My favorite table at Fargo's Twenty Below Coffee Co. is in the front window.
With a cup of coffee in your hands, you can watch the world go by, or at least as much of the world as passes through Fargo.
Not long ago, I sat in my window with a good friend there and we hashed out the timeless truths we had only then just figured out. I may be a little less sure now, but at the time, doing it in a cafe somehow seemed to make it all a little more clear.
My favorite table at Red Raven Espresso Parlor is in the garden out back, but for very different reasons. It could be the alley, actually, because from there you can’t see much of the world at all. But you can talk about anything you like, anything in that whole world, as long as you brought someone along to listen.
And that pretty much summarizes what cafes are for. In the Midwest, many tend to think that the adult world hums along to the tune of tinkling martini glasses and the hiss of beer cans opening. But not all the world believes that the most important adult conversations should happen over a beverage that makes you even less clear about things than when you first started talking.
In some places, real conversations are reserved for having over other beverages. In Vienna, it’s coffee. Sober, sound, serious coffee.
One of the most welcome additions to the Fargo culinary scene has been the return of European coffee culture. And it’s not just the coffee, which in a lot of places in Fargo-Moorhead measures up pretty well to its European cousin. It’s the people, too. The way they talk, what they talk about and what matters to them at the end of the day.
Bars can be nice places, but great literature, movements in art and architecture, revolutions and the rising and falling empires happen in cafes. My favorite cafe in Vienna for giving birth to both the most sublime and the most tragic of stories is Cafe Central. The Vienna Circle of philosophers met there to hammer out the roots of the same 21st century thinking that we all use a hundred times a day.
The cafe was a spot to nurse your cappuccino — which started out as the Kapuziner, named after the color of monkish robes, and then turned into cappuccino in the Viennese style coffeehouses of the then-Austrian city of Trieste — while you contemplated the fate of the empire. And we all have empires we’re contemplating.
More than 100 years ago, Victor Adler argued with the foreign minister of Austria that World War I was a bad idea because it would start a revolution in Russia. Count Berchtold, known to his friends as Leopold Anton Johann Sigismund Josef Korsinus Ferdinand Graf Berchtold von und zu Ungarschitz, Frättling und Püllütz, responded by saying, "And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein (later known as Leon Trotsky) sitting over there at the Cafe Central?"
And, of course, World War I was a bad idea for a lot of reasons, among them that it started a revolution in Russia, and Trotsky led it. If you had walked into Cafe Central in January 1913, you might well have bumped into Trotsky himself or Josip Tito or Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler or even Sigmund Freud, who preferred Cafe Landtman down by the University but, maybe for the company, did at least a day or two at Cafe Central.
Cafe Museum is where Gustav Klimt and his Secessionist buddies turned the art world upside down with paintings like "The Kiss."
Cafe Mozart was home, for a short creative stint, to Orson Welles and Graham Greene drinking their Verlängerters coffees and talking about the script to "The Third Man."
Cafe Ritter was home to decades of artistic and political elites.
But turnabout is fair play, and the formal cafes of the 19th century are sharing Vienna with a new kind of cafe that could almost be called American. In some cases, you’d think you were in Fargo.
They still make the bewildering array of Viennese coffee drinks, but they are hip beyond hip, like the funky '50s-chic Espresso, the laid-back American-style Dirt Water or the oddly named WIRR, where you can get bacon and eggs for breakfast. They all make their home in the up-and-coming hipster neighborhood of Neubau with its vintage record stores and independent cinemas.
And there is still the beloved Konditorei where cakes and cookies take precedence over coffee for a short time and in an atmosphere that you’d expect. Quaint, light, almost sweet. And not a calorie counter anywhere to be seen. Think Nichole's Fine Pastry, but with more pastels.
And me? Often I would sit and read the afternoon away at a classic coffeehouse, to be sure. But for months I took my morning coffee at one of the dozens of the Anker bakeries in a subway station under the opera house. Why? Because it’s cheap, the barista makes 150 cups of coffee a day, has mine ready when I arrive and, frankly, it’s hard to find a bad cup of coffee in Vienna.
In the end, after dozens of cups of the venerable melange, espresso macchiatos, verlängerters, kleiner schwarzers, grosser brauners and einspänners, I will end up this fall in Fargo's Twenty Below, sitting in the window with a good friend, hashing out timeless truths.
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College currently on sabbatical in Vienna. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.