A Taste of History

Coffee houses a ‘central’ aspect of Viennese culture

by Lauren Fiorillo

Since arriving in Vienna in early June, I’ve been on a quest to learn more about the city’s famous coffee houses and the roles they play in the everyday lives of the city’s locals.

Other than frequenting Starbucks and the occasional local independent roaster back home in Atlanta, I arrived in this highly caffeinated capital city knowing little about what the Viennese call “kaffee.”

I concentrated my time at five of Vienna’s better-known coffee houses: Schönbergers Café, Kleines Café and Café Central. My central question: What makes Vienna’s coffee culture so special?

The answer is complicated, and it requires visiting several haunts locals count as their favorites at different times throughout the day. It’s in these repeated visits one can see the diversity of roles these public houses play, from offering up the day’s newspapers, to simple lunches and pastries, to a game of after-hours billiards.

Let me take you on a tour of the coffee houses I visited.

Schönbergers Café

In the Fourth District on Wiedner Hauptstraße sits a small coffee house, Schönbergers Café. The sign outside reads “Naber Kaffee,” a vestige of a previous chapter in the coffee house’s history. Inside and to the right there is a wooden bar with a countertop full of pastries. Shelving behind flaunts the Schönbergers’ different coffees.

Martin Wolf is a regular at Schönbergers Café,
visiting once or twice a week for a coffee and
a pastry.

Vienna local Martin Wolf said he comes to Schönbergers Café once or twice a week, so naturally I had to ask him what makes Viennese coffee so special.

“The first coffee came along with the Ottomans (the Turks)” in 1683 when they tried to take over Vienna, Wolf explained. “That’s how coffee houses got started. They became an institution in the 19th century because they were places you could meet and talk, and among the first places women could go alone.”

For Tom Pischinger, another loyal customer of Schönbergers Café, it’s the passion the city has for its coffee that makes it so special.

“It is made with love, and there is a lot of knowledge behind it”, he said.

Pischinger said he frequents Schönbergers for two primary reasons.

“The first reason I come is for the very good coffee,” he said. The second is that Pischinger has known owner Patrick Schönberger for “15 or 20 years.”

Kleines Café

Kleines Cafe sits in a small square on Franziskanerplatz
in the First District.

A coffee house very different from Schönbergers, located in a little square on Franziskanerplatz in the First District, is Kleines Café. A rustic turquoise doorway invites people inside, but if it’s a sunny day, the tables and chairs outside quickly fill.

The interiors, which reminded me of a pub, communicate age and tradition. Dimly lit with an arched ceiling and leather booths lining walls, Kleines is familiar even on the first visit. At Kleines, I met Lisi Breuer, a regular who used to work at Kleines 30 years ago.

“They’ve always kept the look. Everything is the same”, she said. “The leather couches and how they are made, how the lights are set. This is, you know, very sophisticated.”

Café Central

Perhaps the day I realized that the Viennese coffee culture is for non-coffee drinkers and coffee lovers alike was the day I visited Café Central. In the first district on Herrengasse, the café looks like a large parlor with elaborate, gothic arched ceilings, marble tabletops, and a display dead center to show off the dessert options.

Often crowded but worth the
wait is one of Vienna’s
best-known “kaffee hauses,”
Cafe Central.

As I opened the doors to Café Central, I was greeted by the aroma of freshly ground coffee. Guests lounged, chatted, and I found myself quickly enveloped into the inviting and homey atmosphere. Impeccably coifed servers in bowties hustled about to cater their many guests.

“We never really stand still; we’re constantly moving from table to table. But that’s just part of what makes working here so fun,” said Christoph Jani, a Café Central waiter.

Jani said he doesn’t like the taste of coffee, but he loves to be a barista and to make the various drinks that can be found on the café’s menu.

How could a visitor to Vienna not be enticed by the smells of freshly brewed coffee, freshly ground beans and freshly baked pastries? How could the diversity and beauty of the shops’ architecture not dazzle? And how could anyone disagree with the need every now and then to pause and indulge a little?

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