Typically Austrian cakes at Demel café.
Typically Austrian cakes at Demel café.

Vienna’s history can be measured out in coffee spoons

  • In Vienna coffee isn’t just a beverage, its a way of life
  • The city has a long and proud history of coffee-house culture

I am at Café Frauenhuber, one of Vienna’s few remaining “original" coffee houses, to linger, despite the crowds. Entering the café is like stepping into a family’s living room, albeit an opulent one, with red velvet benches, lace curtains, Persian carpets and a Biedermeier display cabinet showcasing exquisite bric-a-brac.

There are sumptuously upholstered booths for private dining. From the central ceiling hangs a three-tiered art deco chandelier. Teakwood racks are placed in corners for hanging coats and hats. A newspaper, mounted on a long, wooden contraption for easy reading, rests on each table. Tuxedo-clad waiters bustle about.

Although Mozart and Beethoven don’t entertain here any more, the café manages to compensate, if only with great atmosphere, quintessentially Viennese treats and stellar service. Its approach to presentation and service reinforces Vienna’s proud history of coffee-house culture. Indeed, in the world’s most liveable city, coffee isn’t just a beverage; it’s a way of life.

I scan the café’s leather-bound menu and discover at least a dozen concoctions of freshly brewed coffee, milk, cream, water, liqueurs, chocolate and even egg yolk (used in Kaisermelange). The signature drink, Maria Theresa, is crafted from orange liqueur and whipped cream. Mocha is referred to as a scharzer, while melange, a Viennese classic, is the closest to a cappuccino. Then there’s the eispanner, served with whipped cream, while the turkische arrives in a gleaming copper pot.

My melange is served the traditional way—on a silver tray with a small glass of water and the signature spoon on top of it. “Every coffee is served with a glass of water, which the waiter will top up for free, even long after you’ve emptied your cup," local guide Ilse Heigworth informs me. For our snack, we choose a caster sugar-encrusted apple strudel to share.

Café Frauenhuber is one of the 800-odd cafés in Vienna today. It also claims to be the city’s oldest, opened in 1788 by Franz Jahn, the private chef of Austrian archduchess Maria Theresa. Jahn’s networking skills made the café rock to the beats of renowned musicians. A plaque at the entrance notes a date in 1788 when Mozart played a piece by Joseph Haydn there, and one in 1797 when Beethoven rendered one of his own compositions.

Hotel Sacher’s The Original Sachertorte with coffee
Hotel Sacher’s The Original Sachertorte with coffee

A charming ambience, genteel traditions and, historically, an eclectic clientele make Vienna’s coffee houses an integral part of the city’s social fabric. More institutions than “eateries", Unesco added them to its list of intangible cultural heritage in 2011, saying that the coffee houses have a “very specific atmosphere" and are places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill".

Few know, however, that the beverage was unknown in the Austrian capital till the early 17th century. It became part of the city’s cultural DNA after the siege of Vienna, when the Turks invaded the city. In 1683, the Austrians pushed out the invaders, who left bags of coffee beans behind, accidentally introducing Vienna to the beverage.

During the Biedermeier period, from 1815-48, when art started finding a resonance with Europe’s middle class, Viennese coffee houses flourished. With their spiffy décor and polished waitstaff, they became aspirational establishments, symbolizing the good life. Artists, bohemians and army officers flocked to them to read, philosophize or play chess while savoring meticulously brewed cups of coffee.

Regulars like Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele, Leon Trotsky and Gustav Klimt publicly endorsed the ones they preferred. Famous authors wrote entire novels in their favourite cafés, giving birth to a new genre of writing known as “coffeehouse literature". Inspired by the Austrian template, other cities like Prague, Zagreb, Verona, Trieste and Venice also launched their own coffee houses. Interestingly, women were banned from entering the establishments until 1856, though the cashiers were women.

“Coffee houses were also places where people socialized and kept up with local gossip before the advent of the internet and smartphones," Heigworth explains. “Truly egalitarian, they were welcoming of everyone, irrespective of their age, class or political leanings."

Today, many of the city’s coffee houses are over 300 years old, and still hew to time-honoured traditions. For example, even if a guest orders a single drink, he is allowed to stay as long as he likes.

“There are also certain advantages to being a regular customer," Heigworth says. “A regular guest is referred to as a stamgast, who is entitled to special treatment. He can expect the staff at the coffee house to know his regular order, to remember his preferred table and maybe even save it for him without a reservation!"

The plush interiors of Café Sacher
The plush interiors of Café Sacher

Despite overarching traditions, each Viennese coffee house has its own personality. This thought pops into my mind the next day as I visit Café Sacher at the city’s historic five-star Hotel Sacher.

The iconic coffee house’s decadent sachertorte—crafted from a twin layer of thick chocolate cake separated by a line of apricot jam and topped with chocolate icing—is renowned worldwide. Today, The Original Sachertorte is one of Vienna’s best-known symbols and—to quote the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung—“is widely accepted as a currency of interpersonal relationships around the world". The locals even celebrate National Sachertorte Day (5 December) every year.

Before sampling the culinary gem, however, I have to cool my heels in a serpentine queue at the café, which doesn’t accept reservations. After about 15 minutes, I am finally ushered into a restaurant that looks part art gallery and part Hollywood movie set with its baroque interiors.

Within 10 minutes of placing my order for a torte (to a tuxedo-ed waiter of course), I am spooning into the dense confection created for Prince Wenzel Metternich in the early 19th century.

The cake’s closely guarded recipe, the waiter tells me, dates back to 1832 when a young chef—Franz Sacher—created a stunning cake for the guests of Prince Metternich, the state chancellor. The dessert’s success spurred the fledgling cook’s entrepreneurial ambitions and he launched his own stand-alone confectionery shop. Business grew exponentially, and, in 1876, Franz’s son Eduard opened Hotel Sacher.

It wasn’t all sweet, however. Demel, one of Vienna’s most respected confectioners, gave grief to the Sachers with its near perfect sachertorte replicas. The Sachers acquired a court order in the 1960s to retain a copyright on selling and advertising the cake. This restrained all its rivals from peddling “The Original Sachertorte" and Demel came to the market with the “real Eduard-Sacher-Torte". The jury is still out, though, on which cake is the best.

Although the original family may be long gone, the torte lives on with the famous Sacher moniker. And such is its demand that almost 1,200 Sacher cakes are sold daily. Not to forget the long line of gastronomes—young and old, celebrities and commoners, including yours truly—who queue up at Café Sacher’s door just to be able to sample this manna.