As refined as afternoon tea and as sacred as the Japanese tea ceremony, Kaffee und Kuchen – coffee and cake – is the most civilized of Viennese rituals. It is not an experience to be rushed, and should you try, the archetypal grumpy Viennese waiter will surely sabotage your efforts. Kaffee und Kuchen is as much a cultural as a culinary experience.
The cafés are destinations in their own right: the grand, nineteenth-century Café Central, the suave Café Landtmann and the gloomy, bohemian Café Hawelka are as distinct from each other as Topfenstrudel is from Gugelhupf. In these memorable surroundings, there are newspapers to be read and very likely, fevered artistic or political discussions to be had. Trotsky, it is said, planned world revolution over Kaffee und Kuchen in Vienna, though the contrast between the revolutionary intent and the bourgeois trappings must have been richly comic.
The coffee-and-cake culture is unique to Austria. For coffee, you may order a cappuccino, but you’ll endear yourself to your waiter if instead you go for a Mélange, which is the closest Austrian equivalent. The choice is bewildering: there are Einspänner, kleiner or grosser Brauner, and even the Kaisermélange with egg yolk and brandy. Whatever you order, you’ll most likely also get a small glass of water with your coffee.
The cakes are made with care from high-quality ingredients. It doesn’t make them any healthier, but at least it ensures that the assault on your arteries is likely to be an enjoyable one. Apfelstrudel and the unexpectedly bitter, chocolate
Sachertorte are reliable and ubiquitous, ideally eaten with a heap of schlagobers (whipped cream) on the side. More exotic creations include the multilayered almond-sponge Esterhazytorte and the caramel-topped Dobostorte.
For all their sugary delights, an air of gloom pervades many Viennese cafés: part nostalgia for vanished imperial glories but also surely an acknowledgement of the transitory nature of sensual pleasure. Because finishing a hot, pungently sour cherry strudel is a small death, the last delicious forkful as full of sorrow and yearning as anything by Mahler.
Café Central, 1, Herrengasse 14; Café Landtmann, 1, Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring 4; Café Hawelka, 1, Dorothe-ergasse 6.