Breaking the Rules

Who Says a Café Must Look Like a Café And Please Smokers? Ambiance at Café der Provinz

Café der Provinz

Converted from the abandoned cooling rooms of a butcher’s shop and decorated with refreshing disregard for the rules of style, the delightfully eccentric Café der Provinz offers a welcome dose of southern European insouciance to the majestic stuffiness of bourgeois Vienna. One of the city’s first smoke-free bistros, it is hidden away in the 8th District, up a narrow cobbled side street that leads to the gleaming white facade of the Maria Treu church, where you then turn in at the sweet scent of French crêpes.

On a Tuesday afternoon in February, the ochre coloured walls of the tiny café host an eclectic mix of people. To the left under an original 1950’s radio, a dark-eyed Mediterranean student brandishing a citron pressé, pours over the books and notepads spread over the table in front of her. She fumbles thoughtfully with her biro, glancing up occasionally at the vaulted roof. Beside her, on a chipped wooden table ringed by mismatching chairs, four middle-aged ladies reminisce about a recent trip to Hamburg while sipping slowly at glasses of kir, a sickly sweet mix of blackcurrant liquor and white wine.

Behind them two young men are deep in animated discussion about Austria’s recent success at the Oscars, one of them tucking into a crêpe filled with honey and banana, the other tackling a giant waffle.

The simple fare is prepared by the waiter on a circular black hotplate behind a long bar that stretches along almost the entire width of the café. Without the distraction of nicotine, the smells wafted through the entire café and made me distinctly hungry as owner, Herwig Walch and I discussed the genesis of the Provinz over a cloudy glass of pastis. Walch, a fit-looking fellow from Upper Austria with a wavy mane of dark hair and a close-cut beard, is actually a trained physiotherapist; but he fell in love with the relaxed bistros of southern France during a stint in Bordeaux and decided to import their ambience to Vienna.

Walch enlisted the help of the celebrated interior architect Fritz Maresch and told him to ignore all those expectations of what a hip Vienna café ought to look like. Hence the multicoloured shades that give the impression of a few coloured napkins haphazardly thrown over the lamps suspended from the ceiling. Hence the side wall decorated with posters of classic movies, past concerts and recent art exhibitions. Hence the feeling this is a home away from home. Walch says his inspiration was in France, but refuses to call the Provinz a French café with the constraints that would entail. So he feels free to serve not only Upper Austrian beer, Belgian waffles and savoury crêpes (or gallettes) with ingredients inspired by the Heurigen wine-taverns of Vienna’s 19th District.

New to the restaurant business, Walch has simply opened the sort of café that he himself would like to spend time in. The food is organic – the crêpes are made of wholesome spelt (Dinkel) grain and buckwheat – and the wooden shelves behind the bar are fully stocked with loose tea. But it’s a matter of taste, he agrees. He doesn’t have any ambitions to convert anyone.

“You can get cola here too, if you want it,” he laughs.

It’s the same with smoking. Two years ago his daughter, who was then 12 years old, pointed out how much his clothes and hair stank sourly of nicotine after he got home from the café. Now just returned from newly smoke-free Italy, and having thoroughly enjoyed the clean air, Walch removed the ashtrays before the debate had fully broken out here. It hasn’t had any negative impact on business, he says. If anything it has awakened interest.

There’s an arty feeling to Café der Provinz. In a back room a Hapsburg era piano serves as a surface to sell books, but is propped open once a week for live jazz evenings. And the café relies very much on business from the thespians of the nearby Theater in der Josefstadt just around the corner, the oldest continuously performing theater in Vienna. In the morning the stage workers pop in for a quick (and cheap) espresso at the bar; towards lunch the actors come in for a snack; and then finally, in the evening, the audience come for a pre-performance aperitif and a dose of Francophile flair: a crêpe with chocolate and banana, 3.90 euros.  a galette with salmon, fresh cheese and egg, 6.90 euros.

Breaking the rules can be delicious.



Café der Provinz

8., Maria-Treu-Gasse 3

Opening hours: Mon-Fri. 8:00-23:00

Sat. 9 – 23:00, Sun. 10:00 -15:00

Tel: 944 22 72

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