“Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang, der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang.” (“He who doesn’t love wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long”) – for decades, this almost macho saying could be heard from many Austrian tavern tables.
Men still love the first two yet when it comes to the song, we are, unfortunately, no longer quite so sure. There are not many taverns left today in which people still sing or play music as an expression of enjoyment, possibly the one or the other countryside tavern. It was not without good reason that there was often a guitar hanging on the walls of many taverns and guests would be encouraged to use it. However, in the taverns and restaurants of the towns today, this old tradition has now long disappeared. Singing in public is also almost frowned upon and the texts of many old folk songs are mostly long forgotten.
What has remained, though, of the old traditions is the typical Stammtisch or regulars’ table as every tavern has its table where the regulars meet and every regulars’ table has its tavern. Until well into the 1960s, these regulars’ tables were an elite affair where only select guests such as the mayor, doctors, teachers or prosperous farmers would meet. Today, it is no longer so elite but the role of this special place is still the same: here, not only beer and wine are consumed but friendships are cultivated and local stories and news shared. This is also a place where the regulars play Schnapsen which has nothing, as the name may imply, to do with schnapps, a strong liqueur, but is Austria’s favourite card game. It is for good reason that the regulars’ table can often be found near the serving counter and has a sign on it saying that it’s for the regulars or “reserved”. Can anyone sit here as an “imposter”? This depends entirely on the landlord and only the host personally will be able to advise you on this. It is, however, certainly well worth taking a seat here as the regulars’ table is usually the most informative and expert source of information of the whole region. There is even a saying which goes that you don’t need to read the newspaper after a gossip!
The most popular regulars’ table is traditionally the Sunday one at which people meet after church although this isn’t really referred to as a regulars’ table but “Frühschoppen” (Sunday late morning get-together for a drink), or brunch as many say today. Here guests may, for example, also be served a crispy Grillhendl (Roast Chicken).
In Vienna, the typical tavern is also known as a “Beisl”. The Viennese have a very close association with their Beisl and there is even a saying which goes, “Vienna without Beisl is like goulash without the sauce.” Whether rustic or slightly modern, a typical Viennese tavern always has a very special atmosphere. In a dimly lit tavern, hearty fare is often served by a landlord with a rough charm – cliché or reality? It is best you see for yourself! Taverns used to be mainly quite simple yet there are, meanwhile, also quite a few more sophisticated “Beisl” amongst them which serve a pampered clientele, so to speak, of connoisseurs.
The menus of the traditional taverns have always offered hearty, down to earth dishes and some were even eaten on a particular day of the week. On Mondays, for example, dumplings were served, on Fridays, fish was popular and Thursday was traditionally sausage day. It was only when “goulash” took Vienna by storm that the sausage briefly experienced something of a “crisis”. However, the Viennese quickly found a dish that incorporated something of both – sausage with goulash sauce. Today, the tavern blackboard still features the daily dishes – popular dishes such as Beef Soup, Viennese Potato Soup, Beef ragout topped with sausage and fried egg, sausage and gherkin or baked swiss cheese and not forgetting, of course, the Wiener Schnitzel, Backhendl (fried chicken) and Pork Roast. Our very popular Egg Dumplings with leaf salad are also an essential of any menu.
The tavern menu will also include a good selection of desserts such as Mohr im Hemd (chocolate sponge with cream), Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings) or Palatschinken (chopped pancakes). And, if the odd piece of cake remains, Somlauer Nockerl (sponge and vanille creme dessert with chocolate sauce) is served which originates from Austria’s so-called Restlküche (dishes which use up leftovers).
Many taverns still make the recipes in the same way as they were made a hundred years ago whilst some enhance them with an international twist. However, the heart of tavern culture is still good old-fashioned, down to earth food or, as the Austrians also say, “good old Hausmannskost”.
If these hearty dishes are then also served in a sunny Schanigarten, the outdoor seating area, the Austrians will be on a “culinary cloud 9”, so to speak. Incidentally, the first Viennese Schanigarten opened in 1754 on the Graben street in Vienna’s centre. Rumour has it that the word stems from what was said to the apprentice waiter who was known as “Jean” or “Schani”: “Schani, trag’ den Garten hinaus” (“Schani, set up the garden!”)