Coming and Going On the Water

Motto am Fluss is an aerodynamic boat bonanza in central Vienna; variations of a theme for Paris or Prague

Services | Camilo C. Antonio | September 2010

Motto am Fluss on Vienna's Danube Canal at Schwedenplatz (Photo: Motto am Fluss)

The 2010 summer heat finally hit Vienna in the first week of July, and with it the latest addition to life on the Danube Canal: the nautical café-bar-restaurant, Motto am Fluss. This overnight sensation on the canal port Schiffstation City is a pier complex that looks like an island, which has finally brought a maritime atmosphere to downtown Vienna.

It’s as though one of those classy cruise liners that ply the Lido di Venezia had taken up its moorings just off Schwedenplatz, I thought, approaching it from Rotenturmstrasse, something the local government and corporate authorities have welcomed with great fanfare and it seems, all parties have eagerly embraced. The opening event signified an unusual consensus about the need to rejuvenate what used to be Alt Wiens busy harbour – that once linked the city to the vast Danube river and trade routes to Germany and Southeastern Europe.

"Motto am Fluss has been a project two years in the making," said Bernd Schlacher, the brains and brawn behind the project. And the concept?

"Basically, I was eager to contribute to finally changing the pre-1989 ‘Ostblock look’ that seemed to linger in this part of town," he said. He wanted to add to the recreational venues along the Donaukanal, a trend that began with the Strandbar Hermann, Summer Stage, Adria and Tel Aviv Beaches, and the Badeschiff.

Motto am Fluss is bound to change Schwedenplatz, and may help to cast off the latter’s image as the down side of the 1st District. With luck, it will enhance but not do away with its waterfront atmosphere and the vibrant motley crowd of diverse humanity. Nearby, around the Ruprechtskirche, Vienna’s oldest church, fish restaurants like Aurelius and Kornat on the tree-lined Marc Aurel-Strasse and other klein-aber-fein eateries like Lale (Turkish), Tandoor Plus (Indian) and Reisinger’s (Austrian) on Salzgries tend to be eclipsed by a proliferation of chill-out bars and pubs in the Bermudadreieck, which, like that fabled West Indies maelstrom, sucks in rabble-rousers, louts and pubescents, all gung-ho but mostly unable to hold their drink.

So, was it part of Schlacher’s concept to bring a new dynamic? A new pier for the Twin City Liner linking Vienna to the Slovakian capital Bratislava and Danube river cruises is designed to attract quite a different crowd.

"I saw this as a unique opportunity," he said, "to bring together the very best of my 30-some years experience in the culinary-event and gourmet-business." Indeed, Motto am Fluss blends the most crucial elements and the best features from Schlacher’s multi-enterprises. Moving from Die Wiener, one of 80s Vienna’s chicest locales where he was co-owner, Schlacher took over the original Motto in the 5th District, then, a haven for being gay and worldly, and an open secret among culinary cognoscenti – that metamorphosed into a lavish Casablanca-like cafe where the fashionistas, celebrities, Adabeis or hangers on and Möchtegerne can hobnob with the stars and are imaged as frittering the night away.

Nevertheless, Schlacher has surpassed his initial ambitions and transformed the Motto-brand into something special, moving on to create a series of vibrant, "communication-qua-cultural centers" around a new kind of hype, and to shape chilling out spaces for a lounging generation: in the Kunsthalle bar-restaurant at the Museum Quartier and at the Café-bar am Karlplatz. In the process, he has secured signature niches on a par with Do & Co-entrepreneur Attila Dogodan as an events caterer – as during the Wiener Festwochen and the annual Aids Life Ball, both prestigious events that bring globetrotters to Vienna every year.

The BEHF-architects – who also renovated the original Motto as well as designed the award-winning Fabios’ Façade and Manila’s Waltz Tower – were responsible for designing the whole complex, but Schlacher said that he worked closely with Stefan Ferenczy, a Hungarian-German interior design architect, to create three areas, each with a distinctive atmosphere.

Atop is an unobtrusively elegant French-style café-bistro, with meals and snacks at affordable prices (breakfast from 8:00 to 16:00) on a terrace with commanding views of the Ring Tower to the west, along with the Vienna woods and Kahlenberg hills, while to the east is the Urania Cultural Center, hub of the Viennale Film Festival each Fall. Across the Donaukanal is an ecclectic line up of buildings like a Chorus Line casting call, ranging from time worn Viennese social housing, past Hans Hollein’s Media Tower, to a cool grey glass hotel by Jean Nouvel, one of the architects of the Gasometer-housing project in the 11th District.

Down at the water’s edge along the canal banks, people lie on sundeck chairs in plots of sand around shade umbrellas and bar stalls. Dance-studio pioneer and Keke’s Kitchen proprietor Chris Steiner chuckled, "For a while I wondered about those flecks of sand or mud seeming lost and displaced, but from this lovely vantage point, they begin to make sense."

Alina Serban took her sister and two-year old son visiting from Romania to one of those pseudo-islets. "Filip enjoyed playing with other children while we grownups sat on our beach chairs and got that seaside feeling," she said, "watching the goings to and from this huge boat-like construct that looked posh but not exclusive."

Designer white metal lounge chairs and bleached wooden tables line the Bistro’s northern side, flanking a promenade-cum-catwalk for a floating transient population going East-West or vice-versa. This effectively constitutes an improvised show – a live screen projection where you can watch humanity’s ebb and tide, ever changing, ever flowing. Nuns in traditional habit licking around the dripping scoops of ice creams hanging off their cones, young fathers whose well-fitnessed arms push baby prams, female-chatter bouncing from under shawls or chador, and tourists flip-flopping by in beachwear.

"It all reminds me of the Sequoia café-bar on Zamalek island in the Nile in Cairo," commented Phillip Hödl, just back from an internship in Egypt. That’s a busy venue too, he added, but not as diverse because there’s a minimum consumption charge that the majority cannot afford.

"You have boats going by with tourists clicking cameras; the buildings across the way, with windows like air-con boxes…" then, he pointed to a high-rise building by Morzinplatz, "and there, you have satellite dishes like that, all over Egypt."

At evening, the sunset splashes on the slipstream traffic – counter-flowing on the north and south banks, the concrete bridges turn aflame in primary colours, nondescript facades transform in a strip-tease of moving patterns of light, while in the air, the palpitating scents of night hover over the water.

For something more intimate and exclusive, take the lift or the stairs to the piccobello Italo-restaurant with cocktail bar. Those lucky enough to procure tables get into another world of restaurant feel: that of Venice in the 50s. The colour-scheme, visual, and tactile features trigger memories of Harry’s Bar, or pared-down sleek hotel-restaurants near Piazza di San Marco from that time – red-varnished walls and velvet upholstery glistening like satin off the chairs. Big spherical lamps hanging overhead reflect white-n-black chequered floor like mock disco lights. Through glass windows, the water glides by to distant maritime worlds.

Schlacher wanted both comfort and sophistication, a liebevollen- und gehobenen Stil. By which I understood he sought to avoid a petty bourgeois "wannabe place" and that no detail had been left to chance.

The menu is a mix of Viennese and regional cuisine of international standards offering seasonal dishes from local ingredients mit österreichischen Zutaten. Head chef Mario Bernatovic, back from New York, shares Schlacher’s commitment to slow-food, to local suppliers and organic products, including a special brew of Ottakringer draft beer. Menu include creative combinations like Jacobsmuschel mit Blutwurst, Tullnelfelder Schwein mit Prosciutto auf Auberginecaviar; and Wurzelfleisch vom Mariazeller Saibling. Except for the ubiquitous Wienerschnitzel, all very reasonably priced when compared to other upmarket gourmet venues. And there’s an unbeatable Motto wine list for all kinds of pockets. Among the popular whites from the Wachau and Styrian regions are the Tschermonegg’s Gelber Muskateller and Schönberger’s Chardonnay and the typical Viennese Gemischter Satz from Hajszan.  Favourites also by the glass among the reds from Burgenland include the classical Blaufränkisch from Julia Höpler, Umathum’s Zweigelt, and Gesellmann’s Opus.

The Bistro menu is even more affordable. I’ve savoured the chicken liver, marinated pork ribs, basque-style Tortilla, and chorizo slices on a bed of baby mangold leaves. Among the desserts, the "Schlacher Torte" is the piece de resistance, also available with Take-away Köstlichkeiten from the adjoining Shop where delicatessen and organic products, free range eggs, and freshly baked breads are also sold long hours Monday through Sunday.

So far, Schlacher has had a non-stop deluge of guests, mostly locals, about 2000 on a sunny day, which means at least two seatings equalling some 400 daily diners in the restaurant. Of course, there had been a few glitches, Bistro Manager Jan Rozek admits:  "At times, we were so overwhelmed we couldn’t help disappointing guests."  Some people had to put up with extended waits to get reserved tables and orders. But with a qualified staff of 80 full-timers, making up a pleasant and efficient team, this teething period should ease with experience.

Most interesting though, may be the patrons, and even after several visits, it’s hard to peg the crowd – no overwhelming chickeria nor Paris-Hilton look-alikes nor loud Adabeis; rather a low-key, urban nomad mix, on this egalitarian luxury liner. The piped-in music is mercifully not intrusive, and there’s no appealing to the heavy metal or techno crowd; mostly easy listening, the whispered insinuations of Billy Holiday mixed with post-modern swing… like bossa nova beyond jazz.

Eight weeks after opening, Motto am Fluss has become a regular breakfast haunt, a workplace with a holiday spirit, and no risk of getting seasick. It’s a central place to catch up with friends over wellness drinks and meals. Of the many I have invited there, none has been disappointed.

Café Motto

Schwedenplatz 2 / Franz Josefs Kai

(01) 25 255 - 10

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    the vienna review September 2010