How to Eat Like a Local in Vienna, Austria
Instagrammer Sothany Kim dishes on nicotine breakfasts, third-wave coffee houses and enemy bakers in Austria’s capital
Travelers have been lining up for Vienna’s famous chocolate cake, Sachertorte, for over a century. Composed of two dense genoise layers slicked with apricot jam and blanketed in a fudgy glaze, it’s elegant, understated and rich—much like Vienna itself. The cake’s triumphant (and closely guarded) recipe, created at Hotel Sacher, has become a global sensation with 360,000 of the double-decker desserts mail-ordered each year.
But according to Sothany Kim, a 30-year-old PR executive who's lived in Vienna for over 10 years, locals “hardly ever eat Sachertorte.” If anyone would know, it’s Sothany, the brains behind Vienna’s first and most popular food-focused Instagram (@viennaeats). Speaking from the Austrian capital, she sets the record straight on how the Viennese eat today.
Where does your passion for food come from?
My mom. Maybe it’s an Asian thing, but whenever she calls me, the first thing she asks is if I’ve eaten yet, and the next question is what I’m having for my next meal. It’s casual—when you grow up in a Cambodian family, food is always a topic of conversation
What made you decide to start @viennaeats?
Three or four years ago, there were hardly any hyperlocal restaurant guides in Vienna, so I began posting pictures of what I was eating. Over time it just snowballed. I think of my feed as a sort of food diary. The only difference between now and when I started is that I think more about every step of the process—about angles, lighting, subject matter, best times to post, and so on.
What types of photos spur the most chatter?
Overhead shots of gorgeous brunch spreads. Brunch is a new, fancy fad in Vienna, and people reference my feed for new spots to try. Klyo and Cafe Telegraph are the buzziest places right now. They’re both fantastic.
there's s a new breakfast spot in town and i can truly say it's gonna be one of my favorites from now on: "klyo" offers sweet and salty breakfast dishes until 10.30 pm (!). the eggs, chicken and juices are from the owners' family in styria and the each plate and cup is handmade by his cousin on the picture: avocado with poached egg on crusty bread, chocolate banana porridge (recommendation! it's also vegan!), vanilla blueberry pancakes and smoaked ham with baby spinach and poached eggs on crusty bread ••• "klyo" uraniastr. 1, 1010 vienna
What else is trending in Vienna’s food scene?
Bao, Chinese steamed buns, are having a moment. So is Vietnamese food. Not so long ago, Vietnamese families would open Chinese restaurants, because people were only eating Chinese food. But that’s all changed, and I’m thrilled. There are even a couple of bánh mì spots. Old Quarter is the best of the bunch.
Casual, down-to-earth Japanese restaurants that aren’t sushi bars. I was a Japanese major in college, and when I came back from studying abroad in Tokyo, I was so desperate for ramen that I once flew to Dusseldorf just to eat it. Luckily ramen has since arrived in Vienna, and I enjoy it at least twice a month. Karma Ramen makes the best noodles in town.
What’s going on with Vienna’s storied coffee culture—is it a thing of the past, or do young people still frequent cafés?
It’s a little of both. There used to be only one type of café in Vienna, where waiters were notoriously impolite and newspapers were strewn everywhere. They had this overall sense of gemütlich, the German word for a combination of coziness and laziness, of sitting in your own living room. Of course, that kind of ease is hard to achieve when surrounded by tourists, which is why the historic cafés in the city center aren’t what they once were. But there are a few exceptions, like Cafe Jelinek, just far enough off the beaten path. It’s the real deal—unrenovated, dusty and homey. And not in the guidebooks. Their cakes are fabulous, too, like what your grandma would make on a Sunday afternoon.
But the catch is, traditional cafés don’t serve great coffee. For that, you have to hit up new, third-wave coffee houses specializing in €4 (close to $5) cappuccinos and the like. They don’t have the charm of the old places or that leisurely pace, but the quality of the product is better. Jonas Reindl is my favorite hipster café. It can get too loud sometimes, but it’s pleasant watching fancy people drink fancy coffee.
Of course, Vienna is a busy city, and in day-to-day life, we’re often in too much of a hurry to relax in a café anyway. That’s why a lot of cafés sell “smoker’s breakfast” combos: an espresso and a loosie, to go. I couldn’t believe that when I first moved here from Germany about 10 years ago.
Talk about Vienna’s “cake wars.”
Sachertorte is Vienna’s most famous food. It was created in 1832 by the owner of the Hotel Sacher and was an instant hit. Mr. Sacher then perfected the recipe at a bakery called Demel, which would cause a legal dispute in the 1950s and 60s when both businesses wanted to trademark their cake as the original. Hotel Sacher won the rights to the name in the end, but the businesses are still rivals today. When tourists come, they often try both to see which is better. Austrians—they fight about everything, even cake!
Which is better, Demel’s or Hotel Sacher’s?
You’d be hard-pressed to find any difference in taste. I certainly can’t. But I know Demel’s cake has one layer of apricot jam, while Hotel Sacher’s has two. But let’s be clear: Sachertorte is overrated. It’s basically a dry, super-sweet chocolate cake. Locals don’t eat at Demel or Hotel Sacher unless they have visitors from out of town. I’ve never seen any Viennese person order Sachertorte in a restaurant or café. When they do eat it, it’s usually a defrosted €10 ($12) supermarket version by Coppenrath & Wiese.
What should people be ordering instead?
“Mohr im Hemd” from any Viennese gasthaus or traditional restaurant such as Steman, Gasthaus am Spittelberg or Gmoakeller. It’s a Christmas pudding-shaped chocolate cake filled with molten chocolate and topped with whipped cream. It’s death on a plate and just fantastic—much better than Sachertorte. The dessert has some seriously racist undertones, though, since the name translates to “black person in a white shirt.” There’s a lot of controversy about this, which is why a number of bakeries call it “kuchen im hemd” [cake in a shirt] or “warm chocolate cake.”
One picture of a chocolate brownie is captioned, “just saved my life.” What do you love about chocolate desserts?
I like chocolate on its own, in cookies, in cakes—you name it. I know a few of people who don’t like chocolate, but I think there must be something missing in their lives. Where do they get their happiness from?