Vienna and Budapest are both blessed with atmospheric cafés where you can enjoy anything from a glass of wine to a simple meal to a slice of torte with a Mélange (cappuccino). Cafés such as Vienna’s Central or Budapest’s Gerbeaud have the most famous names and undeniably beautiful interiors, but these venerable institutions are now geared entirely for tourists. I prefer places where you have at least a chance of seeing residents relaxing with friends or reading a newspaper.
Just a short walk from the Sans Souci hotel and the MuseumsQuartier, Sperl has a wonderfully relaxed Old World ambience, with stuccoed ceilings, brass chandeliers and banquettes upholstered in appealingly worn velvet. Cell phones aren’t allowed, and music doesn’t play, making this an ideal space in which to decompress. Portions tend to be large and satisfying, but the torte selection is limited.
Gumpendorfer Strasse 11, Vienna. Tel. (43) 1-586-4158.
Those seeking more of a “Third Man” atmosphere could hardly do better than Prückel, right on the Ringstrasse near the Palais Coburg and the Museum of Applied Arts. The furnishings don’t appear to have changed since the 1950s, making this café feel as much like a time capsule as Sperl does. I indulged in an Eiskaffee, a delicious and refreshing concoction of vanilla ice cream and coffee topped with real whipped cream.
Stubenring 24, Vienna. Tel. (43) 1-512-6115.
This soaring barrel-vaulted conservatory originally served as a Victorian-style palm house for the adjacent Hofburg Palace. In spite of the inspiring interior, the flawless weather prompted us to sit at one of the shady outdoor tables facing the Burggarten. Along with a slice of torte, we opted for glasses of a fresh and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc from the Neusiedlersee and a rich and spicy Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from the Wachau. The service is exceptionally friendly.
Burggarten 1, Vienna. Tel. (43) 1-533-1033.
Mainly tourists now visit Budapest’s New York Café, a neo-baroque confection of ceiling frescoes, serpentine columns and crystal chandeliers. Even so, I couldn’t help but enjoy our light lunch there, surrounded by such joyously extravagant décor. The seasonal asparagus soup with spätzle tasted especially good when paired with a fruity and woodsy Kéknyelű from the north shore of Lake Balaton.
Erzsébet Körút 9-11, Budapest. Tel. (36) 1-886-6167.
The name makes this café sound quaint, but its setting in a flamboyant Renaissance-revival ballroom at the back of the former Párizsi department store is anything but. Far above patrons’ heads, the ceiling glows with gold leaf and a monumental fresco by Károly Lotz. Because the café cannot be seen from Andrássy Avenue, it is often surprisingly quiet, and locals still come to relax. Here, I succumbed to a slice of walnut torte topped with marzipan.
Andrássy Ut 39, Budapest. Tel. (36) 1-461-5835.
In the heart of old Pest, this late 19th-century café does not have the opulence of the New York or Book Café, but it became my favorite of the three. We briefly became regulars, stopping in for a quick espresso or to catch up on postcards and soaking in the rich Mitteleuropa atmosphere. Had time permitted, I could have happily spent entire afternoons with a novel, comfortably installed in one of the leather banquettes.
Károlyi Mihály Utca 9, Budapest. Tel. (36) 1-266-2110.