This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Vienna possesses all the ingredients for the ideal restaurant city. Its centre is small and compact making it easy to move from bar to restaurant to café. Prices are very reasonable – I ate turbot at the Kervansaray restaurant for the same price in euros as it is wholesale in pounds in London – and the service, principally at the hands of bright young men and women who speak far better English than our amateurish German, is friendly and punctilious. Most restaurants tend to open at 11am and stay open right through until 10 or 11pm and Austrian wines just seem to get better, particularly the spicy dry whites made from their distinctive Grüner Veltliner grapes.
The Viennese penchant for ensuring that their stomachs are well looked after is obvious from the sheer number of eating establishments too so it is very easy to fall into an easy rhythm of three good meals a day interspersed with the occasional snack. After two days on such a routine I thought I may be eating like a native until I took my seat in the Opera House close enough to observe an obviously well-fed man in full evening dress and black patent shoes sitting in the front row of the stalls right by the conductor's rostrum. With barely five minutes to go to curtain up, and the violinists enthusiastically tuning up, he pulled out a generously filled ham roll and polished it off with great satisfaction before putting his hand into his other pocket and pulling out a pair of opera glasses. A little something, I realised, to see him through to the canapés in the interval.
The most obvious change since my last visit has been the considerable investment which has effectively seen a new tier of bright, modern restaurants emerge, something that has been happening in numerous big cities over the past decade. But here these seem to have managed to hold on to their distinctive Austrian roots even if the inspiration has been international. There is the new Steirereck in the park opposite the InterContinental Hotel; Restaurant Mak in the new Museum Mak where Helmut Osterreicher is the Head Chef after 20 years at Steirereck; the magnificently renovated Palais Coburg with its extremely stylish wine bar and vast wine cellar and the new DO&CO restaurant in the Haas Haus above their ultra-modern hotel diagonally opposite St. Stephan's Cathedral.
But impressive as all these are, what most intrigued me was to take advantage of our Viennese friends' local knowledge and spend time in those places which had been feeding the Viennese for decades and which would give a distinctive flavour of this very particular city. Not surprisingly perhaps, there were no disappointments.
Our first stop was Gasthaus zu den 3 Hacken which has been extending goodwill and hospitality since the early 19th century. Walking into its warm fug on a very cold day seemed almost pleasure enough but this was enhanced by a fulsome and engaging menu that included five different soups, a salad of the tangy ewes' milk cheese that we came to see as a ubiquitous vegetarian dish on most menus, and huge servings of Wiener Schnitzel, of which the quality of the breadcrumbs I have now come to appreciate, is as important a part of the dish as the meat.
This meal was also my introduction to the Viennese way with horseradish. I really like this condiment and have enjoyed digging it out of the ground, grating it and softening it with cream to go with roast beef. Here, simply very finely grated on to slices of calves and ox tongue, it looked deceptively bland. It was, however, very, very hot although ultimately a useful pretext for a second mug of Czech beer. With excellent desserts, particularly the most enormous serving of apple strudel, the bill for five came to 160 euros.
Immervoll is equally close to St Stephan's but once I was tipped of about this place I was initially more intrigued by the name of this restaurant than anything else. How could anyone have the audacity to name their restaurant 'Always Full'? In fact, it took me no more than a couple of minutes sitting at our table and watching numerous Viennese come and go than I realised that here was a restaurant that fully lives up to its name. It is one of those places where the waitresses seem to know whom their regular customers were coming in to meet and where they were sitting even before the customers had had a chance to look out for them themselves.
The interior comprises an L shaped bar, where customers can sit or stand, and a series of tables at differing heights round the wall. Like Zu den 3 Hacken it feels homely, enhanced by a large, old porcelain heater, but it is much more modern and fashionable with shelves of bottles and glasses hanging above the bar and a much stronger emphasis on salads with the first and main courses. Portions, of beef in aspic, goose liver, Styrian fried chicken and char fish, were equally generous and lunch for 5 came to 117 euros without service and dessert as we moved on to cakes and coffees at the nearby Café Demel.
Our final two recommendations came from very different sources, an Austrian wine maker based in Krems and the writings of the late R W Apple of The New York Times who made himself an expert on Tafelspitz, the classic Austrian boiled beef dish.
To meet up with the wine maker's family we took a 15 minute (and 15 euro) cab ride to an unprepossessing suburb to find Meixner's, a restaurant that has been in the Meixner family for the past 40 years. While his wife, Berta, runs the kitchens, Karl monitors the restaurant and together, he modestly confessed, 'we continue to serve traditional Viennese cooking using recipes that have been handed on to me by my uncle and parents and making them as well as we possibly can.' On the basis of what we ate, most notably their pumpkin soup, duck breast and pheasant wrapped in speck, and drank they succeed admirably.
As does Ewald Plachutta who with his son Mario oversees the three branches of his family-owned restaurants that specialise in Tafelspiz and a dozen other cuts of beef or ox cooked in a rich beef soup and served with some fanfare in copper pans with diced root vegetables and bone marrow alongside apple with horseradish, chive sauce and roast potatoes. There are a dozen other main courses on offer but most customers, Viennese or not, choose one of these boiled beef dishes which the waiting staff serve with great attention and charm. And the joke from the maitre d' when he served the extra bone marrow that I ordered that 'this, they recommend, as good for the manpower' brought howls of laughter from my children. A sign, however, that the Viennese are interested in the pleasures of life other than just food.
Kervansaray, Mahlerstrasse 9, 43. 1.512 88 43, www.hummerbar.at
Gasthaus zu den 3 Hacken, Singerstrasse 28, 43.1. 512 58. 95, www.vinum-wein.at
Immervoll, Weihburgasse 17, 43.1. 513 52 88,
Meixner's, Buchengasse 64, 43.1.604 27 10, www.meixners-gastwirtschaft.at
Plachutta, Wollzeile 38, 43.1. 512 15 77-0, www.plachutta.at