Forget palaces and art, let’s go to Vienna for the cake and wine – art and culture

For centuries, thinking of Vienna has conjured up images of the most opulent royal residences and public buildings, straight from a fairy tale. There’s the golden, baroque Schoenbrunn Palace, and the towering cathedral of St. Stephen’s. But when I think of the city, the space that comes to mind is a small, dark, crowded bar.

Not just a bar. It’s the Loos American Bar, a hundred-something-year-old modernist beauty. Loos Bar is dressed up in mahogany, with marble floors, smoky mirrors, and a mirror-ceilinged alcove near the door. Several years ago, it was the backdrop for a Gucci commercial. The other major attribute of the bar, besides its glamour, is that it is smoky. Everyone who walks into the bar immediately lights up—as if were illegal to smoke outside, on the street. The practice isn’t discouraged: Bartenders offer crystal ashtrays to anyone who needs one. Even if your first instinct as, say, a New Yorker whose city banned indoor smoking almost 20 years ago, is to start ostentatiously coughing, it isn’t long before you relax and order another daiquiri.

It’s beyond ironic that at a time when so much of the world is encouraged to stay indoors, the Austrian scenario I crave is not to run through the hills like a wannabe Julie Andrews but to be in a jampacked, intense interior. This bar evokes a kinetic sense of energy, crowded with dressed-up people from the nearby Staatsoper (opera house), in the midst of intense conversations and romance. Reenacting that situation any time soon is certainly as far away as a dream, which is perhaps why I want it so badly.

My history with Vienna is not as long as it should be. When I was in college and travelling across Europe, I went to sit on a beach in southern France instead of visiting cousins and seeing the building where my mother grew up, on Argentierstrasse in the Austrian capital. A few years later, an old boyfriend and I decided it would be cooler to go to Prague and stand on the Charles Bridge and drink 25 cent beers than to go to Vienna. We watched The Third Man, one of the very best film noirs, when we got home to compensate for the missed trip.

When I finally did get to Vienna a few years later, I found myself in an unusual position. In my professional life as a food writer, I have been constantly obsessed with finding new places to dine. In Vienna, I want only to eat in the past. The obvious place to do that first is Zum Schwarzen Kameel (“the Black Camel”). Opened in 1618, it was a hangout for Beethoven. Black Camel carries the air of well-dressed Europe, with white cloth tables—even though it a section of it is a deli with such provisions as gorgeous hams. There’s a display of open-faced sandwiches, including thick, cured salmon and egg salad, on bread that’s delivered fresh every day. There’s a more serious menu, too, with schnitzel and a good list of wines, plenty of them from Austria.

But in Vienna my focus isn’t savoury food. It’s the pastry you find when you’re adopting a café lifestyle. Every day, you can walk through the uncrowded streets and find a different, gorgeously appointed café with some historic association in which you can luxuriate over an elegant cup of coffee with frothed milk, served on a silver tray. One such place is Café Landtmann, with its long, wood-paneled room and patterned banquets; this place was a favourite of Sigmund Freud’s. A more opulent place for coffee is Café Sperl, decked out with chandeliers, marble tables, and a good selection of newspapers. I learned not to waste my time with Sacher torte—who needs apricot jam in their chocolate cake?—and became enamored with the imperial torte, layers of chocolate cake interspersed with crispy almond cookies and milk chocolate coating.

The penultimate place for cake is Demel, which has been in existence since 1786. Once past the inevitable line and inside the time-traveling pastry hub, you can see a fantasia of cakes, a Wayne Thiebaud plateau come to life. Demel’s signature dobos torte—vanilla cake sandwiching layers of fluffy chocolate butter cream, with a caramel top—immediately went into my cake hall of fame; it’s over the top to have it with a cup of its dense hot chocolate, seemingly made from melted bars, but it’s hard to make an argument for not having it.

Because even pastry diets need to be interrupted, there are plenty of places to see art, such as the grand Kunsthistorisches Museum, which has room after room of Rubenses and Titians, and the Belvedere, set inside an old summer palace. My favorite, though, is the Carriage Museum, an outpost of the Schoenbrunn that has the most extravagant transportation from the Vienna court on display.  

Then there are hotels that evoke palaces. The Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna is a vast, breathtaking construction built in the 1870’s by Theophil Edvard Hansen, who designed such notable buildings as the Austrian Parliament Building and the old Stock Exchange. The Kempinski’s rooms are modern, though the lobby is outfitted with marble floors and velvet furniture.  Because you have to love a hotel that is born from a cake (even if its not your favorite one), the Sacher Wien is a luxurious property outfitted with antiques, renowned for its service, and set across from the world-renowned Opera House. It was opened in 1862 by the son of the man who invented the Sacher torte.

The next time I go to Vienna, perhaps it will be in the fall. I’ll take a tour of the city’s family wineries; this is the only capital in the world that produces significant wine. You can walk among houses that sprinkle the hills on the city’s outskirts, tasting Gruener Veltliner and Riesling produced on the property. Probably, though, I will head straight to the Loos Bar.

While I dream of regal layered chocolate cakes, I’m thinking about the crisis that the restaurant industry in the U.S. is facing. There are a thousand great charities that support a range of beneficiaries, from individual dining rooms to huge segments of the workforce. If I must pick one today, it is Frontline Foods, which is putting restaurants back to work to feed first responders.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed.)

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