Mélange Exported: Austrian Cuisine in London

A Viennese café in London is helping the English appreciate the Gemütlicher things in life

Kipferl, 20 Camden Passage

London’s chic answer to Austrian and Viennese coffee culture | Photo: Johnnie Pakington / Kipferl Ltd.

Living in London, the Viennese Kaffeehaus is one of the things I miss the most. There’s nothing quite like it, with its perfect balance of cosiness and space that creates a bubble of privacy in a public setting. Unfortunately quiet moments like that simply don’t exist in this vast and busy metropolis.

Or so I thought until a few days ago.  I woke up that morning and, after a quick breakfast and a hurried shower, I hopped on my bike, aimed myself in the direction of work, and promptly got swerved off the road by a reckless driver.

So far, so usual.  Slightly shaken, I got off my bike next to Angel tube station and decided to walk through Camden Passage, one of the few pedestrian streets that still exist in London.

On a weekend, the passage is usually full of people queuing up to get into trendy restaurants like The Breakfast Club, which serves above-average English and American style breakfasts.  But today, a weekday, it was beautifully quiet.

I’m not sure if it was the smell of coffee or the word “Spinatknödel” that initially caught my eye, but there I was, standing in front of a sign that read “Kipferl” in large friendly letters.  And in smaller letters: “Austrian / Viennese Café and Kitchen.”  This I had to see.

I stepped in, and was instantly transported back to Vienna.  It was all there: The quiet clinking of coffee cups, the hushed conversational tones, a woman absorbed in a book.  “This isn’t London,” I almost said out loud.  It was so jarring to my senses that I had to sit down and order a slice of Sachertorte to comfort myself.

The first thing you notice about Kipferl is the stunning interior design.  While the black and white pictures of Vienna, Edelweiss buttons on the upholstery, and obligatory mounted stag horns could come off as a kitschy parody of Austrian design, the bright wood panelling and clean lines actually make it feel like a modern take on a Viennese classic.

“The designer is another Austrian who lives here in London,” owner Christian Malnig tells me over coffee, a few days after the bicycle incident.  “When he started designing, he got so excited that he became a shareholder,” he laughs.

Malnig came to London 10 years ago, and in 2008 opened the first incarnation of Kipferl – named after the Austrian version of a croissant – in the form of a small park cafe in Coram’s Field. “It was very small,” he says, “and we couldn’t do a proper kitchen, but we found that people were using it as a cafe… We could have been two or three times bigger.”

So, putting his business education from the WU to use, Malnig and three other Austrian partners decided to invest and expand the business, a risky move especially in the current economic climate. On top of a shaky economy came a tricky local licensing law that requires the front of the shop floor to be a retail area, meaning that hot meals and alcohol can only be served on half the property, in the back.

“There were three places in here before us that went bust, but I thought we could do well with our concept here, having both retail in the front and restaurant in the back,” Christian says, pointing at a shelf that stocks Austrian beers, jams, and coffee, as well as staples like Semmel Knödel and Vanille Zucker. “It’s a planning permission thing, and it brought down the businesses before. But for us it works fine.”

It’s not hard to tell why. Clients can choose to relax with a book and a cup of brew up front, have a meal in the back, or simply browse the goodies on display.  More importantly, the restaurant’s food and drink are brought in from Austria, and prepared in London by Austrians.

The retail section is a revelation – it offers something new to Londoners who’ve had their fill of Asian cuisine, and seems to be a significant draw for North London’s German-speaking community.  More than once, I saw someone walk in with giddy excitement in their eyes, ask a few questions in German, and then walk out having bought some delicacy from ‘back home.’

The good news is, it seems that Londoners are taking extremely well to Viennese cafe culture. Kipferl opened in the Angel area in March 2011 and was breaking even within six months – not bad for a new business.

“It’s hugely successful actually,” Malnig says with pride.  “It’s a new thing in London, it’s not as formal as dinner… you just kind of slouch over your coffee, and you’re allowed, in fact, expected to do that.”

Our conversation ends, and for a brief moment I consider getting back on my bike and heading off.  I glance outside and see a woman in a black raincoat walk by, briskly pulling her collar up over her ears.  That settles Kipit for me.

“Noch einen Kaffee bitte,” I hear myself say.

20 Camden Passage
London, N1 8ED, UK
+44 (0) 207 704 1555

Kipferl Parkcafé Coram’s Field
93 Guilford Street
London, WC1N 1DN
+44 (0)79 6652 4174

Kipferl Parkcafé Gordon Square Kiosk
Gordon Square
London, WC1H 0PD

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