In a newspaper poll a few weeks back, Café Ministerium was voted Vienna’s favourite café in the 1st district. Initially, this struck me as an unconventional pick given the possibilities Austria’s capital has to offer. But on closer examination it is perhaps not too surprising. For a 1st district café it is mostly tourist free nestling as it does on the Georg-Coch-Platz between the Postgasse and the imposing former War Ministry just across the Ringstrasse. Interestingly, it is closed at the weekends which is a sure sign that the clientele is Beamter (civil servants) looking for another excuse to work less and contribute to the national debt of the state. In any case, it is probably worth a look if only to sit outside and gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the functional beauty of Otto Wagner’s contribution to selling stamps and early retirement of postal workers – the building of the Postsparkassen.
Architectural marvels aside, trying to select the top or favourite café in Vienna is like asking which is the best pub in London. Like the inability of a child under ten to speak quietly, it is largely impossible. My sceptical self of course understands that such attempts to select and proffer lists has a purpose – mutual exposure for a café / newspaper group captured simplistically in an expedient list for a list-driven world. But we can never be sure what notional favours were exchanged along the way – a promise of advertising, a reserved table or perhaps a slice of diet-busting cake – and means we should think like an Austrian banker, unless they are handling the savings of Eastern Europe, and exercise caution.
I mention this because the poll was orchestrated by Kurier – the Kurier-Kaffehauswahl (Kurier Café Choice). Kurier is your typical left-leaning / liberal newspaper and as about as trustworthy as a newspaper can be in world increasingly overrun by the unverifiable and scurrilous nature of social media land. In addition, they are also responsible for the annual “Tafelspitz” a guide to some of the gastronomic and drinking delights of Vienna and surroundings, with occasional forays into the hinterland and beyond. It comprises of many lists championing best Beisl, best Mediterranean, best after midnight etc … followed by a broad yet not always inspiring list of places to eat and drink.
The reason I mention it is because I used to believe in the veracity of Tafelspitz and looked forward to its annual publication to tally that year’s coolest bar, the best Asian or best tip for Sunday jazz-brunch (joking). But I have lived in Vienna long enough to have tried many places (some recommended by the guide) and I know most of it is subjective, lazy crap.
I don’t want to sound unduly critical (well, I do) but Tafelspitz makes a big song and dance about being updated every year where places are re-visited by their testers. Admittedly they sometimes re-jig the positions of the restaurants or bars in the lists and some places inexplicably disappear from one year to the next. But I can’t really tell the difference between the 2013 version and the 2012, 2011 or 2010. No wait! You can buy an App this year although as I always say in my teaching, no amount of technology is going to save you if your content is, diplomatically put, a bit crap.
An example: in the best Beisl category Meixner up in the 10th district is always in the top ten (number 1 Beisl in Vienna according to the 2012 guide). I went a few years ago (twice) and yes it was brilliant; an authentic Viennese pub, quietly going about its business serving amazing food far from the spy-with-my-beady-eye of the camera snapping tourist. Yet on a recent visit it was at best mediocre (that was just the food). The service was indifferent – even for Vienna, where such an attitude can perversely be a badge of excellence – and I know the look of apathy when I see it. Indifference I can handle if it is somehow ironic, but more than that the prices have gone bonker-rooney for what is essentially a back-street pub. Eighteen smackers for some roast potatoes, onions and a couple of slices of beef? For that money I want something to make me weep. I want something to make the NEXT table weep. And yet Meixner is still one of the top.
Coincidentally, I am writing part of this in the endearingly faded grandeur of Café Westend opposite Westbanhof. Westend (number 3 in the 2012 Tafelspitz café top ten) is as typical as it gets if you don’t want to go too upmarket and spend more than 4 Euro on a few coffee beans and some hot water. It has a ceiling the colour of tea-stained teeth, the seats are the usual mix of velvet covered banquets jostling for space with mock Thornet wooden chairs, and it boasts the sorts of chandeliers that would make a certain kind of squealing interior designer clap their hands very fast.
The place is empty, however, which means I have a doting waiter to myself. More importantly, it gives me the pick of the tables where I can watch the constant flow of people from the station heading past to the retail temptations of Mariahilferstrasse. This also includes the chance to wince at near misses with trams and cars and observe day-light drug deals. (Actually, I embellish slightly; the drug deals take place on the U6 line between Gumpendorfer Strasse and Dresdner Strasse, and the U4 line between Langenfeld Gasse and Spittelau.)
Maria Help Street (as disturbingly unfunny locals sometimes refer to it when speaking English with me) is the Oxford Street of Vienna but with only slightly less tat. It is not as exclusive as Graben and Kohlmarkt uptown but boasts all the big names of retailing and more. What is more disturbing, however, is that I appear to writing about shopping, although there is another superb cafe about half way down (the once nearly bankrupt Café Ritter) if you need to escape the lure of teenage fashion and groups of pissheads with bored looking, scraggy dogs.
If at this point you are wondering where is the major treatise examining the café and its significance to the Viennese soul then I an afraid I will have to serve up at little silver tray of disappointment. After 15 years or so of living in Vienna, my vocabulary is not what it once was and I am not sure I have the patience to deconstruct something so faultless in conception (a bold claim, I concede). What’s more, my children keep interrupting my intellectual musings by shouting at me from somewhere inside the flat in the seemingly deluded belief I will drop everything and leap valiantly from my chair to attend to their needs (they will learn).
Instead, a short story: my first experience of the café culture in Vienna was Café Braunerhof in the 1st district. I had a beer and a gulasch soup (perfectly normal travel writers) and the place has hardly changed over the years except for the absence of smoke. I miss the perma-tanned, magnificently haired and moustached waiter – a man who unilaterally redefined gastronomic rudeness – who didn’t so much subscribe to the ying and yang of life, more the Viennese mir Wurscht (I don’t give a shit).
I learned a valuable lesson from him, though, which prepared me later for life this part of the world, that public displays of rudeness in Vienna in bars, restaurants of cafes is rarely personal. In fact, being impolite back to the waiting staff is sometimes actively viewed with admiration (this is very difficult to pull off if you are a floundering, socially inept Brit). So instead of saying: “When you have a moment, could I possibly pay please?” – Anglo-Saxon for: can I have the bill? – a firm but throaty “Zahlen!” (bill) without – I can hardly bring myself to write this – a “please”, is quite normal.
There will always be perennial favourites in any city (based on taste) and any list of the top coffee houses in Vienna will be packed with the classics and the odd chancer, although whoever in Tafelspitz reasoned that Café Korb was suddenly “cool” – the owners then went and bought wacky coloured chairs – deserves a resounding slap. But to quote a po-faced, double-dealing, arsewipe of a Mensch from my days in London, taste is about moving targets. (Eh?) This is almost certainly business bullshit for the processes of innovation, change and attempts to second guess the future and cafes are not immune (look at the closure of Café Schottenring and the near bankruptcy of Café Museum after its ill-fated refit). But this is Vienna and the coffee house is a traditionalists dream (it’s where Freud conceived most of his ideas).* It offers everything which might suggest anything but change (except the upward swing in absurd prices for a simple cup of coffee – I am talking to you Café Mozart). And that Herr Ober, is far from Wurscht.
© RJ Barratt 2013
* This may not be strictly true.