People are chatting, the sound of the coffee machine is humming in the background. In the corner, two Viennese ladies in colourful print dresses are enjoying “Kardinalschnitten”, an Austrian type of cake. I sit by the window and watch the cars outside – even though the café is located at one of the busiest intersections in Vienna, the traffic seems really far away. They even feel a bit surreal from the comfort of the red velvet sofa, the black signature coffee house chairs (often by the company Thonet) and the marble tabletops.
Tourists are coming and going. But the peak travel time is over. Summer is ending, it is a windy and cloudy day but still nice enough to sit outside; much more enjoyable than just a few days ago when tourists had to do their sightseeing in the sweltering heat. A family sits down next to me, they are clearly overwhelmed with the broad range of coffees and cake. They ask the waiter for help and, like a machine gun, he starts going through the menu explaining each coffee extremely fast with a thick Viennese accent. I am not sure if it really helped. “Two cappuccinos, one hot chocolate and an apple strudel, please.” Good choice. With tourists being back, Covid seems really far away. The only relic is a lonely disinfectant “tower” right by the entrance which is mostly being ignored.
But, well, the coffee… Despite the reputation of the “Viennese coffee culture”, I have to be honest here – coffee in many of the traditional cafés sucks. But I do not come for the coffee. I come for the ambience – and for the cake, of course. I have a secret tip for you: Before you enter a café in Vienna, check if elderly ladies sit in there – then the cakes will be amazing. (In contrast to the hipster cafés – their coffee is much better but usually the cakes are not that nice.) The service is also special – Viennese waiters are known for their “charm”. If I was diplomatic, I would say they are efficient. Definitely do not expect the litany of chatting like from American staff. The Viennese “charm” mostly equals rudeness. But that is what you come for in a way – a bit of “Schmaeh” (jokes), a bit of gossip and a bit of rudeness.
Two men in suits have just entered, they choose a seat next to an elderly man who seems to be a regular and chats with any waiter passing by him. The suits sit down and order a “Kleinen Schwarzen” and a “Kleinen Braunen” ( a “small black one” and a “small brown one” – these are the names for an espresso and an espresso with a shot of cold milk, don’t ask me why). They then immediately start chatting away, telling each other how busy they are – they still seem to have enough time for extended meetings at a café though. Next to them, two bored staff members give each other relationship advice. “If he behaves like that already now, he will only treat you worse later.” “I know, but it is a difficult time for him. I will ask him out again.” “If he does not text you back, he is not interested.” “Let’s see.”
While sitting at a café on your own may be considered strange in other cities, it is perfectly normal in Vienna. This goes back to the start of the coffee houses. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, artists and intellectuals regularly met in the Viennese cafés, salons were held there, some people spent every single day at cafés on their own to escape their tiny apartments. One of the most famous cafés was the Griensteidl – Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Alma Mahler-Werfel, they all went there. Today, a luxury bag retailer and a supermarket have moved in – quelle horreur! They had the best Kaesespaetzle ever (tiny “Gnocchi”-shaped pasta with cheese – a dish which you usually eat in the huts in the mountains in winter).
There is absolutely no stress involved. Abroad I hate it when I am constantly being asked if I needed “anything else” which usually means “pay your bill and leave”. The Starbucks-concept may be based on the Italian coffee culture, but the Viennese have also practiced this for a long time, long before Starbucks was founded: People sit in cafés, relax and enjoy. A café can be your second living room.
The “regular” I mentioned before leaves his table to get some newspapers. In the traditional coffee houses, they are put on “sticks” and hang on the wall. The sticks make reading them much easier. He glances over to a grandmother and her teenage granddaughter who have just come in. They approach the vitrine and marvel at the cakes and discuss the options while they sit down.
I have finished my work and my “Kipferl”, a crescent-shaped brioche. I ask for the bill which is handed to me with a loud “Bitt’schen” (“here you go”). I walk out outside and a horse-drawn carriage passes by. Is it really 2023 or could I have been beamed back to 1900? “Oida!!!” (There is no translation for “Oida”, it is a unique word which can be used for many situations. In this case it was used to express frustration.) An annoyed driver with his window overatkes the horse carriage honking – it is very much late August in 2023.