Viennese Coffeehouses

Is it the coffee they come for or the coffeehouse? This question is one of the hot topics in town, as Vienna's café scene has become overpopulated with Starbucks branches and Italian outlets. The ruckus over whether the quality of the coffee or the Atmosphäre is more important is not new, but is becoming fiercer as competition from all sides increases. The result is that the landmark Wiener Kaffeehäuser—the cafés known for centuries as "Vienna's parlors," where everyone from Mozart and Beethoven to Lenin and Andy Warhol were likely to hang out—are smarting from the new guys on the block. On the plus side, their ageless charms remain mostly intact (not to mention their numbers: there are some 1,600 coffeehouses in Vienna), including the sumptuous red-velvet padded booths; the marble-top tables; the rickety yet indestructible Thonet bentwood chairs; the waiters, dressed in Sunday-best outfits; the pastries, cakes, strudels, and rich tortes; the newspapers, magazines, and journals; and, last but not least, a sense that here time stands still. To savor the traditional coffeehouse experience, set aside a morning or an afternoon, or at least a couple of hours, and settle down in the one you've chosen. Read a while, catch up on your letter writing, or plan tomorrow's itinerary: there's no need to worry about overstaying your welcome, even over a single small cup of coffee—though don't expect refills. (Of course, in some of the more opulent coffeehouses your one cup of coffee may cost as much as a meal somewhere else.)

In Austria coffee is never merely coffee. It comes in countless forms and under many names. Ask a waiter for ein Kaffee and you'll get a vacant stare. If you want a black coffee, you must ask for a kleiner or grosser Schwarzer (small or large black coffee, small being the size of a demitasse cup). If you want it strong, add the word gekürzt (shortened); if you want it weaker, verlängert (stretched). If you want your coffee with cream, ask for a Brauner (again gross or klein); say Kaffee Creme if you wish to add the cream yourself (or Kaffee mit Milch extra, bitte if you want to add milk, not cream). Others opt for a Melange, a mild roast with steamed milk (which you can even get mit Haut, with skin, or Verkehrter, with more milk than coffee). The usual after-dinner drink is espresso. Most delightful are the coffee-and-whipped-cream concoctions, universally cherished as Kaffee mit Schlag, a taste that is easily acquired and a menace to all but the very thin. A customer who wants more whipped cream than coffee asks for a Doppelschlag. Hot black coffee in a glass with one knob of whipped cream is an Einspänner (literally, "one-horse coach"—as coachmen needed one hand free to hold the reins). Or you can go to town on a Mazagran, black coffee with ice and a tot of rum, or Eiskaffee, cold coffee with ice cream and whipped cream. Or you can simply order eine Portion Kaffee and have an honest pot of coffee and jug of hot milk. Most coffeehouses offer hot food until about an hour before closing time.

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