Herr Hawelka at 100

April 11 2011

Leopold Hawelka of the Café Hawelka, Dorotheergasse 6, Wien 1, is 100 today. I spent dozens of evenings there in the mid-’70s, so I salute him. His wife Josefine died in 2005.

He was born in Bohemia a month before Mahler died, a shoemaker’s son. His family settled in Vienna when he was fourteen and he began to work in the Deierl restaurant – Babenbergerstraße 5, Nibelungengasse 12, telephon 9033 – where he met his future wife.

They married in 1936 and opened their own café, the Kaffee Alt Wien – Bäckerstraße 9 – which still exists, though no longer with a Hawelka connection. In May 1939 they opened the Hawelka. It became one of the great cafés, with an intensely local, rather artistic-literary, ambience. That has gone, now that every Chinese and Indian tourist can read about it in his guide book.

Not that either Frau or Herr Hawelka – unlike some Viennese – would have greeted a guest of any nationality or colour with anything less than their usual courtesy. She was the more outgoing.

(Nor would they have asked them whether they wanted another of whatever it was that they were consuming, a modern catering-school-taught habit, like the still more annoying one of mechanically asking whether everything is OK. Guests are left alone until they say they want something. If necessary all day. Herr Hawelka didn’t go to catering school and waiters in his day didn’t have to be young.)

There are no Stammgäste any more: people or groups of friends who are there every day and more or less own a table. Herr Hawelka hasn’t waited for many years, but he still sits near the door and greets customers.

I am slightly shocked to see, on a recent photograph, a few tables outside in the street.

The business is now run by the Hawelkas’ son Günter and his sons Amir and Michael. Does Amir indicate a recent Moslem connection? The Turks introduced coffee to Vienna in the first place.

When I went there – probably even now – the atmosphere was somewhere between that of a student café and a bourgeois one. Current art and theatre posters plastered one wall. There were paintings: some Fantastic Realism, others. Ceiling and walls were dark brown with nicotine. I remember that they painted them one summer, and the old colour returned within a few months. Plush seats. Coffee. Alcohol of course. Herr Eduard and Herr Fritz. Herr Eduard a mere boy-waiter, still in his thirties. What happened to them?

You might very occasionally order an Einspänner, but Viennese cafés had little to do with whipped cream, or cake. There was none of the German blurring of café and Konditorei. The Viennese ethos is more Turkish, even Arab. What you might order, though, especially in the Hawelka, where they are a speciality, and far, far more delicious-looking than in this picture, are Buchteln or Wuchteln, the only food I ever noticed there:

It was something like Buchteln that Marie Antoinette was thinking of when she said (if she said; it seems doubtful): “Let them eat cake.”

I knew a Marie Antoinette (a Marie Immaculée Antoinette) and she once pointed out that her near-namesake was unfairly maligned for this remark. Even poor families in France or Austria could sometimes afford to bake a special bread enriched with milk, eggs or butter, like a brioche, or with fruit, like Stollen, to eat on Sundays or on a special occasion. That was what she meant. This was not “cake”. She was being insensitive, but not as monstrously callous as she has been made out to be in the English-speaking world.

And it turns out that the source of the story is Rousseau’s Confessions, where he mentions “une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit: Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.

FAZ profile of Herr Hawelka in German.

4 Responses to “Herr Hawelka at 100”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A German Konditorei is a feminine place, a Viennese café a masculine.

    Leopold and Josefine: two imperial names.

    Panettone is an Italian enhanced bread similar to Stollen.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Howard Schultz’s ludicrous claims for Starbucks evoked hollow laughs from the Viennese – but he opened his first branch there in 2001. There is still no Starbucks in Italy.

  3. […] on Herr Hawelka, who died a few days ago, and the smokey glories of his café in Vienna. I did a post on him for his 100th birthday last […]

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