1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir

Luncheon on the Terrace

Originally Published May 1959

Saving the best for the last is all very well anywhere except in Vienna. There, even a close and trusted friend is apt to lean over and eat the choice morsel right out from under the very nose of the man who was saving it for himself. The wise man always eats the best first of all, and eats it quickly, even before he himself has taken a look around to see what tempts him on his neighbor's plate. The habit of tasting one another's food is so deeply ingrained in the Viennese that, after going into a lengthy huddle, they order dishes for one another's sake rather than their own. “What's mine is thine” is the rule, at least when they have luncheon on the terrace of a restaurant on the first warm Sunday in May.

Ordinarily, the perfect Viennese host who has asked luncheon guests to a public restaurant knows that everything must be done to give his guests the benefit of the specialties of the restaurant, but he must also preserve as far as possible the atmosphere of home. They must remain completely unaware of all financial and mechanical aspects of the occasion—the table must be reserved, it must be decorated with suitable flowers, the host must pay one or more visits to the restaurant in advance to confer with the captain about the menu and the wines, parts of which he samples on these visits. The seating and staging of the luncheon are arranged, the bill is paid, tips are distributed—or if the host knows the restaurant well, he settles these latter matters later, and uses the opportunity to test a few neglected specialties. The most important thing is that the guest does not, under any circumstances, see a menu or select his own dishes, and he must not, above all, see the host presented with a bill for what he has just eaten. Most unthinkable of all he must under no circumstances see the host total up the bill, carefully count out the money, and then, with a look of calculation, add the percentage he deems correct to leave for the waiter.

Every well-brought-up Viennese knows and practices this ritual up to the point where they all go utterly and lovably Wieneriscb and rake themselves off to a restaurant for an informal meal of tasting rather than eating.

Actually, the Viennese combined the black heart of a poacher, the curiosity of Pandora, and the adventurous zeal of Columbus when they arranged a luncheon party in a public restaurant. They invaded one another's plates so ruthlessly that it was sometimes necessary to hide the best nuggets under mashed potatoes or a similar camouflage. An uninformed Aüslander once drew blood when he defended his dinner from the onslaught of his otherwise extremely well-bred host. The host, a true Viennese, carried a scar across his hand and felt himself deeply injured; he had, after all, persuaded his guest to order the filet just because a bite of it would go so well with the tongue he had ordered for himself.

An outing to Luxenburg, to the Cobenzl, or even to Baden, was an annual event from which anyone else would have returned with, at best, information and experience about one or two dishes, the ones they had chosen for themselves. They might even have had a look at passing dishes, and have made a note to order the Blumenkohl mit Schinken next year—but not the Viennese. A party at a restaurant with six friends meant that everyone returned with a pretty good working knowledge of the restaurant's entire menu, since everyone ate a little off everyone else's plate and everyone had ordered three courses—all of them different—if not from preference, then to widen their friends' gastronomic experience. The guest who returned the menu to the waiter and expressed himself as willing to eat the same as anyone else at the table was not worth inviting; he was a spoilsport and obviously not Viennese.

When the first scent of linden blossoms hit the streets of Vienna, Herr and Fran Baronin invited six friends to join them for a terrace luncheon at a restaurant overlooking the city. All formalities were put aside; they were going to enjoy themselves and they went out early, not to order, but only to be sure of a table that faced the view. While they awaited their guests, Herr Baron glanced at the menu and discovered asparagus Maltese, which Frau Baronin adored. He asked the captain to set aside a portion, and, for safety's sake, a portion also of asparagus with Prager Schinken, ham, for himself.

When Uncle Otto and Tante Lucie came, they also glanced at the menu. Uncle Otto wanted blue trout, but, what was more, he wanted Tante Lucie to have the paprika schnitzel so that he could enjoy a corner of spicy meat after his rather bland fish. He inquired into his host's and hostess' choices and declared himself perfectly satisfied with what they had ordered, when he found out about the asparagus. He was going to have a tender blue trout with boiled potatoes and cucumber salad, a corner of a schnitzel, and just enough asparagus to round out his menu satisfactorily and leave him with room for a really well-done Kaiserchmarrn for dessert. Tante Lucie wasn't at all co-operative; she didn't want any trout, but most important of all, she didn't want the schnitzel. She wanted desperately and hungrily a Wienerwurst mit Sauerkraut, a dish that would go badly with her husband's choice and one he absolutely forbade her to order. She was finally persuaded to have eggs stuffed with caviar, the schnitzel, and a salad, an arrangement she would agree to only after she heard that Frau Baronin had ordered asparagus auf Malteser Art.

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