Our little foodie tour of Vienna begins in an old coffeehouse, Cafe Central on Herrengasse 14 in the Innere Stadt district. Being a chess aficionado myself there was really no better place for me to visit, for here was a city’s institution that was once the meeting place of chess players, like Tartokower and Bronstein, as well as intellectuals including the likes of Trotsky, Lenin and Freud.
Notwithstanding the presence of many tourists (cameras flash now and then), the place still pretty much feels as authentic as one can expect an old Viennese coffehouse to be. Waiters, the oldest among them appearing a little jaded and surly, are dressed in black ties and maroon jackets, while the soft light hanging from the high arched ceilings ensures the old-world ambience. As if to complete this scene, to my right was a young lesbian couple; at first, they caress each other softly, then they kiss. I felt like an intruder so I look away and examine the menu instead.
For my first Viennese meal, I choose something local – the Cafe Central sausage, served with horseradish, some mustard and bread. Let me say that it’s an interesting meal. For €7.50, however, I couldn’t help thinking that I’m just eating an overrated hotdog!
Worth a visit for that one-off experience.
Cafe Demel and Sacher Eck
These are two cafes in Vienna well-known for their legal battle over who could use the term “Original Sachertorte”. In 1965, the judges ruled in favour of Sacher Eck (Philharmonikerstrasse 4) leaving Cafe Demel (Kohlmarkt 14) to settle for “Demel’s Sachertorte”. But all I really care about is who’s got the better tasting torte. Thus, I set off to find out.
First stop, Demel. Here is a place that’s retained much of its older charms. The well-groomed young ladies, especially, who serve the customers are irresistible. My eyes dart between them and the tasty morsels – I mean the chocoloates and cakes – on display behind the front counter, until I recover my senses and remind myself of the business at hand. I walk towards the bar and grab the young lady’s attention.
“Your torte, please”, I ordered.
“And to drink?” the gorgeous young lass asked me. Not really familiar with what ought to accompany what, I left it to her to decide. She suggested a “melange”. A melange, by the way, is half coffee and half milk, thus different from a cappucino, which is essentially an espresso topped with a frothed milk.
My slice of torte arrives quickly. It’s dry and, to my uneducated pallet, tastes ordinary. Now I’m disappointed, but like a total wanker I “swirl” the pieces about in my mouth in an effort to see if I can find some special taste somewhere. Nothing! OK, so it’s not too sweet and that’s a good thing, yet there really is nothing there to blow my tastebuds away. At day’s end, it strikes me as just another piece of cake.
The following afternoon I resolve to try Sacher Eck’s version. It’s another hit of at least a million callories, but what the hec.
Sacher Eck is ritzy, being attached as it is to the Hotel Sacher. (Actually, for a moment I thought they were part of Sheraton thanks to that “S” logo). Unlike Demel’s, Sacher is chic and definitely modern. No hint of the old-world about this joint. The female usher, who directs me to a seat at the bar, is dressed business-like while her male colleagues are your typical well-coiffed metrosexuals. They’re busy, but handle everything with efficiency and speed.
Again, I order the so-called original torte plus an espresso and both arrive quickly enough. After a couple of bites, I’ve made up my mind. This Sacher Eck torte seems smoother to me and its sweetness more bearable than that over at Demel’s. The torte is nicely balanced. It goes well with the espresso, too.
Overall I’d say try both Sacher and Demel, then make up your mind. Just a small warning: it can be an expensive exercise.
Next up, I have to mention a place that is my only recommendation for that quiet civilised drink (that’s if the smoke doesn’t bother you) in Vienna. Cafe Hawelka (Dorotheergasse 6) is definitely that sort of place that time has forgotten or has itself chosen to forget about time. No low or loud music, just the quiet mutterings of conversations from people seated on seemingly antique tables and chairs. Our waiter, believe it or not, is dressed in a dark suit and a bow-tie. The curtains, too, appear never to have received any care since perhaps from the early 1930’s as the colour has turned from maroon to dirty-white dust. Almost everything inside is made of wood.
Even the survice has a unique touch: your drinks are always delivered on little metal trays. For a long, slow quiet drink, or two, after a day’s shopping or sightseeing around Stephansplatz, Cafe Hawelka is a place to recover and to let the mind be lost somewhere in the imaginings.
Finally, we cannot get past the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s wonderful open-air market located between Kettenbruckengasse and Karlsplatz metro stops. Here is a place where, for a brief time, one can feel utterly lost, to the colours and aromas, of fresh food and fresh produce. I suggest getting off at Kettenbruckengasse then work your way up, ending your stroll in one of the many restaurants – Indian, Vietnamese, Italian or Viennese.
Be careful, though, with the charming vendors. Some of these guys are Omar Sharif wannabes, as they offer you a free taste of this and that. It’s difficult to say no. Before you know it you’ve spent €20 on a bagful of delicious falafels and vegies (peppers, champignons, tomatoes) stuffed with feta cheese. All harmless, except for a slight dent to the budget.