance at the Theater an der Wien
along Lehár Gasse.
Today’s clientele is varied. The first patrons arrive at 7am for a
quick espresso to clear their brains from the previous night before
going into their office. Then come the customers looking for a
leisurely breakfast as well as to read the morning paper and talk
with their friends.
The popularity of the coffeehouse breakfast is a relatively new
trend. A coffeehouse owner explained: “Before, when there were big
families, people talked at home around the kitchen table. But now,
like in the rest of Europe, an [ever-increasing] proportion of the
population lives in single-occupancy dwellings.” So the coffeeshop
has become “the new kitchen” in which to meet friends, talk and read
the newspapers without television.
Later on in the morning, students drift in when they should be
attending lectures at the university. Other tables are occupied by
business executives who prefer to talk in privacy or negotiate
obscure deals away from the office. Around noon, shoppers arrive
from the neighboring streets and mingle with office staff taking a
midday break. They go to relax and enjoy a light lunch from the
Part of the Viennese lifestyle is to eat cake with the mid-
morning or afternoon coffee. Among the basic items is a crescent-
shaped roll, licensed to Viennese bakers as a reminder of their
service during the Turkish siege; during the attack, they heard the
approach of Turkish tunnellers from their below-ground ovens, they
gave warning and saved the city ramparts from being blown up.
The close link between coffee and cake has led to the
associated retail category of Café-Konditorei-half coffeeshop, half
pastry shop. Patrons can enjoy their coffee and cake while also
ordering pastries and chocolates to take home. The Apfelstrudel still
flourishes as the most-favored pastry choice.
The most famous of these establishments is in the very upscale
street called Kohlmarkt. Demel’s was the most fashionable
coffeehouse of imperial Vienna, serving high-class coffee and
pastries to the courtiers of the neighboring royal palace. The interior
decorations are a mixture of Rococo and Art Deco and the female
staff members are formally clothed in black Victorian dress.
Demel’s is highly popular with tourists, who have read about its
colorful and aristocratic background. During summer, pavement
tables and chairs are set on the street closed off to pedestrians, with
a direct view towards the entrance of the Hofburg Palace. Visitors
can forget their waistlines and sample beautiful cakes, pastries and
savory snacks served with 19th century formality. They also sell
individually made and boxed chocolates. Another pastry shop
delicacy is Gugelhupf, an exquisite coffeecake.
Several of the leading hotels are likewise into the coffeehouse
tradition. The most renowned is Sacher’s, just behind the State Opera
House, with a menu listing 53 styles of coffee. The establishment is
world-renown for its Austrian Sachertorte, a rich and moist dark
chocolate cake. Thanks to tourism promotion, with write-ups in
every guidebook, Sacher’s café and terrace is always crowded with
American and Japanese visitors enjoying their Melanges and
Sachertortes. The terrace offers a view across to the Opera House,
with tourist carriages trotting past. Like Demel’s, Sacher’s is
expensive, but it’s all part of the Viennese experience. Just around
the corner on Albertinaplatz is Café Mozart, which has flourished
since 1794. It was used as a location in the film The Third Man.
Convenient lodging grounds include Hotel Europa on
Kärntnerstrasse-halfway between the State Opera House and St.
Stephen’s Square. Breakfast service for residents includes Jacobs
filter coffee. Then, when the breakfast room switches roles to become
a coffeehouse, moves to automatic espresso. In a separate bar, a
smaller espresso machine dispenses Illycaffè.
Although the traditional coffeehouses remain popular, the
bottom line is not in their favor. In 1938, Vienna was served by
1283 coffeehouses. However, at last count, that number had fallen to
a few hundred, with an additional 1083 espresso bars and 182 Café-
Konditorei’s. The problem is, while consumer demand has shifted
towards fast-beverage outlets, business rentals have sharply risen in
line with the booming prosperity of modern Vienna. Some of the
larger old-time coffeehouses have been converted into car
showrooms or even into branch banks. It’s hard to make a profit
from customers who occupy a table for several hours, just drinking
coffee and water while reading through the day’s newspapers. The
sales per square foot can be too low for long-term survival, though
some proprietors remain optimistic.
Among the optimists is Gert Gerersdorfer, owner of Café
Dommayer. “We have the old Viennese tradition of the Jausen-time
to stop for a snack-and that hasn’t changed. The Viennese have
always wanted to have time for a break. They would say, ‘If I do not
have time for a break, that is not a correct style of life.’ So there’s a
constant flow of business people coming in for a meeting, or friends
for a sociable chat.
“Here, you have your office in the coffeehouse. Two kinds of coffee
establishments have a future in Vienna. One kind must be large, with
perhaps a staff of 20, and open all day from 7am ‘till at least
midnight-every day, no holidays, no closing time. Then you have the
fast-food type, a really small espresso bar, perhaps with just the
owner and a part-time worker…”
“But between the two extremes,” continues Gerersdorfer,
“coffeeshops can have problems. They are too small to have a future
and cost too much to operate. For a bigger coffeehouse, location is the
important thing. The center in all towns is always interesting because
visitors always come to the center. There’s sure to be a nice bar or
In fact, much of central Vienna inside the Ring Boulevard is
pedestrianized. Many of the coffeehouses are quick to put out chairs,
tables and umbrellas when the weather permits. Street entertainers
add their own lively contribution to the scene. The more elegant
establishments are a sedate and leisured bolt-hole to escape the 21th
century, but there is also wide choice of less traditional cafés.
Reg Butler is a freelance journalist who covers the tea, coffee, and
tobacco industries for Lockwood Publications. He can be reached via
e-mail at: email@example.com.