Before Rust (see last post) we spent a week in Vienna consuming way too much food (and just about the right amount of wine). It was only my second visit to Vienna. I thought that after two visits my desire to go again would be less, but oddly that has not proved the case. It may be a small city. It may, whatever the Viennese think, seem calm and relatively quiet after London and Paris, even Bordeaux (and the traffic flows so smoothly after Istanbul and Kathmandu), but there’s so much here that seems to draw me back.
First and foremost for me, Vienna is a city of food. Okay, the galleries and museums are excellent too, but Vienna’s food culture is both varied and offers up very different culinary experiences to what we are used to on the western fringes of Europe. But as well as all the varied styles of restaurant (the Beisls, Heurigen, Buschenschanks et al) you have the cafés which provide the worst temptations imaginable. Here are a list of Viennese highlights of wanton consumption from our trip.
For restaurants, there are so many to choose from, but the Heurigen scene is something to be experienced. Best time for these is really in October when the new wine is available as part-fermented stürm, served frothing and half-fermented in stumpy beer glasses more often than not. Out near the vineyards of Nussdorf is Mayer am Pfarrplatz, an old inn where Beethoven once lived. It has a genuine atmosphere, and in autumn specialises in amazing game with a whole separate menu dedicated to “Wild”. A good alternative is Heuriger Wieninger in Stammersdorferstrasse, over on the other side of the Danube. Both are fine producers of the excellent Wiener Gemischter Satz, a blended wine, often with a slight prickle, made from at least three grape varieties from the hillside vineyards which ring the city rather beautifully. Very refreshing.
Gemischter Satz and Stürm at Mayer-am-Pfarrplatz
The whole Vienna wine experience can be sampled along the vineyard lane that runs from Stammersdorf up the Bisamberg hill. The top end affords panoramic views of the city and the Vienna Woods, and there are plenty of wine taverns at which you can sit and take it all in.
The Beisl is a slightly different concept. The Viennese describe them as a bit like pubs but that’s not quite accurate. They do tend to serve very hearty food – schnitzel, goulash, tafelspitz (a boiled beef dish served usually with horseradish), with good beer and wine. One of the best is Glacis Beisl. Tucked behind the Museum Quarter, not easy to find (but signposted from MUMOK), at first it doesn’t seem all that promising as you go down some stark concrete steps. But it soon opens out into a delightful garden, buzzing in warm weather (it does get busy so best to book). An alternative is Wiener Beisl in Hermanngasse (also 7th district but a ten-to-fifteen minute walk out of the centre). This is more a “locals” kind of place but very typical. Try to sit in the dark, wood panelled room.
Not everyone likes schnitzel, but it is the signature dish of Vienna. The place everyone says to go to is Figlmüller, tucked into a lane between Wollzeile and Backerstrasse. If size matters, then they are right, but in truth this dish can be happily sampled in many places, not least the cafés. The restaurant at the back of the Albertina and run by Do&C0 does a good one, and the terrace there is a nice place to sit if it’s sunny and warm.
Not exactly Viennese cuisine, but if you crave a good steak, then the Argentinian beef is excellent at El Gaucho, the restaurant at the bottom of the Design Tower (Sofitel) over the Danube Canal from Schweden-Platz. It does afford a great opportunity to see how a nice juicy Blaufrankisch works with steak. The bar at the top of this building, Le Loft, was designed by Jean Nouvel with dramatic ceiling artwork by Pipilotti Rist, and is one of the very best vantage points from which to see the city.
400g ribeye with Blaufrankisch “V-Max”, El Gaucho
The café culture of Vienna hardly needs any introduction, but it’s hard to underestimate the pull of a big breakfast or cake and coffee in one of these establishments. They also do an excellent lunch as well. Café Central is probably the most touristy but that shouldn’t put anyone off. The beautiful surroundings are enough for a visit, but the service has always been friendly when I’ve been there. Go early to avoid the tourist queue. Landtmann, near the Burgtheatre, is a favourite of some of the locals I know. The service is generally delivered without a smile, but the place is more full of Austrians (allegedly many of whom are politicians, the Parliament and City Hall both being pretty much opposite over the Ringstrasse). The food here is unquestionably good though. The inside seating is far more interesting than the terrace. Demel on Kohlmarkt is really central and very crowded. The cakes are majestic, if pricey, as one would expect in a place so famous (it is, after all, more than 200 years old). Friends say eat there once, but we have only used it as a takeaway thus far. All the above will serve a good Sacher-Torte unless you specifically want to eat it at the Hotel Sacher’s Café, near the Opera.
Cakey treats, Central and Sacher
The Palmenhaus is not exactly a café, more of a restaurant inside the Jungenstil hothouse, full of tall palms, at the Hofburg end of Burggarten, but its sunny terrace is a great place to sip coffee or one of their long list of cocktails, especially in the evening sun. It’s incredibly popular though.
One final café worth a mention is Korb (on Brandstatte). It’s really different, with a plain sixties interior, cheap tables, looking even a touch tired. But it’s more typical of the places where the city’s workers repair to their time honoured seat for breakfast, where the waiter will know what they want without asking. And if the coffee wasn’t good they’d be out of business.
There is certainly one more culinary experience not to be missed – the city’s legendary Sausage Stands. Here you will find the classic Burenwurst, a spicy Debreziner, the cheesy Kasekrainer and the humble Frankfurter, along with a beer if you have a thirst. Perhaps the most famous of all is the one on the Albertina Platz, just over the road from the Staatsoper. Before an opera there will be a long and very democratic line formed here, a mixture of opera goers, workers heading home, young people and tourists. This particular street food tradition goes back to the days of the Empire when portable sausage boilers hawked their wares throughout the city. In Vienna you are just never very far from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I guess that can seem quite claustrophobic at times, but it’s what gives Vienna its unique culinary character.