Robert Pimm

Home » Reviews » Review: Vienna cafes: which are best?

Review: Vienna cafes: which are best?

Viennese customer (standing up, exasperated, after 20 minutes of trying to get the bill) ‘Excuse me, Mr Waiter; I’d like to pay, please.’

Head Waiter (chatting to other waiters on the other side of the room) ‘If you’re in such a hurry, you should have stayed at home.’

This is a true story from Vienna, 1986 – I was there.  If my host that day (then working in the Town Hall) is reading this, do get in touch.

The entrance to the Cafe Hawelka – photo Robert Pimm

How good are Viennese cafes?  Is it even fair for me to assess them, as a foreigner who has lived only three and a half years in the city, all but the last six months back in the 1980s?

Most Viennese cafes are excellent.  I like the fact that most of them (not all, sadly) use old-fashioned Viennese coffee-types (kleine Schwarzer, kleine Brauner, Verlängerter, Franziskaner) instead of, or sometimes in addition to, the world-conquering Italian descriptors (Cappuccino, Macchiato & Co).

Many Vienna cafes have a wonderful, unrenovated charm, often accompanied by service which varies from the friendly and efficient (more common in cafes outside the first district) to a kind of studied clockwork stop-motion effect where waiters emphasise by their every action both their superiority to the customers and the fact that they will not deviate from their intended, inexorable plan of action under any circumstance.

The latter brand of waiter can be fine, if they know what they are doing.  But if the staff are not actually that brilliant, the combination can be deadly.  I even mention the slow service of Viennese waiters in my novel Biotime.

Viennese cafes also often serve terrific cakes; and other food and drink, from sausages to breakfast and beer.  Check the menu; and choose your cakes at the counter if you’re not sure.

I’m keen to hear your views. I often review cafes suggested in the “Comments” boxes below – latest additions are Cafe Schwarzenberg and Cafe Zartl.

I give each cafe a rating out of 10, based on Ambience (max 3 marks); Uniqueness (max 3); and Service, divided between speed (max 2) and friendliness (max 2).  If you have a favourite cafe, write a comment and I’ll aim to review it.  My findings so far:

Cafe Bräunerhof (Stallburggasse 2, 1st District): 8/10 .  Nestling in a back street near the tourist heart of Vienna, the Cafe Bräunerhof has nonetheless kept a wonderfully shabby and unrenovated traditional ambience, complete with uniformed waiters (don’t try and sit down until they’ve shown you to a table) and, when I visited, a musical trio at no extra charge.  Uniqueness: 2 – good historical feel but few obvious idiosyncrasies.  Ambience: 3 – good “stepping back in time” feeling and plenty of locals reading books and newspapers.  Service: 1 for speed – fast for a traditional cafe; 2 for friendliness (the Bräunerhof apparently has a reputation for grumpy waiters but mine was notably friendly).

The spacious, welcoming interior of the Cafe Bräunerhof

Cafe de l’Europe (Am Graben, 1st District): 2/10.  A famous Viennese cafe in a tourist hotspot which feels as if it might have been better before it was renovated.  Ambience: 1: not unpleasant and I liked the other customers, including two Vienna ladies with dogs, but nothing special.  Uniqueness: 1 – interior could have been anywhere, but a nice view of the Graben.  Service: 0 for speed – waited 20 minutes before a waiter even approached – and 0 for friendliness.

Cafe Hawelka (Dorotheergasse, 1st District): 8/10. A city-centre cafe with a pleasing sense of history, including busts of  former owners Josefine and Leopold Hawelka and apparently unrenovated since I lived in Vienna in the 1980s.  Ambience: 3: you feel a pleasing sense of calm and refuge as soon as you walk in.  Can get a bit full.  Uniqueness: 3: nowhere else quite like it – long may it remain so.  Service: 1 for speed – highly variable but you rarely feel abandoned; 1 for friendliness: gruff but decent.

Cafe Korb (Brandstätte 9, 1st District): 8/10.  You can tell the Korb is something special the moment you click on their website: a steaming cup of coffee invites you, Alice-like, to “Enter”.  Stepping into the cafe itself is initially less intriguing: although the furniture is allegedly ancient (the cafe was founded in 1904; Sigmund Freud was a regular), the decor is the victim of a 1960s makeover and not yet quite kitsch enough to be chic.  But the ubiquitous pictures of the owner, the legendary Susanne Widl, are a hint that the Korb is something special.  A decorated cellar lounge offers a rich programme of cultural stimulation from music to poetry; and the manager, Franz Schubert, also plays the saxophone.  Even the loo doors are interesting (big in Japan, apparently).  A find; and my hot chocolate was excellent.  Uniqueness: 3 – quirky, and the cellar is worth a look even without a performance.  Ambience: 2: nice enough but low impact.  Service: 1 for speed, 2 for friendliness.

The “Gents” (left) and “Ladies” signs at the Cafe Korb – photo Robert Pimm

Cafe Landtmann (Universitätsring, 1st District) 6/10.  The Landtmann is one of the most famous Vienna cafes and meeting places, sitting on the Ringstrasse close to the Burgtheater, the Town Hall, the University and a host of city centre attractions.  From the outside it is unexceptional; but inside, a series of spectacular linked rooms offer a host of cosy seating options – once you can get a waiter to take you to a table.  The atmosphere is bustling and cosmopolitan, with plenty of both Viennese and tourists, and uniformed waiters rushing around holding trays stacked with excellent coffee and cakes.  Ambience: 2: takes a bit of getting used to, can be a bit intimidating on a first visit; Uniqueness: 2: a Vienna institution with history, albeit now part of a chain; Service: 1 for speed (sometimes verging on a 2) and 1 for friendliness (sometimes verging on a 0: the waiters here really know they are the best, although in recent years they seem to have been trained to act a little less superior).

Cafe Sperl (Gumpendorfer Straße 11, 6th District) 9/10.  Located in a backstreet close to, yet divorced from, tourist zones, the Sperl was recommended by a reader.  I found it a treasure: spacious and atmospheric in a perfect 19thC way with faded plush seats, high ceilings, uniformed but efficient waiters, and a delightful, timeless air which it is hard to imagine persisting in any other European city.  A brilliant space to spend time: I’ll be back (stop press: returned.  Still lovely.  Great clientele, too).   Ambience: 3: relaxing and 100% Viennese.  Uniqueness: 2: quietly individual but few obvious quirks.  Service: 2 for speed and 2 for friendliness from a waiter who appeared with menus instantly, took our order and brought us the bill as soon as we asked for it.  Impressive.

The Cafe Sperl on a quiet Thursday night – photo Robert Pimm

Kleines Cafe (Franziskanerplatz 3, 1st District) 7/10.  Rarely was a cafe so aptly named as the Kleines Cafe (“Small Cafe”): it is microscopic.  Located in one of the most ancient parts of Vienna, its unrestored facade conceals a pint-sized, unrestored interior.  Despite its location close to peak tourist zones of the city the Kleines Cafe exhibits the so-laidback-as-to-be-nearly-horizontal style of the best old Viennese cafes, with locals taking their time to sit and read a newspaper over a leisurely cup of coffee, a beer or a sausage.  Ambience: 2: almost a 3 but can be smoky if more than a few people light up.  Uniqueness: 3: titchy and quirky.  Service: 1 for speed and 1 for friendliness: standard old-style Viennese customer-client service.

Kleines Cafe (bottom left) and Franziskanerplatz by night – Photo Robert Pimm

Oberlaa Konditorei (Kurbadstrasse, 10th District): 6/10.  A Vienna institution which has spawned a chain of pleasant cafes, with a strong focus on cakes (I had the Apfel Streusel Kuchen – apple crumb cake – and a kleiner Schwarzer).  Ambience: 2: bustling, lively.  Uniqueness: 1: a chain with unremarkable decor, but the original near the Kurpark has a certain grandeur and is impressively large.  Service: 1 for speed, 2 for friendliness.

The terrific cake selection at the Oberlaa Konditorei – Photo Robert Pimm

Palmenhaus (Burggarten 1, 1st District): 7/10.  One of Vienna’s newer venues, opened in 1998, in an airy glass greenhouse built in 1901.  In the winter, you can sit inside; in the summer, the broad terrace is beautiful, with a view of the Burggarten, a pleasing park with a lake.  Good for people-watching or chilling; no pressure to move.  The furniture on the terrace is functional; that inside is comfier.  When I visited recently the service was friendly but classic Viennese (see intro).  Friendly waiter, sitting texting near our table: “Sorry, I can’t serve you.  Nor can that guy there.  X can serve you – he’s somewhere inside.”  Ambience: 2: good buzz, lively.  Uniqueness: 3 – unique setting makes it definitely worth a visit.  Service: 0 for speed, 2 for friendliness.

The Palmenhaus terrace has a lovely location – Photo Robert Pimm

Cafe Schwarzenberg (Kärntner Ring 17, 1st District): 7/10 .  The Schwarzenberg calls itself the oldest cafe on Vienna’s mighty Ringstrasse and a sensitive late 1970s restoration has left it with one of the most pleasing interiors amongst the grand Viennese cafes.  Service is in the stately Ringstrasse tradition where the customer is expected to know his or her place and waiters of immense experience know that when things get busy, thirsty clientele and uncleared tables will both have to wait a bit.  Clientele is mostly international, but I warmed to the waiters seeing them joshing with elderly Viennese regulars.  My Kleine Schwarzer (see pic) was delicious and hot.  I liked the sugar dispensers instead of sachets.  Ambience: 2: bustling, touristy; Uniqueness: 3: fine interior & location; Service: 1 for speed, 1 for friendliness.

I enjoyed a fine coffee & leisurely read at Cafe Schwarzenberg – Photo RP

Ungar Grill (Burggasse 97, 7th District): 7/10.  It is perhaps cheeky to review the Ungar Grill, which is off the tourist beaten track and not strictly a cafe.  Rather, it a place where eating and drinking (notably of beer) play as important a role as coffee consumption; and cakes are not a speciality.  But the Ungar Grill deserves a mention as an exceptional example of the no-problem type of Viennese inner-city establishment where the prices are modest; the food decent; the service good; and both staff and guests have flair, perhaps based around the proprietors’ fondness for modern Austrian music and musicians, many of whom seem to hang out here.  I like the neon; and it’s an excuse for a stroll down the Burggasse, an example of the vibrancy of some city centre zones outside the 1st District.  Ambience: 3: cosy and cheerful; Uniqueness: 1: quirky customers and staff but not in an obvious way; Service: 1 for speed and 2 for friendliness.

The Ungar Grill by night – Photo Robert Pimm

Cafe Zartl (Rasumofskygasse 7, 3rd District): 5/10.  A friend recommended Cafe Zartl after enjoying a fine family breakfast, and I checked it out on a sunny Sunday evening to find I was the only guest.  Despite this, the service was improbably slow, with a strange mixture of grumpiness and good cheer from the same person.  Outside and in, the Zartl looks perfect for a faded, traditional Vienna cafe, and is close to the Hundertwasserhaus, guaranteeing some tourist visits.  But it doesn’t quite have the rich (tho’ equally faded) decor of, say, the Sperl, or masses of atmosphere (hard, admittedly, when you are the only guest).  Worth a visit if you’re in the area.  Ambience: 1: some charm; Uniqueness 2: lovely outside, so-so inside; Service: 1 for speed, 1 for friendliness.

Cafe Zartl looks great in the evening sun – Photo Robert Pimm

What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you.  Do you disagree – or have a favourite cafe I should check out?  You can comment using the form at the foot of the page.

And where was that cafe whose head waiter told my host – someone who had been going there for years – that if he was in a hurry he should have stayed at home?  Guesses welcome!

And if you want to read how I’d run a cafe, restaurant or Hotel, check out my Hotel Stories – entirely 100% fictional in every case.  

Forthcoming Vienna cafe reviews:

Cafe Museum (Operngasse, 1st District)

The Cafe Museum in 2017 – Photo Robert Pimm

The Cafe Museum in 1987 (pre-renovation) – Photo Robert Pimm

Cafe Central (Herrengasse/Strauchgasse, 1st District)

Cafe Jelinek (Otto-Bauer-Gasse 5, 1060 Wien)

Cafe Malipop (Ungargasse, 3rd District).  The review at the link says kissing in the Malipop is forbidden, which reminds me of a great story from 1985… more later

Cafe 7*Stern (Siebensterngasse, 7th District)

The Cafe 7*Stern – Photo Robert Pimm

Cafe Stein (Währingerstrasse, 9th District)

P.S. to enjoy more fresh writing, sign up for e-mail updates (top right – the “click here” blue button).  Or check out all the writing on this site via the sitemap and guide.

P.P.S. see my piece When dinner becomes the last supper for a tongue-in-cheek guide to “why German waiters are the best”.

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15 Comments

  1. jonyrussell says:

    Leigh. I’m surprised that an experienced hand such as yourself should have missed a golden opportunity to radically augment the number of visitors to your site by including pictures of the small and cuddly dogs that often accompany their large and less-than-cuddly owners to these cafés.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrea Linecker says:

    …ich hab mit viel Vergnügen die ersten drei Kaffeehaus-Kritiken gelesen.
    Wenn ich (als Salzburgerin) raten soll, in welchem Wiener Café ich beim – scil. vorhersehbar – vergeblichen Versuch den Zahl-Vorgang zu beschleunigen wohl Gefahr liefe, so angegrantelt zu werden, tippe ich auf den wunderbar schäbigen Bräunerhof in der Stallburggasse. Ein Besuch lohnt sich übrigens trotzdem.
    Die genau gegenteilige Erfahrung kann man/frau im (kleinen) Landtmann gegenüber der Albertina machen, ich glaube, es heißt Café Mozart: Dort merken sich die Ober sogar, dass Leute, die genüsslich frühstücken, fünf Minuten, bevor die Albertina aufsperrt, gezahlt haben wollen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    Try Cafe Sperl for a real “Adams Family Treat” . Plush velvet sofas, harder than they look :); homemade cakes, all pretty good. Favourite the poppy seed with whipped cream; even a children’s play corner and I got a smile from the waiter… or was it wind!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    Yes that’s correct

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    If you have oodles of time on your hands then try the Meierei in the Prater, 2nd district Vienna. Whilst the location itself is not bad when the sun is shining, the food is mediocre and the service as charming as its toilets. Not that much further away is the Lust House at the end of the Prater Hauptallee. Certainly worth the cycle, walk or run. More to follow…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    Try Ansari in the Praterstrasse 15, 1020 for a lovely lunchtime or quick coffee experience. The little square itself could be taken straight out of a little French village with its wrought iron balconies and pale yellow exterior.
    Inside minimalist with funky Q and K toilets. Friendly waitresses and interesting food. Whilst not a large selection of desserts, interesting combinations such as créme Brulée with lemongrass and ginger with a hint of cardamon or warm chocolate cake with chili kumquats. I could not decide, so had both 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. weinfreundin says:

    dear robert pimm,

    would you mind reviewing café korb? siegmund freud liked it best and it has a famous jazzclub in the basement.

    related to that, the next logical step would be café stein in steingasse.
    it’s near the freud museum and it is famous amongst gay people.

    and how about the café malipop in ungargasse? ernst molden wrote a hommage to it in a song.

    german review here:
    https://thegap.at/furchtachterl

    a good version of the song here:

    PS: if you fancy a glass of wine instead of coffee some day, drop by at http://www.weinfreundin.blog and get some tips.

    Like

  8. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    glad you liked Cafe Sperl, I go there to switch off when I am feeling creative. Have you thought about reviewing the best places for brunch? Hansen – worth going there just to see the flower arrangements in the adjoining garden centre in the 1st district; Ansari and Das Campus, both in the 2nd district and Motto am Fluss, in the first district.

    Like

  9. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    Robert, that friend of mine wanted to reply to you about wild boars but the article has disappeared…. would you still be interested in his opinion? If so, where would he write?
    thanks
    J

    Like

  10. Julie Anne Zellinger says:

    http://www.gowild.at/

    that is him

    Like

    • Robert Pimm says:

      Hi Julie yes I took it down… but he can still contact me through the “Contacts” section at the end of any of my pieces. As for your brunch suggestion – good stuff, although actually I almost never brunch anywhere… maybe I need to slow down a bit 🙂

      Like

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