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Following the Viennese Coffeehouse Tradition (Continued)

Most 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’ walk.

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 booths.

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 faithful reproductions.

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 Adolf Hitler.

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 daily menu.

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 coffeehouse-restaurant open.”

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: r.butler@teaandcoffee.net.


Tea & Coffee - October/November 2000
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