Vienna is also a destination where gastronomes can indulge in consummate culinary experiences
Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss are some of the great former Viennese residents who have strolled this city’s streets. Today, visitors to Vienna have the chance to not only relish the magical sensation of treading the footpaths once used by these legendary musicians but to also enjoy the culinary scene that’s emerging on the global stage from a place that’s long been best known for being a source of timeless melodies.
Coffee houses that have been celebrated since the late 19th century now attract an influx of admirers keen to step back in time and experience Vienna’s famous coffee culture. The restaurant scene is flourishing too, with Viennese chefs creating delightful meals inspired by this metropolis’ rich past.
Drinking coffee and eating good food in Vienna represent more than merely taste. It’s about the experience of being in kaffeehauses (cafés) that brim with people sitting, reading, writing or simply indulging in the glorious pastime of watching the world go by.
Vienna is so globally renowned for its cafés that since October 2011, ‘Viennese Coffee House Culture’ has been listed as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO, the World Heritage counterpart that focuses on intangible aspects of culture.
One of the most famous venues is Café Central (palaisevents.at/en/cafecentral.html), which boasts a sophisticated interior that takes customers back to another epoch. This historical café was opened in 1876 and soon became a pivotal meeting space for the intellectual and creative elite. Today, it’s a gathering place for locals and tourists alike. Here, waiters clad in jackets and bow ties gracefully weave between tables with steaming coffee and decadent cakes while a nimble pianist delicately strokes the ivories.
The original sacher torte, perhaps Vienna’s most famous dessert, can be found at Sacher Café in the Hotel Sacher (sacher.com). The cake has a fascinating origin: In 1832, Franz Sacher was just 16 years old when he unexpectedly had to prepare a new type of cake for a high-ranking guest after the main chef fell sick. The guest wanted something with less emphasis on cream than traditional Viennese cakes, so the trainee created a concoction that still has people lining up in the 21st century for the same dessert – a chocolate biscuit-based cake layered with apricot jam, topped with chocolate icing and served with whipped cream.
Another historical café that’s well worth a visit is Café Hawelka (hawelka.at). This artsy hangout is legendary for its sweet yeast-based rolls called ‘buchteln,’ filled with jam, poppy seeds and curd.
Viennese restaurants also celebrate the city’s rich history. Whether you’re munching on a traditional schnitzel in a cosy bistro or dining at a lavish eatery, Vienna’s restaurants revel in offering the classics while still creating new temptations.
Manager Florian Kovacic and chef Hans Lohengrin Bodingbauer of Zum Roten Bären (+43 1 3176150) work closely together with a simple philosophy to bring traditional food to patrons at their new home-style eatery.
“We like to eat food we enjoy – meat that tastes like meat, fruit that tastes like fruit, and vegetables that taste like vegetables,” Kovacic says with a chuckle. “The meals we serve here are the same meals that have been loved by people for centuries.”
Patrons who dine at Zum Roten Bären can share large dishes at communal tables in an interior that’s based on the old Viennese wirstshaus (traditional restaurant). “We hardly changed anything to maintain the old character of the building,” Kovacic explains.
Labstelle (labstelle.at) is another newcomer that tackles traditional fare with a twist. Here the eclectic décor is modernised with a warm, earthy colour palette of browns, yellows and crèmes accentuated through the use of material like wood, leather and terracotta.
“We cook traditional Austrian food and interpret it through a modern lens. We are not reinventing the wheel though because it’s not necessary,” says Thomas Hahn, owner and general manager of Labstelle.
The Labstelle team focuses on getting to know its customers and paying attention to detail. Chef de cuisine Kristijan Bacvanin and sous chef Marcel Drabits are encouraged to ‘play’ in the kitchen, so that everything comes out looking like artwork. “Running a restaurant isn’t just about the food,” Hahn muses. “It’s about forgetting time and going on a ride. We want all of our customers to ‘live’ the experience.”
Trends don’t matter
“I believe that these days it’s trendy not to follow a trend,” declares Konstantin Filippou, one of Vienna’s most renowned chefs, who recently stormed the limelight with the opening of his restaurant, Konstantin Filippou (konstantinfilippou.com).
As soon as he opened this eponymous venue, word got around swiftly that this was one of the best places in town. Filippou’s credentials bolstered the restaurant’s rapid rise, as his portfolio spans stints at some of the world’s most distinguished restaurants, including Arzak in San Sebastian and Le Gavroche in London. His passion for cuisine and for his hometown is contagious, fuelling the reasons why his food tastes so good.
“Vienna is a cultivated city,” he enthusiastically explains. “I love living here, so there is no better place to have a restaurant.”
Filippou creates meals by taking inspiration from his past. “I am the son of a Greek father and an Austrian mother,” he says. “My multicultural upbringing has also inspired my cooking. Land and sea, Austrian fruits and vegetables combined with Mediterranean products, this is what I love.”
On some days, customers might sample duck liver cream teamed with pear and algae (a recipe that represents the link between land and sea) or perhaps parsley jelly with smoked potato and char caviar, a side dish that modernises traditional cooking techniques.
“Vienna is a melting pot of different cuisines,” Filippou explains. “And it’s an open-minded place to try something new.”
Chef Karl Wrenkh and his manager brother Leo at Wrenkh Wiener Kochsalon (wiener-kochsalon.com) agree that trends come and go, so the challenge is producing food that will keep customers coming back. Although meat is a frequently used component in Viennese cooking, the approach at Wrenkh is ‘flexitarian cuisine,’ mainly vegetarian and vegan fare with a few high-quality meat and fish options.
When asked about the secret of their success, Karl – who runs a culinary school with his brother – smiles and replies: “It’s simple. We cook better.”