Thursday, August 09, 2007


Have I told you how often my thoughts turn to opening a Viennese café?

There is something so distinctive about it. You can see glimpses of that culture here, in the fact that people are never asked to leave, that one can sit for hours. But here, there is a lack of sophistication, and an emphasis on the product, the volume of coffee, the size of the scone.

More importantly, no one ever brings you water. No one should ever drink an espresso without water to chase it.

Here, no one seems to care that, all too often, the espresso is too hot, and with a thin crema. And they don't care because they don't know. And then you go to Europe, and it's nearly impossible to be given a bad coffee, and North Americans travel there, and they think to themselves, "Wow, this coffee is fantastic, I wish we could have something like that over in Canada."

And they stop. They stop thinking right there.

I think most North Americans think to themselves that what happens in Europe stays in Europe, even though our consumer culture, and especially our politicians, tell them otherwise. They tell them that the world is their oyster, ready to be shucked.

But bafflingly, instead of asking for a nice rich crema, where, when you gently place sugar upon it, it holds the sweetness there, just for a few seconds, before yielding to let the sugar sink into the darkness, they are handed bitter brown water in a paper cup, and told that this is their coffee, their national heritage, their patrimoine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, did I mention I would only serve Viennese-style coffee in the Viennese café, which means no giant paper cups filled with nice-smelling yet foul-tasting coffee? Have you ever noticed that this is the big thing here? That they make the coffee smell like heaven and taste like shit? A clever bit of misdirection.

Look, I can do the straight talk, the vulgarity which people confuse for honesty here, as I've grown up with it, but I don't want it, and I don't care for it, and I would rather tell people I won't serve them something in my Viennese café because that's the way they like it. Instead, they can learn to like it the way I do, because the way I like things happens is to found inside a tradition (the European one and also in many ways the Asian one) where cultivating the ability to make a nice coffee or arrange flowers, or tie and tie, are all seen as primary, and second to how much one paid to do, or the quantity of things they’ve bought. But these are just tired old points about the vulgarity of North American culture, utterly unscientific and needlessly pompous.

So I would like to open that Viennese café.

My café will have a selection of newspapers and good magazines on racks, and people will be encouraged to linger, although the real money will be made from all those people who don't, god bless them. But they will only be accommodated as an economic necessity, and nothing more.

So I would serve coffee only in the Viennese styles. Especially the one, which, for me and me alone, defines Viennese coffee culture — the Kaisermelange. It's coffee and a raw egg and brandy.

I would feature the Kaisermelange as the house specialty, and most would be grossed out, but those intrepid few who know a good strange thing when they see it, would embrace it. And I would rue the fact that one cannot serve liquor here in Ontario before 11, meaning no one could start their day here in Toronto with a Kaisermelange.

Again, why do we think ourselves to be so civilized?

By the way, when you’re in Vienna, you should try to check out Café Hawelka on Dorotheergasse 6, just off the Graben and behind the road of the hotel where I stayed in Vienna back in1994. The owner, Leopold Hawelka, opened it in 1939, and he's still there, supposedly!

You should have a coffee there if you can.

Many of the cafés in Vienna are expansive, cathedrals to the bitter elixir, but Hawelka is more intimate, darker, perhaps less inviting to tourists, but a refuge to locals. I would like that kind of quality, although I suspect the more open ones would be more popular here in Toronto.

What I don't want is the forced down-to-earth feeling of a Starbucks or Second Cup. I want a place that feels lived in despite being so young.

We would also have real classical musicians playing music there. No jazz. You can go anywhere to listen to jazz. You cannot go many places to listen to live performances of Haydn string quartets while sipping an Einspänner. However, this is completely inauthentic, and just something I'd like to have there.

And maybe I'll learn the cello again, and learn it well enough to play a part in those quartets myself!

It is hard to describe to you how real doing something like this seems to me now. But I'm just thinking out loud here, and have made no commitments to starting this venture.


Gawain said...

Bad coffee: it's flavored coffee. The same problem with flavored tea: Earl Grey which is all bergamot and wood shavings.

Don't forget two more elements of coffee shops: a) semi-formal atmosphere (so that one goes to a cafe more than he goes to have a coffee) and b) conversation. The latter is more badly lacking in the new world than everything else you name in your wonderful post.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Gawain, that's where my own experience wades in.

For many years now, nearly every day at lunch I sit down at a coffee shop near my office with friends and we talk. It is arguably the most theraputic part of the day. For me at least, those two elements were completely satisfied.

But yes, you are absolutely right, we don't want to leave them out.

The Absurdity Miner said...

Oh, sign me up! And let the lineup at Tim Horton's go to hell.

I'm one of those coffe-drinking friends mentioned by Otto - and it's just as therapeutic for me.