How to Eat the Cake of Kings in Austria

How To: In Austria, home of history's biggest proponent of cake eating, Marie Antoinette, the ubiquitous sweet has evolved into a grand tradition. Pam Mandel dishes on making the most of kaffee und kuchen.

04.26.06 | 10:45 PM ET

ViennaPhoto by Pam Mandel

The situation: Feeling a little peckish after checking out the sights on the streets of Vienna, you find yourself in the lobby of the world famous Demel bakery—a palace of pastry that once provided lavender ice cream and other delights to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Located in the pedestrian area of a fancy shopping district, the bakery’s pastel colored salons and ornate chandeliers conjure visions of grandeur. But the walnut and brass pastry case, with its dizzying array of sweet possibilities, can be a trick to navigate. You need a kaffee und kuchen primer.

Get your bearings: All royal bakeries (denoted by the words “K und K Hofbakerei”) generally have a house specialty as well as an overwhelming selection of elaborate desserts. The house cake, often the simplest construction, might consist of the classic sachertorte—a dense chocolate cake with a thin layer of raspberry preserves coated in chocolate ganache. Things get more baroque from there. Consider the fachertorte, a three-layer cake wrapped entirely in a brioche-style crust and topped with fresh whipped cream, as if it were not quite dressed enough on its own.

Take your time surveying your options. A neatly dressed woman will ask if you need help, but it’s perfectly acceptable to respond that you’re just looking. Window shopping for cake this gorgeous is understandable.

vienna, cakePhoto by Pam Mandel

Order like an expert: The ritual varies depending on the bakery. You may find a menu on your table. But if you did your homework at the case, you can just describe the object of your sweet affections to your waitress. At some bakeries, like the Zauner in Bad Ischl, you order at the case and are given a ticket to take with you to your table. A waitress collects the ticket and returns with your cake. At the tiny Edegger-Tax Café in Graz, you can order right from the counter and carry your cake to your seat.

While decorum does not require it, you should order a hot, caffeinated drink with your cake—you’ll need it to offset the plunge you’ll feel once the sugar buzz wears off. Coffee offerings in Austria can be as complex as cake choices. Make it easy on yourself and just describe your favorite drink to the waitress.

Find the right table: The Royal Bakeries are among the few places in Austria that maintain smoking salons, which attract a steady flow of stylish students and gents reading newspapers. The ladies of the city tend to descend between 2 and 4 p.m. and stick to the non-smoking rooms where they take tea while nibbling himbeertorte (raspberry cake) and gossiping about their grandchildren. 

If there are no free tables, it’s completely acceptable to ask to join an individual or group of people with extra seats.

Pay with panache: You’re in a royal establishment—no matter how many hungry people are crowded into the entry way, glaring over your shoulder at your empty plate, you will never be hurried out the door. You’ll need to signify to the staff that you’d like to “Zahlen, bitte.” Your server may scribble you a tab, but is just as likely to simply tell you the total. Pay on the spot. Tipping in Austria is informal—it’s sufficient just to round the amount to the next euro, using the “keep the change” approach. If you’ve particularly enjoyed the service, feel free to tip more, handing the change directly to your server instead of leaving it on the table.

Post-sugar buzz: Austrians are fond of strolling their pretty cities. After you’ve been fortified with sugar, butter, chocolate and caffeine, collect your jacket and hat from the coat rack and take a wander around the neighborhood.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, has an internal beacon that is surprisingly capable of locating the best baked goods in town, almost any town, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Learn more on her personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

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