Some people visit foreign cities to eat in famous restaurants, places with a celebrity chef and three Michelin stars. I have a little different take: I like to seek out restaurants that take me on a trip back to the past — places where the classic decor evokes days gone by, and you can sip your coffee where historic figures once enjoyed theirs. If you’ve seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, you’ll know the kind of place I mean.
A lot of European cities have these places: see my visit to the Café Central in Vienna. But one city with a wealth of historic eateries is Prague, and on my recent visit, I managed to sample three of them, all situated in or near the city centre.
The Café Imperial
Na Porici 15, website
Even if I hadn’t peeked in the window beforehand, the entrance to the Café Imperial (photo at top) would have told me I was in for an experience worth remembering. The doorway, flanked by two classical female figures and framed with decorative scrollwork, all done in ceramics, was just a small taste of the scene inside.
Stepping through the doors, I was met with more of the same. Every wall, every beam was covered with beautiful white tile work, decorated with floral and animal designs depicting oriental or Moorish scenes. It was a dazzling display, giving the room a grand, classic feeling set off by the white tablecloths and waistcoated waiters.
It looked like a place filled with history, and that was no illusion. Built in 1913-14, the restaurant — and the Imperial Hotel in which it’s located — were among the premier gathering places in Prague for decades. Then, like many other Czech institutions, it became the victim of history. German soldiers took it over during World War II, driving the Czech customers away, and while they returned after the war, the café and the hotel both closed down in 1980.
However, the Café Imperial reopened after a major reconstruction in 2005-2007, with most of its original grandeur restored. And remarkably, the original 1914 ceramics, with their thousands of fragile wall and ceiling tiles, remained intact.
At first I thought I might get nothing but a look at the cafe. The room was full, and the hostess pointed to a chair by the door: “Please wait,” she said. But a minute later she returned, and led me to a table toward the back of the L-shaped room. And I was soon sipping a half-litre of Pilsner Urquell, my favourite brew, and looking at a menu featuring international and Czech dishes.
I chose the chicken broth to start, followed by the duck leg confit with red cabbage, from the Czech side of the menu (though I’m not sure how Czech duck confit really is). The service was quick, and the food was excellent. The chicken “broth” had a whole drumstick in it, and the duck was tender, moist and tasty, perfectly set off by the red cabbage and a couple of traditional dumplings — Czech comfort food.
As good as the food was, the bill was just even better: 523 kirunas (about $21.50 US) for a fine dinner in a beautiful restaurant. Even the prices were from another time.
The Grand Café Orient
19 Ovocný trh, website
The cubist movement was a fairly short-lived phenomenon, seizing the art world for a few years around 1910. But while in most places it was a style of painting and sculpture, in the Czech world it spread to other fields, such as architecture. That’s how the first cubist building in Europe was constructed on a historic street in Prague’s Old Town in 1912.
The building, designed by renowned architect Josef Gočár, raised some controversy: townsfolk were not keen to see a radical, modernist building intrude on a neighbourhood filled with old, baroque structures. But it did keep the statue of a black Madonna from the former house that stood on the site, giving it the name it’s still known by: the House of the Black Madonna. And it incorporated an elegant restaurant, called the Grand Café Orient.
The café quickly became a hot spot for local artists, but it didn’t last that long: it operated for only 10 years, until cubism fell out of fashion. After a gap of about 80 years, however, it was resurrected and restored, and today it’s one of the most elegant places in town to have a coffee or a meal.
It took me a while to find the building. I had expected a tall, radical-looking structure, but the House of Black Madonna is a modest height, in keeping with the neighbourhood. And the Black Madonna herself is easy to pass by, encased in a metal cage on the corner of the building.
The building itself, which now houses a cubist museum, is indeed a handsome structure, looking like a turn-of-the-century restaurant in Paris or London. The effect is magnified by the contrast with the buildings around it — including the Estates Theatre down the street, where Mozart first presented his opera Don Giovanni in 1787.
The café itself is on the second floor (the first floor, in Czech parlance), with views of the historic street outside, and it was well worth the climb. The long, airy room had an Old World feeling, with a beautiful cubist buffet-bar, vertical mirrors on the walls, and furniture and lighting fixtures designed by Gočár himself.
To me the decor was something of a surprise as well. Cubism deconstructs its subjects into geometric shapes and puts them back together as a puzzle of lines and cubes. And the decoration in the room was certainly geometric. However, to me it looked more like Art Deco — but then, I’m no expert.
I was here for a coffee as well as the decor. But having arrived in late afternoon, I found the dessert menu a bit depleted (apparently it had been a busy day). After two or three tries, I found something that hadn’t sold out — a piece of blueberry cake.
The cake was delicious, and the presentation was elegant, with a lovely, oblong pastry dish, a monogrammed cup and a silver tray for the water glass and cream pitcher. I managed to resist taking the first bite until I’d taken a photo. And here it is.
I took a few more shots on the way out, including one of the amazing, geometrically twisting staircase that leads up to the café. I think I’m starting to get into this whole cubism thing …
Národní 22, website
I had heard of the Café Louvre, an unofficial headquarters of Prague’s intelligentsia in the early 1900s. But Prague is not an easy place to find your way around, and I’d pretty much given up getting there. Then, one day, I happened upon it while looking for something else. It was about lunch time, so the deal was sealed: I was meant to dine there.
The Café Louvre earned its historic reputation well. Started in 1902, it quickly became a hangout for the city’s writers, who often used it as their office, and its philosophers, who held regular meetings there. Franz Kafka was a regular, as was Albert Einstein during his professorship in Prague. Famous actors had their own favourite tables. And jazz musicians played in the music club in the cellar.
But like the Café Imperial, the Louvre had its near-fatal brush with history. In 1948 it fell victim to the country’s communist coup: zealots raided the café, trashing the place and throwing the fixtures out the windows. It stayed that way until 1992, when new owners gave it a complete reconstruction and it reopened for business.
Approaching the entrance on the downtown streetfront, I wasn’t sure I had the right place. A small doorway led into a dark stairwell, more like the entrance to a cybercafé or video parlour than a historic restaurant. But up the stairs and I was in a classic-looking foyer with photos of the building in its heyday, and even a gift shop selling Café Louvre souvenirs: the new owners obviously saw the value in rediscovering history.
The room itself was a picture of Golden Age elegance, with arched doorways and pink wallpaper, though I don’t know how closely it recreates the restaurant as it was when Einstein ate here. And I could have lived without the cutesy, “old-time” pictures of kids on the walls. But it was busy, and as I waited for a table I read the one of the large, paper place mats describing the cafe’s historic importance. A bit touristy, but a nice souvenir at least.
The menu was pretty standard, if truth be told — I gave in and had a club sandwich and a beer (Bernard brand instead of Urquell here). But the scene was pleasant, and the sight of the friendly waiters buzzing around the gleaming, old-style bar seemed just about right. And many of the diners seemed to be locals taking a break from work or shopping.
A last surprise: when it was time to pay my bill, the waiter presented a credit card machine with tap technology — the first one I’d seen in Prague. At the Café Louvre, old was truly new again. But then, in a city with a history like Prague’s I guess we should be glad it’s even here.