Drinks

An Ode to the Viennese Coffee Shop

We should all thank Austria's capital for comfortable chairs and Wi-Fi
Viennese Coffee House in U.S
Photo: Cafe Sabarsky via Facebook

Long before there were roadside diners and Starbucks, and long before Seinfeld and Friends glorified coffee shop culture, there was Vienna. The city, sure, but also its coffee houses.

Records peg the advent of Vienna's (and possibly Europe's) first true coffee shop to the late 1600s. In 1683, after the culmination of a 150-year war with the Ottoman Empire, some enterprising locals opened coffee shops using beans left behind by the Turkish army—or so the story goes.

In the ensuing decades, Vienna's coffee shops became social hubs where artists, politicians and merchants would congregate to discuss issues of the day. A few hundred years later, that communal atmosphere remains the essence of a Viennese coffee shop, and it's something that countless others around the world have since adopted, whether they knew the significance or not.

 

A post shared by Café Sabarsky (@cafesabarsky) on

The aspects of a traditional Viennese café begin with the space itself. Think comfortable chairs, conversation-friendly nooks and a stay-all-day approach that values leisure over impersonal grab-and-go utility. The coffee is often served on a board or a tray, with a side of sparkling water and a small cookie. More substantial fare might include a few of Austria's favorite snacks, like the apple strudel, Linzer torte (a crumbly pastry) and Sacher torte (a dense chocolate cake with apricot glaze and chocolate icing that's usually served with whipped cream). And somewhere between food and drink is the eiskaffee, which combines coffee with vanilla ice cream.

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One of the first stateside locales to embrace Vienna's coffee heritage was Café Sabarsky, which opened in 2001 at the Neue Galerie in New York, a museum dedicated to Austrian and German art. Drawing inspiration straight from the source—from furniture to food—the café serves all manner of Austrian specialties.

Then there's Julius Meinl, an Austrian institution dating back to 1862 that first landed in America in 2002, when the brand opened an outpost in Chicago. To ensure the concept translated perfectly, the company even built the café's furniture and fixtures in Vienna then shipped them to Chicago.

More recent additions include Otto's Coffee and Fine Foods, the newest concept at Dallas's The Adolphus. The grand European-inspired hotel opened in 1912, with Otto's arriving just last month. But the two fit together seamlessly, with the well-designed coffee shop firmly announcing itself as the first Viennese coffee shop in Dallas.

"The style, layout, seating areas and overall comfort of the shop itself are in the Viennese style," Anthony Cournia, general Manager of food and beverage operations at The Adolphus, says. "It's less about speed and getting people in and out. The ambiance, music and vibe are all meant to keep people here."

The former Chicago resident credits Julius Meinl and Café Sabarsky as important muses. "Of course, I also looked to the OGs in Vienna for inspiration, gaining that from Café Central and Café Sacher—the origin of the Sacher torte."

Otto's serves its coffee on a tray with a chocolate sablé cookie and house-charged water. The tortes and strudels are there, as is the eiskaffee. You can—and should—get a waffle dusted with pearl sugar. It's made right behind the counter while you wait, and then wrapped in parcel paper with a string and is less sweet than you'd think. But perhaps even more telling than the coffee and the traditional food is the atmosphere. Swing through Otto's on a weekday morning, and you'll find the place busy and buzzing—tables filled with downtown workers and hotel guests engaged in conversation—with no one in any hurry to leave.

"We're not doing something super progressive here," Cournia says. "We're sticking with the origin of the coffee shop concept. It's worked for hundreds of years."

Kevin Gray is a Dallas-based food, drinks and travel writer. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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