Vienna: An Uninhibited Tour of the City's Idiosyncratic, Playful Design and Seriously Fun Food
It is 9 o'clock on a frigid December morning and the merchants are just beginning to unlock the doors and turn on the lights along Kärntner Strasse, the high-fashion pedestrian shopping district in the heart of Vienna. At 26 Kärntner Strasse is a discreet gilt-etched sign for J. & L. Lobmeyr, a company that for six generations has been producing some of Europe's finest hand-cut crystal. (The chandeliers hanging above the audience at the New York Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center are from Lobmeyr, gifts of the Austrian government.) The store's director of sales and marketing has come in early today to meet with an important customer who is helping to better acquaint Americans with Lobmeyr glass: Renée Price, the director of the Neue Galerie, the three-year-old Manhattan museum devoted to early-20th-century Austrian and German art and design.
Price, who was born in Vienna, travels back here six times a year to scout ideas for exhibits and order the very best Austrian tableware for the museum's tiny, exquisite gift shop. I'm tagging along on this three-day trip to learn about her favorite haunts for art, design and food. "I love the Baroque architecture, the old glass shop signs with the paint peeling off the glass," says Price, as she adjusts the placement of a potted Christmas tree outside Lobmeyr—the tic of a museum director who likes things placed just so.
Inside Lobmeyr, which is more of a glass museum than a wedding-registry destination, Price takes a tour of the displays. Many of the pieces are reproductions from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), a collective of more than 600 artists and artisans who, for a short but fertile period (1903 to 1932), designed every manner of household item—not only textiles, utensils and furniture, but even wastepaper baskets and ice cream scoops. Some of the objects are exuberantly ornamented; others are austere and reduced to the simplest lines, and still look modern today. The Wiener Werkstätte was ultimately a commercial failure, because, as Price explains, "Even though their mission was to design for the masses, they were really making very high-end things for a very elite clientele." Today, original pieces can command six figures at auction.
Because Wiener Werkstätte designs are a prominent part of the Neue Galerie's decorative-arts collection, Price is always looking for reproductions for the museum shop. At Lobmeyr, Price points out one of her favorite examples: glass service "B,"designed in 1912 by Josef Hoffmann, a Wiener Werkstätte founder. The decanter and glasses have a geometric black-enamel pattern baked onto the matte glass. Picking up a pair of crystal tumblers designed by architect Adolf Loos in the late 1920s, Price explains why she chose them for her museum shop. "Hand-cut facets at the base create a magical, ever-changing pattern when the glass is filled with Champagne," she says. According to Lobmeyr's sales and marketing director, when these tumblers first went into production, 100 percent were discarded because of imperfections in that hand-cut grid.Today, the company still has to toss up to half, and it can't make enough for the demand.
After she finishes her business at Lobmeyr, Price suggests we beat the noontime crowd and head over early to Trześniewski, one of her favorite spots for lunch, an outpost of which is around the corner from Lobmeyr. Along the way, she tells me about growing up "very close to nature" in a villa, where her parents still live, next to a large park about a 30-minute tram ride from the city's center. In 1977 Price moved to New York City to study art history at Barnard College, then stayed after graduating to work as a gallery director and art consultant. She was instrumental in the planning of the Neue Galerie, which cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder cofounded as a public showcase for German and Austrian art, including pieces from his own vast collection.
Price likes to grab lunch at Trześniewski, a sliver of a sandwich shop, between appointments, because it's unpretentious and quick. "A student can afford to come here, but it's not fast food," she says of the 100-year-old restaurant. The dark, wood-paneled room and the equally severe expressions on the faces of the sandwich makers behind the counter (uniformed women, all of a certain age) help the colorful open-faced sandwiches stand out. Price orders for us—tuna and egg, cucumber and egg, herring, pepperoni, each ingredient spread on perfectly cut rectangles of fresh, crustless rye and many sprinkled with paprika—and we eat them with shot glasses of beer. (Price likes these sandwiches so much she had several of them replicated at the Neue Galerie's Café Sabarsky, which is a dead ringer for a Mitteleuropa coffeehouse, albeit without the cigarette smoke.)
We leave Trześniewski to walk around the city, and Price points out some of Vienna's signature architecture, such as the small plazas that have remained untouched since the Baroque era. One of Price's favorites is Franziskaner Platz. "It has a beautiful church and one of Vienna's smallest corner cafés, appropriately called Kleines [small] Café. In the summer, they have tables outside, the perfect peaceful setting to enjoy a glass of frizzante [an Italian sparkling wine] with a friend," she says. We pass a Palmers boutique, a ubiquitous local chain with silk negligees and garter belts in the window and drawers filled with quality stockings (for less than those at Wolford, another Austrian brand). Lingerie shops are the Gap of Vienna—there's one on practically every corner. "This is a city for women," says Price.
The sun sets early here in December: time for a clothing change (for Price, a chocolate-velvet dresswith a satin collar designed by Han Feng, who's also a friend) and a quick aperitif at Hotel Sacher, where the opulent suites look like stage sets from the operas after which they are named. The sitting room, with blue velvet couches, is the perfect place to read the International Herald Tribune or order a glass of Champagne before dinner, as we did our first night. The Sacher, where the marmalade-filled Sacher torte was invented, opened its doors in 1876 as a restaurant, with just a few rooms upstairs. Those were often used for illicit liaisons by army officers who attended the opera across the street.
Price tells me this anecdote over dinner in the Rote Bar, the hotel's piano salon, which has blood-red silk walls and dangerously heavy-looking chandeliers. The menu sounds dangerously heavy, too: classic Viennese dishes such as Tafelspitz (boiled beef) and Wiener schnitzel (pan-fried breaded veal) with potatoes. But the food is surprisingly light and expertly executed, sometimes adorned with just a wedge of lemon. Price and I share a bottle of citrusy 2002 Weinberghof Lagler Grüner Veltliner Ried Steinborz Smaragd, a lovely example of Austria's signature grape, and a platter of tender fried chicken showered with fried parsley leaves—a dish she is so partial to that it's all she ever orders here. Noticing an elderly couple dining in silence nearby, she whispers, "I've always thought love affairs started and ended in this bar."
The next morning, a 10-minute cab ride delivers us to Augarten, an 18th-century castle in a formal park landscaped with oak trees and lavender, lovely even in the dead of winter. In business since 1718, Augarten is the country's most important porcelain factory, famous for its statues of Lipizzaner horses. Price wants to look through Augarten's collection of handmade Wiener Werkstätte tea and coffee services to choose a new design for the museum's shop. These ceramics seem especially playful and uninhibited, perhaps due to the influence of the few female potters from this period. The knobs on the lids of Ena Rottenberg's "Shape 20" tea service set, for instance, are sculpted Asian and African faces adorned with headdresses. "This is the most beautiful teacup that I know of," exclaims Price, holding one up to the light to look through the translucent whiteporcelain. She decides to order this set for the shop.
Price points out other favorite dishes already for sale at her museum shop: Hoffmann's black-and-white striped mocha coffee service with its Turkish minaret shape (the Turks introduced coffee to Vienna) and Jutta Sika's Asian-inspired "I Tondi" breakfast service, in which the dark-orange-and-white cup rests off-center in the saucer. "So futuristic," Price says, marveling at the 1901 design.
After a long morning at Augarten, we decide to stop for coffee. Starbucks has arrived in Vienna, but traditional cafés remain the city's social epicenter—public parlors in which to linger over a melange (a Viennese cappuccino). The Tirolerhof is the quintessential Kaffeehaus, complete with assertive waiters and rich pastries, including apple strudel, the house specialty. Floral wool-velour fabric by Wiener Werkstätte architect Otto Wagner covers the banquettes; Price loves it so much, she used the exact same material in Café Sabarsky. Sitting at one of the banquettes, Price says she came to the Tirolerhof frequently as a child after ballet and gymnastics classes. "It's not like a café you would find in Paris," she explains. "This is a living room."
For dinner, Price recommends the restaurant Immervoll, which means "always full" in German and aptly describes this tiny dining room, the trendiest food destination in Vienna. Located on an otherwise dark and empty street off Kärntner Strasse, Immervoll has a vast bar—where a lone businessman is eating dinner and reading a book the night we visit—and just 15 tables. The rest of the room is taken up by a Kachelofen, a giant, tiled wood-burning stove. Because the menu is written in German, I ask the waitress to choose my dinner. My goat cheese salad is drizzled with Kernöl, an intensely flavored pumpkin-seed oil that's such a dark green it looks almost black. Grilled lamb chops are served with green beans wrapped like little gifts in strips of bacon and Steirischer Backhendelsalat—nuggets of fried chicken on a bed of mâche tossed with pumpkin-seed oil—are modern versions of rustic dishes from the Austrian state of Styria, in the foothills of the Alps. It's peasant food for the not-so-proletariat—the other diners that night could pass as models for Helmut Lang, Vienna's most famous fashion designer.
On our last day, we rush around the city trying to fit in as many museums as possible. Vienna has more than 100; we have time for only three. The newly renovated Albertina has an enormous collection of prints and drawings; one of its most famous works on paper is Albrecht Dürer's 1502 watercolor Hare. The Museum füer angewandte Kunst—better known by the acronym MAK—specializes in contemporary and decorative art, and is home to the Wiener Werkstätte archives. Price always stops in at the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum, the city's largest art museum, "if only to look at five Rembrandts," she quips.
Because I can't stop talking about that pumpkin-seed oil from dinner the night before, Price takes me to Julius Meinl am Graben, a supersize food emporium with an espresso bar, restaurant and wine shop, which opened in 2000 as an offshoot of the 142-year-old coffee company Julius Meinl. On the second floor, among a dizzying display of exotic teas and rows of apricot jams, are a dozen brands of Kernöl. Price studies them carefully, finally selecting the most elegant bottle for me, making sure that the green-and-orange Domäne Müller label is unmarred. The museum director cannot help herself: Even at the supermarket, she is scanning the shelves in search of the best design.
Vicky Lowry is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for Elle Decor, The New York Times and Travel + Leisure.