Vienna's Old Coffeehouses

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If the signature social event of Vienna is the waltz, then the signature social space is the Kaffeehaus. Worn, charming, permeated with a mild air of sophistication and self-possession, Vienna’s handful of remaining old-world coffeehouses are equally accommodating of the spontaneous visitor and the clockwork regular—they are, in short, an encapsulation of the Austrian capital itself, and the city would not be what it is without them.

This very Viennese establishment is, in fact, international in its origins. The patron saint of the Kaffeehaus was Polish by birth, an enterprising war hero named Kolschitzky. Grateful city officials awarded him the sacks of coffee left behind by the Turkish army in 1683 following the latter’s unsuccessful Siege of Vienna. Kolschitzky proceeded to open Blue Bottle, the city’s first coffeehouse, and Vienna was soon abuzz with the two-tiered porcelain contraptions known as Bohemian (or Carlsbad) coffee pots, not to mention the trend’s caffeinated early adopters.

But the coffeehouses proved to be no passing fad. By the 19th century, they had fully insinuated themselves into the city’s rhythm. A Wiener of some means could begin his day at the coffeehouse, or swing by after lunch for a kleiner schwarzer (single mocha, no cream) and a smoke. He could visit following a late-day stroll along boulevards, or an evening at the opera.

The heyday of the coffeehouse was fin-de-siècle Vienna, a moment of remarkable prosperity and change. Iconoclasts like Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele, and Robert Musil spent many hours at their favorite tables, arguing and writing and reading the newspapers. As Friedrich Torberg writes in Tante Jolesch; or, The Decline of the West in Anecdotes, his lyrical chronicle of lost Vienna, the coffeehouse was the “spiritual home” of the city, and of its vibrant Jewish culture in particular.

Much change has arrived since then, from the efficiencies of condensed milk and saccharine in the twenties to the upheavals of the two World Wars. Today, however, looking and acting like classics is what keeps the old coffeehouses in business. The owners seem fine with that.  Gunther Hawelka, who inherited Café Hawelka from his parents several decades ago and has since passed it down to his sons, takes to the kitchen every morning to bake apfelstrudel while listening to Strauss waltzes. Manfred Staub couldn’t afford to modernize Café Sperl when he bought it in 1968, and he admits now that this was a good thing.

And so the flavor of the past persists, and not just in the tobacco stains. Rather than piped-in music, one hears the murmur of conversations in these coffeehouses, the jangling of coins in a waiter’s pouch, the clinking of spoons on ceramic. The Sperls and Hawelkas keep a selection of daily newspapers on hand, at significant expense. But gone are the days when writers received mail at their preferred coffeehouse, and the zeitungs-doctors (‘newspaper doctors’) held court. As Torberg concluded more than a half a century ago, what has changed is not so much the coffeehouse as the clientele. “They have no time, and time is the most important, an indispensable requirement for any kind of coffeehouse culture.”


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