In 2011, The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage listed “Viennese coffee house culture” as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” for Austria. But there are elements of this that are not entirely intangible; if you are in Vienna, you really must head to a local coffee house for a drink and something sweet.
There’s no shortage of coffee shops in Vienna, and in the nice weather the clients fill up the sidewalk seating chatting, drinking, and — unfortunately for a nonsmoker — smoking like chimneys. The seeds – or should we say beans? – of the Viennese coffee culture were planted when the Ottoman Turks, after besieging the city for two months in 1683, left behind their wonderful coffee. By January of 1685 the first public coffee house opened.
The trend grew over the years and the coffee house became a social gathering place for friends, business people, and of course anyone who loved good coffee. As several locals have told me, students, who couldn’t afford to heat their high-ceiling apartments, preferred to gather in coffee houses to take advantage of the warmth. Games such as billiards or cards were also popular among the patrons.
You can find coffee houses nearly everywhere in Vienna and though Starbucks has moved in a bit, there are not on every corner as they often are in other parts of the world. Many of the coffee houses have substantial food menus and bakeries or specialize in desserts. One of the most popular of the latter variety is Café Central, just two blocks from St. Michael’s Square at Hofburg Palace near the city center.
Café Central opened in 1876 in this same building, now called Palais Ferstel, but at that time under its glass-covered central courtyard. Locals soon knew it as the Chess School (die Schachhochschule) because of the abundance of chess players leaning over the tables. The space attracted local intellectuals and not a few familiar names are on the list of former patrons. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky (actually Bronstein) were regulars. Freud popped in on occasion. Adolf Hitler (before that name was familiar) and Josip Broz Tito (remember the president/dictator of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia?) are a couple of infamous characters but there was also a stream of local writers, philosophers, scientists, and artists.
World War II bombing damaged the building and the café closed. It reopened in 1975 in the same building but in the front corner space where a bank used to be. Renovations in 1986 have made this quite a beautiful space, and now rather than gathering the local intellectual chess masters, it attracts tourists willing to pay hefty prices for coffee and dessert. Prices, I might add, that suddenly don’t seem so hefty when you taste many of menu items. It’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill fare.
The room has the classy appeal of golden days, with chandeliers, arched ceilings, and marble columns. Despite being full much of the time, it isn’t quite so loud like some coffee shops can be. With all the marble, that’s rather surprising, and one wonders if a bit of awe hasn’t taken some of the volume out of the patrons’ voices.
Formal waiters serve the tables, but for the desserts in the glass counter you should stand in line, choose your pleasure, and the clerk will give you a slip of paper with the item on it to give to your waiter at your table.
I ordered the Café Central Kaffee which is a extra-large espresso with apricot liqueur and a dollop of whipped cream on top (awesome). For dessert I took the seasonal rhubarb strudel (pretty good).
Peung ordered Schokozauber, which is a chocolate-covered half-globe of chocolate mousse with vanilla crème brulée at the center (rich and amazing). Our friend Ti ordered apple strudel which came with its own little pitcher of vanilla sauce and will ruin all other apple strudels you encounter in your life. Charlie had something layered with yogurt in it and the Viennese traditional drink, café mélange – mild coffee with steamed milk. No one was disappointed.
So for a worthwhile splurge on sweets and caffeine, Café Central is a top candidate among Vienna’s coffee houses. But a friend’s raving review of Demel will set up a Viennese coffee house smackdown before we depart from Vienna next week.
This permanent patron, seated by the front door at Cafe Central, is the poet Peter Altenberg, another former regular and a famous Viennese coffee house writer.
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