Mélange & Molière

Vienna’s long and noble tradition of literary Kaffeehäuser is alive and well - and reinvented all over town

A minute table and two chairs next to a towering bookshelf was the only seat still available at Café Phil on this rainy evening. How convenient. Too convenient almost. There had to be a catch. But then again, the literary café, bookstore and cinema buffet is hard to categorise.

I let that thought go and took my seat. I instinctively picked up the price list, enviously eyeing the comfortable leather couch across from me occupied by two appealing young women. Still, a plastic chair has its charms; I just had to figure out what they are.

A loud bang ripped me out of my thoughts. The table in front of me, vacant moments ago, was now cluttered with a pile of assorted literary works, the only title that I could make out was; Taiwan Film: Directors and Screenwriters – of interest to someone, no doubt.

“This is today’s suggested reading,” the waiter told me and flashed a smug grin.

I’d been sitting on a plastic chair in a room full of couches for less than five minutes and was nearly bludgeoned by artistic depth. Excellent start.

Customers enjoy a relaxing drink and a good read at Cafe Phil | Photo: Cafe Phil

Indeed Café Phil, one of Vienna’s most interesting literary cafés, has much to offer. The homey atmosphere, rounded off by light jazz or house music playing unobtrusively in the background, will relax even the crankiest of spirits. The Coke I ordered manifested itself in a bottle of Premium Cola, “0.33 litres of cola made out of collective determination and passion,” the label read. A question mark immediately formed in the thought bubble above my head; not that I mind liberalism or activism, mind you, but some things are just ridiculous.

I took a closer look at the bookshelf, battering me from inches away, searching for nothing in particular. Sartre here, Dostoyevsky there, Truman Capote, Günther Grass, as well as the local luminary Selige Zeiten, Brüchige Welt by the Viennese author Robert Menasse caught my eye.

At Phil, the somewhat massive furniture has taken away quite some space that would usually be reserved for shelving in other bookstores. But Phil has used its space well – books have taken over every surface, even the windowsills, and the literary canon is vast, ranging from art history and literary criticism to genre fiction and the more trivial. Prices are average, but there are surprises. By the cashier, I discover a hardcover anthology of letters of twentieth century writers and artists for 7 euros.

However, even paradise has flaws. As I light my cigarette, the waiters surround me and amiably ask me to step outside and finish it on the Raucherbank they have generously installed on the sidewalk. A complimentary umbrella would have been useful, but perhaps that would have stretched the hospitality beyond the plausible. I take a few puffs so as not to have caused the fuss in vain, and return inside.

Apart from books, DVDs and music, the café also sells a bit of furniture. There’s even a pinball machine in there somewhere. During the Viennale film festival, Phil runs a stand at the Gartenbaukino in cooperation with the Alphaville video store, and the café keeps its doors open until 4 in the morning. Another highlight is the ball of fame held every first Saturday of the month, with DJ innovations and visuals by artists. Just make sure you don’t come too early on Mondays, as the cafe doesn’t open until 17:00.

On Rotensterngasse in Vienna’s 2nd District, Lhotzky’s Literaturbuffet takes a more direct approach. No pinball machines, no background music, no books flying at terminal velocity. As a matter of fact, a feeling of disenchantment crept in on entering; Lhotzky’s bookstore-turned-café suffers from severe spatial problems.

Three narrow tables filled the tight space, offering little room for lounging in anything like the sprawling sense of Phil. However, during the summer months the café spills out pleasantly onto the sidewalk and a Clavinova off to one side suggested other convivial moments in store.

But the space clearly limits the offerings, and the somewhat ad hoc arrangement is applicable to the bookshelves as well. The stand in front offers what seems like a random assortment, ranging from crime thrillers to Reclam editions of Kant. After some browsing and confusion about the cataloguing system, I found a copy of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Dream Story) for €9,20 – not really a bargain, but it satisfied my longing for the day.

Lhotzky’s organises readings on many Friday evenings at 19:00, with reservations a must. Some events are also held at the nearby Kriminalmuseum, such as the recent reading from the German language edition of British journalist Michael Morley’s new novel The Profiler (German version: Spider) followed by a live interview with the author in English.

Lhotzky’s will also order out-of-print books and specialises in leftist philosophy and all-around anarchism, hosting round-table discussions on topics from rightwing populism to fascism. It even operated a stand last year at Vienna’s Austro-Marxist Symposium. I left after sipping a slightly too-bitter coffee and picking up an exclusive edition of the Buchstabensuppe (Alphabet Soup), Lhotzky’s newsletter of news and reviews from the publishing houses.

On the more commercial side, Thalia, the Austrian bookstore chain, also offers a chance for readers to sit down and examine their latest literary acquisitions. In the café in Thalia’s Mariahilferstrasse store, it is easy to lean back in the comfortable couches and lose yourself in your thoughts, while observing the hectic commotion in the street below. Almost daily, the café has readings and book signings that attract large crowds and cause a continual repositioning of the seating arrangements.

However, the atmosphere becomes de-personalised and loses the homely touch of Lhotzky’s and Phil, the relationship between the audience and the reader acquiring a strictly mechanical, professional tone. Although it is doubtful whether Arabella Kiesbauer’s book presentation qualifies as a true cultural event, the interest in Thalia readings can exceed expectations, and showing up early to ensure seating is recommended.

The Café Prückerl on the Parkring is one of the best-known literary cafes in Vienna, and aimed at a more formal clientele. At first glance, the air of the Viennese coffee house – the tall ceilings, silver trays, the impressive crystal chandelier —immediately flows over you, and being a shabby student with holes in my shoes, I felt out of place. This feeling didn’t last long, however, due to the faded, lusterless furniture that had probably been around since Yuri Gagarin’s trip to the outer limits.

Still, I discovered that a sweater with the logo of a punk band was not exactly a clever idea, judging by the scornful look the waiter gave me while taking my order. Although far from a bookstore, the café organises readings in the Goldsaal, attracting audiences far greater than would be possible in Lhotzky’s. During the summer, the café organized a Sommerlesereihe (Summer Reading Series), the last of which was held on Sept. 4 on literature and success, featuring several leading Austrian personalities from literature and the arts. The next will be on Oct. 21, entitled Die Welt ist ein Komödienhaus (The World is a House of Comedy). Judging by the look on his face, the waiter could use some comic relief.

A more profound programme is offered by the Café Landtmann, which since 2000 has hosted a continuing theatre project every Sunday evening called Tinte und Kaffee (Ink and Coffee) reincarnating the leading literary and historical figures of the Viennese Kaffeehaus.

As a podium for the free exchange of ideas and worldviews, the Viennese coffee houses were an important constituent of the Central European cultural spirit beginning in the late 19th century, which was unfortunately ruptured and displaced during the era of National Socialism.

A new branch of Tinte und Kaffee is the Melange Fatale, now offered Friday evenings at 19:30. The Melange Fatale examines the often-disparaged influence of women in the Austrian and Central European literary history, whose presence had only been recognized and integrated into the Austrian cultural scene after the Great War.


Café Phil
6., Gumpendorferstrasse 10-12
Tue-Sun: 10:00-1:00
Tel: (01) 581 04 89

Lhotzky’s Literaturbuffet
2., Taborstrasse 28
Entrance from Roternsterngasse
Mon.-Thurs: 9:00-18:00
Fri: 9:00-21:00
Sat: 9:00-17:00
Tel: (01) 276 47 36

Thalia Buchhandlung Wien
6., Mariahilferstrasse 99
Mon.-Wed: 9:30-19:00
Thurs: 9:30-20:00
Fri: 9:30-20:00
Sa: 9:30-18:00
Tel: (01) 5 95 45 50

Café Prückel
1., Stubenring 24
Tel: (43 1) 512 61 15

Café Landtmann
1., Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring 4 (as of Jul. 2012, Universitätsring 4)
(01) 24 100 0
Daily 7:30-midnight

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