It was one of those very rare moments when I was loitering on a street in Vienna without the actual and definite purpose of going into a coffee house, which altered, and somewhat unnatural state was caused by my having just left Café Phil about half an hour before. But, as we have learned from Robert Burns, the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley (often go awry, for those who for some irrational reason are not yet familiar with Scots English), and in an absurd turn of events, I found myself outside Café Kafka.
Stopping dead in my tracks I felt that despite my satisfactory levels of caffeination, I must enter this establishment without delay, and so I did, finding myself immersed in smoke, and one of my favourite Nick Cave songs. A sort of a medusa of coffee houses, luring me subliminally with Nick’s song. Smaller and shabbier than the places which traditionally make it to the guides, it was populated mostly with locals, many of whom were sitting in solitude at their table and looked as if they were just taking a break from important and mysterious affairs of the kind which make it to art house movies, detective novels and urban legends. It’s highly likely that they were simply on the way to the grocer’s, without any intention to contact a spy ring on the way there, but maybe if you spend enough time entwined with a marble top table you’ll be able to write that book in which they do.
Soon the occupants of the table to the left of me changed from an enigmatically pouting lady with flaming red lips (if anyone knows how to make lipstick stay on after ten cups of something, tell me how) to two young men looking like dishevelled Trostkys, discussing, among other things, the matter of cheating girlfriends and God, but remained mum on whether they found God interventionist in such matters, or not.
My presence in Café Drechsler, on the other hand, was driven by less transcendent phenomena: hunger, and an article in the New York Times. It’s anyone’s guess why the writer would choose this café out of the many, probably chance, or some sort of coffee house bingo, or maybe they just felt (justifiably) happy with the breakfast. Fact is, Café Drechsler stands by the Naschmarkt, and used the have a legendary status due to its late opening hours which drew a crowd of party animals attempting to sober up after rough nights with a nice, hot goulash or perhaps a Wiener Schnitzel of epic proportions. The café was opened in 1919 by Engelbert Drechsler I an was subsequently run by Engelbert II and Engelbert III (main responsible for its fame of municipal staple of sobering up) until 2005, when he retired.
To the horror of purists, the café was sold to an international chain who reopened it in 2007, but somewhat unusually for such undertakings decided to keep the spirit of Drechsler alive and add a dash of panache by having the refurbishment done by English designer and restaurateur Terence Conlan. The resulting space is spare, almost austere, with none of the K.u.K. opulence one tends to associate with Viennese coffee house, but with details that strike your eye as meaningfully placed, should you look for them. A top tip is to sit by one of the windows facing the Naschmarkt in the morning, as the sun will be streaming in over the table from that direction. That half of the café happens to be a non-smoking one, so you might miss out on the delights of the Alfred Dorfer (who is, as it turns out, an Austrian comedian and supporter of Austria Wien) breakfast, which comes accompanied by a Gauloises cigarette. For that you’d need to go to the back half, which is still a smoking area.
In an adventure which raises the question, not unlike the epochal who are the Dutch, of who are the Austrians, as in, are they lovers of Germanic rules and precision or are they more complicated souls opposing the system from within, the country’s smoking regulations have been adhered to somewhat rhapsodically by bars and restaurants. While smoking is prohibited in most public places, bars and restaurants can have smoking areas, as long as they are rigorously delimited, but more than often they were not, and smoke wafted freely through the rooms like the spirit of a djinn. These happy times of Brussels spiting were to come to an end in May 2018, but the newly elected, and disconcertingly right leaning government scraped the law proposal, in the name of freedom. Oh Austria, both wondrous and scary.
A particular trait of Drechsler waiters is that they are incredibly, almost ridiculously polite, smiling away at rotten Gernglish orders, translating coffee types on the spot from inept ramblings to correct Viennese categories, welcoming dogs with a pat on the head and a plate of water.
Not so the waiters in Café Westend, who by all means, hate you and you in particular. Once you’ve made it to the premises of the coffee house lying at the top end of Mariahilfer Straße, across from the Westbahnhof, you will enter a Quixotic battle. First, to be seated. When this does not happen, and it almost never does, you decide to bravely sit somewhere. This will be finally noticed, and frowned upon by the waiters, any choice you make being the wrong one. They will thus very grudgingly give you a menu, then disappear as if they never happened. After investigating the menu and deciding upon something, which will of course be frowned upon, you try to place an order with your waiter, elusive as a fata morgana in the desert. At this point you will realize that the whole room is echoing with Entschuldigungs accompanied by desperate gestures beseeching eye contact. My last visit was crowned with the cinematic moment when two patrons threw a fistful of coins on the table to pay for the fizzy drinks they did get and stormed out the door, in protest about the main course they didn’t. This all might sound disturbing, but it’s high drama, it makes you feel alive, in the middle of things, and energized. Some Viennese coffee houses want you to sip your coffee and read your magazine in hedonistic and defeatist near slumber, Café Westend, on the other hand, wants you to rage against the dying of the light.
Speaking of that hedonistic nigh slumber, plenty of that is to be had in Café Sperl, provided you don’t visit it in the Christmas high season. Since I felt that our fractious first encounter might obfuscate the true nature of things, I returned to it on a nippy early February day, to discover an oasis of peace and reverie. The high ceiling-ed, gilded hall was half empty, populated with an assorted combination of newspaper reading locals and studious tourists, in the background there was a low rumble of voices, the clacking of the waitresses’ heels on the floorboard (Sperl has exclusively female personnel) and the clink of teaspoons touching china.
I ventured for a melange, which, in Viennese understanding does not, under any circumstances, contain honey. It is basically a cappuccino, not to be confused with the Kapuziner, though, which must have a topping of whipped cream, the mixing of which will give the coffee its typical colour akin to the habit of a Capuchin monk. When a clueless tourist thus got the wrong drink, the waitress gave her a friendly and forgiving, yet stern look: Italians got it wrong. Yes, but cappuccino is like this everywhere. This is not everywhere, this is Vienna and we know the Italians got it wrong. Vienna is not simply a city, it is an existential arrangement. Let’s drink a melange to that.
Café Kafka, Capistrangasse 8
Café Drechsler, Linke Wienzeile 22
Café Westend, Mariahilfer Str. 128
Café Sperl, Gumpendorfer Str. 11