Nothing says “cozy autumn morning” better than a tiled oven crackling away in a century-old Viennese coffeehouse. Despite the fact that it is dark and wet outside, and that we are in Vienna, people seem genuinely happy here inside the historic Café Jelinek, in the heart of the 6th district of Mariahilf. What makes this place, a Stammcafé, great is the mix of customers that has the horn-glass hipster sitting next to the elderly neighbor from next door. Whatever their background, everyone seems to be able to agree on the finer things in life, whether that is the famous Eierspeise, one of the many newspapers available for customers to read, or just each other’s company.
While everybody else is having a great time, I squirm on my (also probably a century-old) chair, anxiously passing glances at the waiter. It is the one with the accent, who does the early shift most days and loves to chat with the regulars.
Here is where it gets painful: While I know every detail about his shift schedule and where his parents are from, he doesn’t even seem to recognize me – despite the fact that I have been coming to his café on an almost weekly basis for years. How long have I waited for the day on which he just walks up to my table and, without taking my order, puts a Mélange in front of my caffeine-deprived face.
Even though I make it as easy as possible for him to recognize me by always ordering the exact same thing, sitting on the very same table, I have so far just been another random visitor to him. But maybe things will be different today! Maybe this is the day where I become a regular at Café Jelinek. Finally, he takes notice and walks up to my table, takes out his notepad – and politely asks me what I would like to drink. Bowing to my defeat, I mumble the word “Melange” and bury my head in the newspaper in front of me.
In Vienna, you don’t get to choose your favorite café – the café chooses you. In order to be considered a regular, to get a friendly greeting, or at least an acknowledgment when you walk through the front door, it takes years of regular attendance, generous tips and charming but not obsequious behavior. However, even if you tick all the boxes, it is still the waiter’s decision whether he accepts you into the inner circle.
Of course, there are the tales of excited 20-something German students who move to Vienna and are in awe of the fact that you can, contrary to their homeland, not only actually drink the coffee here, but also get to enjoy it in a setting resembling a king’s court. Once mom and dad come for their first visit to see how their offspring are doing here at the border of Eastern Europe, the student, bustling with pride, takes them to what he believes is his Stammcafé (usually Central, Hawelka, or some other tourist trap). Since they have tried three kinds of cake at the café since moving here, they confidently consider themselves regulars. Seasoned Viennese waiters will identify victims like that immediately, and either completely ignore them for half an hour before taking their order without a word or, even worse, put on a fake smile and go gold-digging for an extra tip by pretending to know who they are.
Think of it like this: Finding your Stammcafé is like falling in love; it cannot be forced, and it will most likely happen when you are least expecting it. Maybe the magic moment will occur when you are rushing to an appointment through an unknown part of town, desperately trying to navigate your cellphone with rain-wet hands. At some point, you decide to give up on your meeting you weren’t in the mood for anyway, and instead enter the next shady-looking establishment in search of a hot beverage to warm up. You push open a creaky paneled door and discover, you guessed it, your Stammcafé, the café of your dreams.