The Long Table, Graz, Austria
You know how stressful it can be putting on a dinner party for a large group of friends?
You worry about whether you’ve got enough food, whether each course will be ready at the right time, and whether it will taste as good as you hoped.
Well, imagine trying to put on a dinner party for 750 people – and doing it outdoors without your usual kitchen! That’s what happens at the Long Table in the Austrian city of Graz.
There are so many things that could go wrong in a scenario like this, it seems like a miracle that it goes so smoothly. But when you consider just how well the event is run each year, you realise that it’s more than a miracle – it’s because of months of hard work.
It’s one of the most incredible meal experiences I have had in my travels.
What is the Long Table in Graz?
Let me paint a picture of the Long Table in Graz because, with long lines of white linen covered in candelabras and centrepieces of local flowers, what you see is as important as what you taste.
I’ve already written about how the historic centre of Graz is a World Heritage Site, and it’s this beautiful collection of architecture that forms the backdrop for the Long Table dinner.
In front of the Town Hall of Graz, in the iconic Hauptplatz main square, tables are set up in long lines with seating for hundreds of guests. Down a street on the side of the town hall, one more row of tables curves along, creating seating for several hundred more.
Together as one group, we are served each course, five in total. Each dish is made using local ingredients from Austria’s Styria region, where Graz is located.
Waiters and waitresses bring the dishes out as we – the 750 guests – sit and watch the sky change colour as the sun sets. The lights of Graz turn on and the historic buildings around us are illuminated.
Behind the scenes, there are about 25 of the city’s best chefs working together to prepare the meal. Sommeliers have prepared different wines for the various courses and I’m told that more than 1000 bottles of wine are consumed during the evening.
Hour after hour, more food is placed in front of me, my wine glasses are topped up and rarely reach empty. I talk with the other guests around me, enjoy the musical entertainment, and look at the city that has embraced this dinner with pride.
Because the Long Table in Graz is about more than just a party and a meal. It’s about locals celebrating the love for their city and sharing it with visitors. And it’s about showcasing the food and wine that make Graz and this broader Styrian region so special.
Best food in Graz
I get a taste of the best food of Graz right before the Long Table dinner begins. In the courtyard of the Landhaus, the guests of the Long Table gather with the archways of this ornate Renaissance palace surrounding us.
Around the courtyard are small stalls from local producers and this is a chance to try a selection of local beers, taste wines of the region, and eat snacks that have come from nearby farms.
I chat with the producers as I sip on their wine and eat their food. What comes through with each of them is the effort they make to keep their goods true to the region. The special flavours and techniques that the Styrian people are so proud of are why this produce is so popular.
During my stay in Graz, I get the opportunity to experience these local traditions in a few other settings, each significant in its own way. I think they, together, show you a selection of the best food that Graz has to offer.
I think the best place to start is the streets of Graz, where you’ll find quite a few ‘würstelstands’. It literally means ‘sausage stand’ and it’s where you can pick up a quick and cheap meal.
One of the nice things about these sausage stands is that they bring people of all backgrounds together. Don’t be surprised to see a banker in a suit standing next to a garbage collector, both eating the same things and having a chat.
You can usually get a sausage (normally with mustard) for about €3 – and the beer is cheap too. There are some popular würstelstands in the Hauptplatz, just metres from where the Long Table is held. But I would also recommend the one in Franziskanerplatz.
As I’ve mentioned, local producers are proud of the goods they grow – but the residents of Graz are just as appreciative of what is available to them. The daily farmers markets in the heart of the city are the perfect way for urban-dwellers to get fresh fruit and vegetables.
Even if you’re not likely to be doing any cooking, the two main markets at Kaiser-Josef-Platz and Lendplatz have a lot of small cafes and bars around them that offer excellent food and drink.
It’s worth having a browse of the markets and then stopping for something to eat and drink to try some local specialties… all while you watch the action take place around you.
Al fresco cafes
Although Graz is Austria’s second-largest city, it takes many of its cultural influences from the Mediterranean countries to its south, rather than the capital Vienna. This means the cafe culture tends to spill out onto the streets. After lunchtime, it’s more likely to see people with Aperol spritzes than espresso coffees!
To get into the rhythm of Graz, grab an outside table at one of the many small bar cafes and sip a spritz. When you’re ready for some nibbles to go along with the drink, you can try some local produce like Vulkanland cured ham, scarlet runner beans, with freshly-baked bread.
You’ll find lots of options but, if you’re not sure where to start, try along Mariahilferstrasse or the small streets around Färbeplatz.
At the traditional Styrian restaurants, you’ll find regional dishes that include beef goulash, turkey strips in cream sauce, and minced meat fritters. But my favourite dish – that I hope you can try – is ‘backhendl’.
Backhendl are pieces of chicken that have been flavoured with spices and then breaded and deep fried. You may think you have had fried chicken before but, trust me, there is something special about the way the Austrians do it!
In Graz, one of the best places to try the dish is at a restaurant called Der Steirer, which has a great selection of local cuisine. But you can also try the backhendl in some more rustic atmospheres around the region and a fantastic option is a winery-restaurant called Das Kappel.
There are dozens of excellent award-winning restaurants in Graz – which is no surprise, seeing as the city has the reputation as Austria’s culinary capital.
But there is one restaurant that takes things to new heights… quite literally.
The Aiola Upstairs restaurant is located at the top of the Schlossberg, with the remains of the beautiful castle around it. The food is excellent but it’s the view out over Graz that makes a meal here so special.
I would suggest getting there for sunset so you can see the sky change colours as you begin your meal.
While in Graz, it’s worth exploring a bit of the region and for food and drink, I would suggest heading to a ‘buschenschank’. This is such a wonderful way to experience the local products in an authentic setting.
A buschenschank is a traditional Austrian tavern where small wineries are given a special license to serve their own wine. They are not allowed to serve any other packaged drinks like coffee or cola. They’re also not allowed to serve hot meals – just cold food that is made with locally-sourced ingredients.
So what you get is a fantastic selection of wines to try, plus some delicious local delicacies, all in a charming rustic setting.
I spent the afternoon at a buschenschank called Weingut Schauer and I would certainly recommend it. It’s in South Styria, about a 40 minute drive from Graz, and is as friendly as it is tasty!
My time here in Graz has left me so impressed with the city – I love the way it looks, the atmosphere, and definitely the food. It is a perfect option for a city break and for people who are based or travelling in Europe, it makes a lot of sense to spend a couple of nights here.
If you do, I hope these suggestions will be enough to leave you feeling very satisfied with what you’ve had to eat and drink. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.