Spelunke does dark and swanky for trendy businesspeople

In German, a Spelunke is a dark and shabby bar, often hidden in a grotty backstreet near a harbor. Not unappealing to Viennese, who have a soft spot for the shady and ugly underneath their noble veneers, even if the closest we have to a port is the Danube Canal – which, frankly, really isn’t that seedy. The same could be said for the newly opened restaurant Spelunke in the News Tower across from Schwedenplatz, which does keep the lights dimmed to a minimum but otherwise has nothing in common with the ill-reputed establishments its name references. In fact, it feels more like Beverly Hills or Miami Beach, with tanned men in suits having casual business meetings over drinks. The American vibe extends to the service: Upon entering, you’re welcomed by a hostess who brings you to your table – almost unthinkable in Vienna.

The venue is cavernous, a single large room divided into different sections by a massive bar that is placed dead center. Looming over everything is an enormous street mural that could have been taken straight from the Danube Canal next door but was actually created by painter and graffiti artist Akira Sakurai.

Space is an issue though. Group reservations get roomy booths, but if you’re coming with a date, chances are high you’ll be seated in the front section, where every inch of space is used to squeeze in as many two-person tables as possible. Frequent flyers might feel reminded of economy class – you won’t have to fight for an arm-rest, but moving your chair back to stand up or sit down might spill the drink of the person sitting behind you.

Chicken Fingers and Graffiti

To make up for the missing legroom, the staff treat guests with lots of charm and, thankfully, none of the detached über-coolness usually associated with hip, tongue-in-cheek eateries.

Let’s talk food: The menu offers a well-balanced variety of Austrian classics sprinkled with Asian-inspired starters like their to die for Tuna Tataki – fresh tuna fried for just an instant and then chilled in ice water, served with eggplant cream and avocado. Most of the main dishes are comfort food – ribeye steak, pork chops, mac ‘n’ cheese – which don’t quite fit in the upscale setting, but redeem themselves in spades, especially their Knusprige Keule (crispy drumstick), a fancier name for fried and battered chicken pieces.

The vegetarian options are more than decent: The fried cauliflower would be the meatless pride of every Austrian grandma. To maintain the harbor flair, Spelunke makes a point of serving fish on a stick as well as Fischers Frites, a plate of crunchy sardines with spicy Habanero sauce. The portions are very generous but do come at a price, considering that the menu is more or less elaborate Hausmannskost (Austrian home cooking).

Somehow, it seems that Spelunke couldn’t decide if it wanted to be shabby, chic or fancy and went for all three – but miraculously, the combination works well, aided by good, uncomplicated food and attentive service. Cool yet comfortable, trendy yet down-to-earth, Spelunke is miles from the ocean and doesn’t quite live up to the infamy of its name, but it’s a local favorite already.