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European Times Vienna: Cafe society - with fries

IT COULD be a scene anywhere in one of central Europe's famous cafes: those homes from home for generations of writers, artists and philosophers discussing life, love and politics over a lengthy coffee, cigarette in hand.

The hiss of another espresso trickling down and the clatter of cup on saucer punctuate the lively background chatter, while plumes of tobacco smoke twirl upward towards the ceiling.

A few feet away a crowd of patrons examines the glorious array of cakes in a glass display case - the essential accompaniment to a morning in Mittel Europa.

Except this is not a scene in Vienna's famed Cafe Central, or Gerbeaud in Budapest, those Habsburg-era meeting places that still breathe the air of the Austro-Hungarian belle epoque.

Instead this latest addition to Vienna's coffee houses has been opened by McDonald's. McCafe is the latest venture of the fast-food giant, with two branches, one on Mariahilfer strasse in downtown Vienna, the other in the Tyrol.

Purists may scoff at the idea of a cafe attached to a hamburger joint, for McCafe serves Big Macs as well as coffee and cakes, but in the fast- living Nineties, when few have time to laze away the hours, McCafe is for many a perfect compromise.

"McCafe is something new for Vienna. It appeals to different kinds of people. Students who would not go to an old-style coffee house come here," said Harald Fasching, deputy manager.

Certainly the decor is livelier and brighter than in many classic coffee houses. The walls are light blue and yellow, while a black marble bar stretches across the floor. But, as tradition demands, the day's newspapers and a selection of magazines are freely available.

McCafe is the latest addition to the revival of cafe life across central Europe. In Prague the famed riverside Cafe Slavia, formerly a favourite haunt of dissident writers such as the Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the secret policemen assigned to watch them, has reopened in a blaze of chrome and marble after being closed for years.

In Budapest the centre of cafe life is now based around Franz Liszt square, by the music academy and the nearby stretch of theatres. The square is home to three cafes and more are planned.

At the turn of the century Budapest boasted more than 300. "Cafe life at the turn of the century was a whole social scene, a melting pot for those who had no place to work or anywhere decent to live, so it was a hot- bed of free thinking full of poets, writers and artists," said Andras Torok, author of Budapest: A Critical Guide.

Communism put an end to that. The workers in the region's capitals took their coffee standing up, in espresso bars. By 1989, when Communism collapsed, Budapest had fewer than a dozen proper cafes.

Now the city awaits the planned reopening of the Central coffee house, once one of the architectural wonders of the Habsburg empire, in October 1999.

"The lamps and the whole interior decoration, like the marble tables, sofas, billiard tables, the games room and the coffee kitchen, moreover even the cups and saucers, are so beautiful that it is impossible to imagine anything more beautiful," wrote one regular at the time.