Viennese customer (standing up, exasperated, after 20 minutes of trying to get the bill, in German) ‘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. Can you guess in which of the cafes reviewed below the scene occurred? Clue: it was not the Hawelka.
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 four years in the city, all but the last year 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.
But then, what do you want? Would you rather, in Vienna, have a traditional-looking Austrian waiter, who maybe doesn’t speak English and isn’t obivously polite, or a fast-moving identikit youth who could be in Seattle or Siena and maybe doesn’t speak German? It’s a tricky question.
Traditional waiters can be brilliant, if they know what they are doing. But if they are less than 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 addition is Cafe phil.
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 cavernous, welcoming interior of the Cafe Bräunerhof
Cafe Central (Herrengasse 14, 1st District): 7/10. Possibly the most famous of Vienna’s traditional cafes, the Central occupies an exquisite space in the Palais Ferstel, originally built in 1860 to house the Austrian National Bank and stock exchange. Although opened “only” in 1876, the cafe’s historical legacy is powerful: Wikipedia says that when Victor Adler objected to Count Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, that war would provoke revolution in Russia, he replied: “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein (Leon Trotsky) sitting over there at the Cafe Central?” Despite repeated renovations, the Central has masses of atmosphere and is worth a visit, so long as the queues are not too long. Cakes OK but nothing special. Ambience: 2 – gorgeous but touristy. Uniqueness: 3. Service: 1 for speed (bit slow), 1 for friendliness.
The Cafe Central is spectacular – Photo RP
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.
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
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 phil (Gumpendorferstrasse 10-12, 6th District) 8/10. Almost opposite Cafe Sperl (below) the phil is a self-confident alternative antithesis to traditional Viennese cafes. Books, music, furniture and terrible puns are all on the menu (‘phil free to come back’; ‘bilbio-phil’; ‘audio-phil’; ‘retro-phil’; ‘phil-good’ and so on). The web-site (‘phil.info, as in viel’) is a conglomeration of cultural cool. Criticised by some as a hangout of ‘bobos’ (bourgeois bohemians’) the phil’s menu even includes a ‘bobotoast’. It’s scarily effective – as if Jeff Bezos, say, had taken over your favourite cafe, researched what you wanted, and delivered it with wit, panache and profitability. Next to all this, the actual food and drink feels almost incidental. Decent street terrace. Ambience: 2: fun, but risks feeling corporate. Uniqueness: 3: certainly different. Service: 2 for speed, 1 for friendliness.
Suitably arty Phil-photo of the Phil-fare (with philburger) – RP
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
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 greenhouse built in 1901. In winter, you can sit inside; in summer, the terrace is beautiful, with a view of the Burggarten. 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
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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”.