On a winter visit to Vienna, we find the town in fine fettle; lively, prosperous, and full of new Italian restaurants-not all of them good.
The city is looking well these days. Prosperous, in fact. Expensively-dressed Viennese and out-of-towners fill its shops, restaurants, and cafés. Opera houses and concert venues are sold out night after night. Virtually every building within the Ring has a dignified, recently-scrubbed look.
They're lifting the roof of the fabled Hotel Sacher in order to insert an entire new floor without disturbing the architectural character. When finished, the hotel will look much as it has for the past 125 or so years, but cast a slightly larger shadow.
The massive steel and glass Haashaus, whose construction a few years ago caused a commotion, now seems the right counterpoint to the gray stone eminence of its Kärntnerstrasse neighbor, towering Stephansdom. The two buildings are separated by a few meters and almost 1,000 years.
Kohlmarkt, which leads from the Graben to the Hofberg, is now pedestrian-only.
In a town that arguably has as much high-brow culture as any, the huge new MuseumsQuartier is a case of the rich getter richer. Surrounded by the same Baroque walls that once enclosed the Imperial Stables, the $130-million attraction is said to be one of the world's 10 largest cultural complexes, home to major museums, including the Leopold, that features Austrian artists Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, and Oskar Kokoschka, and the new MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien). But these are just the tip of the Quartier iceberg. Spread around its courtyards are other museums, including one for children, performing arts venues, the Architektur Zentrum Wien, trendy shops, and of course a variety of eating places. Perhaps a fondness for Schiele and Klimt influenced our opinion, but we prefer the Leopold to MUMOK.
Vienna's central neighborhoods are so spiffed up one could almost make the case that the town has lost some of its "old world" character. Seemingly everywhere are chic new Italian restaurants, all with precious, graphically-correct menus listing various Primi and Secondi Piatti. They could be in San Francisco or London. There seem to be fewer cozy, well-worn, old Vienna Beisl'n serving time-honored dishes such as Tafelspitz, Schnitzel and Kalbsleber. And the eastern influence in restaurants and taverns offering Gypsy music is simply nowhere to be found, at least in the center. An amazing number of shop windows display mannequins clad in women's lingerie; skimpy thongs and bras, mostly in red and black.
On the other hand, the cafés are unchanged, with Habsburg-style light fixtures and dark wood paneling, lofty ceilings, big windows, and men waiters in black tie. We renounced the Hotel Sofitel's over-heated, over-crowded, over-priced (€17) breakfast room and ate each morning at Café Schwarzenberg, Kärntnerring 17. The Frühstück klein (coffee, rolls, butter, jam) was €4.20.
One much-anticipated new attraction fell short of expectations. The stylish Haus der Musik (Öffnungzeiten 10, hausdermusik.com/en, admission: €10) was long on interactive displays but too technical for my taste. The flashy composer displays seemed somewhat superficial with few authentic artifacts, and the free English-language audio-tape distracted from, rather than enhanced, the static exhibits. One clever interactive exhibit, easily the museum's most popular, allows visitors to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. As the baton slows down or speeds up, so does the on-screen orchestra. But there's only room for one "maestro" at a time and there was a lengthy queue, even in the dead of winter with only a handful of visitors in the museum. But our negative report is in the minority; Haus der Musik has received much praise and the Austrian Museum Prize.
A better experience was a Vienna institution we had ignored on many previous visits. The several floors and endless galleries of the Dorotheum, (Dorotheergasse 17, dorotheum.com/en/gallery.html), a high-class secondhand store and auction house, are a fascinating reflection of Austrian life, filled with objects from farmhouses to Vienna mansions. Oil paintings that seem to the unpracticed eye worthy of the Kunst Historiches Museum, are tagged with estimated values of from $2,000 to $15,000. One floor displays dozens of plain and painted country-style wooden armoires at about $1,500 to $3,000. Rustic farm tables start around $1,000. Perhaps as many as 500 full-length fur coats, ready for auction that day, carried price tags starting around $700. Only a few blocks away, on Stephansplatz, animal rights protesters appealed to fur-wearing shoppers.
The big chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Le Meridian are bereft of old world charm but sometimes offer attractive prices via the Internet. It was such a rate that put us at the Sofitel. Still, the deal wasn't good enough to make up for the impersonal service.
A final thought: BiddingForTravel reports successful bids at priceline.com/ for Vienna four-star hotels from $109 to $122. Among the hotels mentioned are the Marriott, the Sofitel and Intercontinental. The Marriott at $122 is an outstanding value.
Neither Cuisine Minceur, involving intricate, low-cal recipes with complicated sauces, or its successor, California cuisine, emphasizing simpler dishes, ever attracted much of a Viennese following. The city's restaurant menus still display tried and true Austrian dishes influenced by the country's Bohemian, Hungarian, German and Italian neighbors.
Vienna restaurants don't get more traditional than longtime tourist favorite, the 73-year-old Drei Husaren (Weihburggasse 4). The question is, can its elegant Viennese ambiance compensate for prices higher than justified by the food? In addition, there is a per person cover charge.
An authentic Beisl (small Vienna tavern serving traditional cuisine) we've being going to for about 25 years is Smutny (Elisabethstrasse 8), just outside the Ring, not far from the Staatsoper and Musikverein. The great Czech beer, Budvar (€3.2), is served vom fass and you'll pay €9 to 13 for hearty dishes such as Tafelspitz and Wienerschnitzel.
At the more upscale Zum Schwarzen Kameel (Bognergasse 5), a sort of combination luxury restaurant and stand-up delicatessen, the old recipes have a lighter touch. Noteworthy are the several fish entrées including feathery light perch filets.
Cozy (11 tables) Zum Kuckuck (Himmelpfortgasse 15), another old favorite of both Gemütlichkeit staff and readers, offers a cuisine more polished than the usual stick-to-the-ribs Austrian fare. Imaginative, fixed-price, four-course dinner menus start at €36 but a two-course lunch menu, featuring pan fried venison filets, in juniper sauce is only €14.
Restaurant Boheme (Spittelberggasse 19), a wine tavern in the romantic Spittelberg quarter near the Hotel Altstadt, offers moderate prices and consistently good food accompanied by classical background music.
In the same neighborhood, but a bit less refined, is Spatzennest (St. Ulrichsplatz 1), where a fresh vegetable salad, Zwiebelrostbraten (steak topped with fried onions) and a glass of red wine is less than $25.
Take the U1 to Meixner's Gastwirtschaft (Buchengasse 64), an Otto Wiesenthal favorite in the 10th district. He calls it "Viennese cuisine at its best."
Michelin awards its red, Bib Gourmand symbol (good food at moderate prices) to several Vienna restaurants: Vestibühl (Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 2) in the Burgtheater, Fadinger (Wipplingerstrasse 29), Artner (Floragasse 6), Tempel (Praterstrasse 56), Hedrich (Stubenring 2), Gaumenspiel (Zieglergasse 54), and the aforementioned Zum Schwarzen Kameel and Meixner's Gastwirtschaft.
The only restaurant with Gypsy music that's not strictly for tourists is the inexpensive Balkan entry, Beograd (Mühlgasse 15), near the Naschmarkt.
Doug Linton, a sometime Gemütlichkeit contributor and Vienna resident, wrote a book about the city's famed coffee houses (To the Coffee House!, Glattau & Schaar Verlagsges, ISBN 3-9500 828-3-2) and his favorite is Diglas (Wollzeile 10) which has excellent three-course lunch menus for around $15. Two other places with alt Wien style are Café-Restaurant Frauenhuber (Himmelpfortegasse 6) and Café-Restaurant Schwarzenberg (Kärntnerring 17).
You can benefit from our mistake by never setting foot in La Scala (Elisabethstrasse 13), near Le Meridian Hotel, where the food is barely edible, some of it possibly from cans.