The Wirtshäuser Wöber and Schnatterl Keep A Long Tradition Down To Earth and Affordable
The Viennese Beisl is more alive and well than it has been in a long time. Several recent waves of fashionable dining may however have done some harm to these basic pubs or inns of Vienna: There was nouvelle cuisine (which translated as "eating tiny specks of stuff you don’t know on a very large plate"). Then there was the post-modern dining fashion that spelled "anything goes," and in fact all sorts of crossover restaurants did go, many of them out of business. We also witnessed the attempts of convenience food chains, theme diners, fake Irish pubs and very Middle Eastern-Italian trattorie to conquer the Austrian palates.
Through all this, the Beisl stayed. Last spring and summer, the Wien Museum paid homage to this institution that not only provides its clients with affordable food but also serves as a real-life chatroom and ersatz living room for those less literarily inclined than the Kaffeehaus patrons and favoring beer over coffee (though of course you get both in both places).
The show "Im Wirtshaus" highlighted the modest, sometimes shady beginnings of the Beisln – the term is of Yiddish origin (bayiss, meaning house) or has Czech roots (payzl, a form of pub), or perhaps it is just the Austrian diminutive of Beiz, again pub. In other words, nobody knows. It ended with a focus on their renaissance, featuring portraits of 23 quintessential Wirtshäuser. A booklet that every visitor received lists 777 more.
The sheer number is one argument. The affordability is another one, not to be taken lightly. An American friend of mine who knows the West and East Coasts and some remaining parts of the world as well is amazed at the fact that you can get a two, sometimes three-course lunch meal ("Menü") of good quality, at a central location, for example right off the Graben, for less than €8. "Where else? In Prague perhaps?" he wonders, quoting a recent Herald Tribune article. "Forget it. A Hamburger with fries: 21 dollars!" Plus, if you ask a Viennese, a Hamburger can’t compare with a Faschiertes anyway.
Some of the eateries have stayed the course and continue to serve the basic needs of their neighborhoods. Others underwent a gentrification process and were made over without losing touch with their roots. Here’s an example of each.
The Wöber I chose because it is five minutes from Webster University, seat of the editorial office of The Vienna Review. I also chose it because hardly any students from Webster ever make it over there, which is a pity. Because the food is good. More than that: The game that is frequently served as part of the Mittagsmenü was bagged by Mr. Wöber himself, in the woods of the Wachau. And he and his staff know how to prepare deer or boar, and what to serve as side dishes. The family of Franz Wöber – who has been running the Beisl on the corner of Schüttauplatz for almost 40 years – also owns vineyards near Retz, north of Vienna. Therefore the wines, too, bear his stamp of approval. The simpler ones you can buy to take away ("über die Straße") for €4 a liter, the bouteilles (.75 liters) of the more refined varietals are served for around €9 – about what you would pay in a wine store. Usually, by the way, one of the two-course Menüs goes for €5. The Monday Schnitzel is €3. Who can ask for less?
Besides the changing specials of the day the Wöber offers about a dozen small-fare plates, fifteen freshly made larger entrées – including Wiener Schnitzel, Cordon Bleu, Cevapcici and other Gasthaus classics – and some fish, baked or grilled. A vegetarian’s heaven it ain’t, like most Beisln. But a neighborhood joint of the honest, down-to-earth variety it definitely is.
To add to that feeling, Herr Bartel, a local historian, occasionally holds evening lectures on the history of Kaisermühlen, the section of the twenty-second district were Wöber and Webster are located. The next ones will be on Jan. 15 and on Feb. 12.
Now for a complete change of scenery: Think upper middle-class, think city, theater, university. Schnattl in the eighth district is the kind of Gasthaus for which the label "Edel-Beisl" was invented and which borders on the luxury restaurant category. But it stays on this side of the border, both price-wise and as far as décor and chi-chi are concerned.
As if to prove the last point, some specials are chalked up on a blackboard just like at Wöber’s and any old Viennese joint. The basic color in the one large room is the kind of dark green again found frequently in simpler environments. The lighting, however, is of a more refined sort and glows warmly and indirectly onto the twenty-odd diners that fill up the space and onto the food.
Not that there is anything to hide. The food is incredibly good. There is a rather limited menu of about half a dozen hors,’ fewer main entrèes, a vegetarian and a "Degustationsmenü" – limited because everything is freshly made, and therefore a five-course dinner can take a lot more than two hours.
But it’s worth it. We recently chose not the Degustation but just a few items from the regular list: Deer praline and duck liver on a red beet and apple chutney; real beef broth with veal milt ravioli; duck breast with cream cabbage; back of lamb with bean goulash.
Now this may sound over the top and into old nouvelle stuff. It’s not. It is simply very satisfying, good, even filling (though not too much) and a worthy experience. Soup and first courses are in the six to fifteen Euro region, main courses are around twenty. Not cheap, but compare this to some of the in places in the city center where the food is no better, on the contrary.
The Schnattl is by no means a recent discovery and even less an insider tip. It’s been around, it evolved, upgraded itself and yet did not lose touch with its roots. They are to be found where the Wöber is, and there is hope that both will continue their course. One of the nice things about Vienna is that you can enjoy these varieties and many in between; and that you won’t regret it.
Wöber, Schüttauplatz 17, 1220 Vienna.
Fri through Tue, 8:30am to 10pm.
Herr Bartel’s Talks on the History of Kaisermühlen, Jan. 15 and on Feb. 12.
Schnattl, Lange Gasse 40, 1080 Vienna. Mon through Fri, 11:30 to 3pm and 6 to 11pm. Phone: 01-4053400.
For a complete listing of places to eat in Vienna, see www.falter.at or get the annual book "Wien, wie es isst" (Falter Verlag) – the 2008 edition just came out, and yours truly wrote about places that serve mostly soups.