Where Time Stands Still

Out-of-date is “in” at Vienna’s Café Hawelka, hardly changed since it opened 70 years ago on Dorotheergasse

99-year-old Leopold Hawelka keeping an eye on his café | Photo: Stefanie Rauchegger

It was shortly after 11 a.m., when I entered Vienna’s legendary Café Hawelka in Dorotheergasse off the Graben. April 24, 2010 – but it could have been 1939 when Leopold and Josefine Hawelka first opened the doors of their new Kaffeehaus. Although their grandson Amir is now the owner, Leopold, dressed neatly in a suit and bow tie, welcomes every guest with a warm smile, every day from 10 to 1 p.m., except on Tuesdays – closing day.

The café owner turned 99 on Apr. 11.

“The business doesn’t work without me,” explained Hawelka with a grin. “We did celebrate my birthday. But you know, 99 is not old.” He laughed.

It took us a while to get the conversation going: He couldn’t hear me, and my Tyrolean dialect seemed to make things a little harder. After several “What was that?” we both leaned over and I talked right into his ear. “Don’t you ever feel like, ‘No, I’m not in the mood for going to the café today’?” I almost screamed in his ear, very much to the other customers’ amusement. “No, I can’t live without it,” he said with melancholy in his voice and nodded at two young women who just stepped into his café.

Leopold’s and his wife Josefine’s first Lokal was the “Kaffee Alt Wien” on Bäckerstraße, which they bought in 1936 before they took over the “Café Ludwig” that soon was renamed to the name that has become so famous. Leopold Hawelka was called up for war in 1939 and therefore forced to close the café.

“They told me that I could re-open in five weeks,” he told me. “I came back after five years.” Although the inner city was heavily damaged after WWII, Café Hawelka remained untouched and opened doors again in 1945.

Determination and assertiveness made Josefine Hawelka the boss of the café until she passed away in 2005, aged 91. Her famous “Buchteln” (Bohemian sweet dumplings filled with jam and baked in a large pan) are still served at 10 every evening. The couple’s son Günther now prepares them according to his grandmother’s recipe.

Another tradition that has been maintained is table-sharing. In such a small space with no more than 100 square meters, seating is at a premium, so the couple would often bring strangers together to share a table or booth. They believed it was a good way to let people find their soul mates.

Leopold Hawelka and I looked around, both in a way, in awe – he at the endurance of his dream, I at the privilege of sharing it, across time and generations. The Hawelkas seem to refuse any kind of change.

“That’s what people love about this café,” Hawelka explained. “We are only doing what our guests wish.”

The ceiling is now almost black; the wooden floor creaks with every step; the walls are dark, covered with posters and yellowed black-and-white family pictures, as well as original drawings and watercolors from Friedensreich Hundertwasser or Ernst Fuchs, both of whom lived in the neighborhood and were regulars at Café Hawelka; when money was short, they paid with their works.

The café, with its Jugendstil bentwood chairs, round marble tables on graceful pedestals of floral wrought iron, was long the haunt for leading Austrian artists, poets and writers. Now it is a mixture: a lot of tourists, surely, but also business-types meeting over coffee, a musician looking over a score just collected at Doblinger’s down the street, students reading and taking notes, academics and journalists still settling into the upholstered benches, fabric worn threadbare from decades of use, in lively discussions of “Gott und die Welt”. In the 60s and 70s it might have been writer H.C. Artmann, cabaretist Helmut Qualtinger and actor Oskar Werner, who got together there, smoking and talking about everything and anything. Others like them may be there now – if we only knew which ones they were…

When Austrian Georg Danzer recorded his song “Jö schau” (“Oh look”) in 1976, including the line “a Nackerter im Hawelka” (“A naked guy at Hawelka”) he created a stir: Everybody went to the café to see if it was really as wicked as the song said!  Thanks to him and others, the café became a “must” for anyone in search of the “real” Vienna.

“Time stands still here, doesn’t it?” the enthusiastic voice of a visitor at a nearby table interrupted my reverie. I nodded and noticed the cigarette in his right hand.

As if seeing the question coming, Leopold Hawelka said, “no one is bothered by the smoke.” Even if the ban on smoking in Austrian restaurants gets through, “Café Hawelka would remain a Viennese Café that allows smoking.”

It was about that time when his son Günther came to us. “Your table is free again,” he said to his father, taking Leopold’s coffee and placing it on his usual table. As his son tried to help him up, he refused, looking at me. “Is the young lady coming too?” the famous café owner asked. I smiled and nodded, although I had run out of questions and could have left the café. The 99-year-old reached his hand out for me and I took it, helping him up, ready to make our way to his table.

As we sat down, he took a sip from his coffee and looked at me. “You aren’t Viennese, are you?” asked Hawelka. Laughingly, I told him about my roots. Afterwards, it was clear to me that it was time to go. He looked tired. We shook hands and I promised to come back soon. At the door, looking back, I tried to memorize this remarkable feeling of forgetting about time, and waved to Leopold Hawelka, who had given me such a gift.

Then with a single step, I crossed over the threshold and back into the rest of my life.

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