Experience the elegant café culture of a bygone era in the best of Prague’s sumptuous grand cafés
What exactly is a “grand café”? This is the term I use to describe European cafés that have heritage and architectural wonder surviving from the golden age of coffee houses. They are the kind of places where you can imagine artists and writers lounging and sharing ideas. This is where smooth coffees and fine pastries are served by aproned waiters amid Baroque or Art Deco interiors. Let me share with you the grand cafés of Prague.
The taps in the bathroom are a swan’s neck and face. The chairs are shiny mahogany with pale yellow leather and the waiters have crisp, immaculate white shirts. The walls are adorned with cream and yellow tiles and the playful mosaic ceiling reminded me of Lego bricks. It was used in the 2006 film the Illusionist, starring Edward Norton. Yet, what most people remember about Café Imperial is its famous jam doughnuts served free with every coffee.
Café Imperial opened in 1914 and is part of the Art Deco Imperial Hotel (from 2800 CZK for a standard double room), a 5-star beauty that has a sumptuous lobby that is worth a peek during a visit to the café. The atmosphere in this café is created by the constant stream of patrons; a mix of locals and tourists in equal measure.
My Viennese coffee (65 CZK) was a concoction where cream threatened to exceed coffee, but in a very nice way. I required no persuasion to order a slice of chocolate cake (79 CZK) as a reward for hours exploring the old town on foot. It's not just cakes on the menu, but steak (297 CZK), hearty breakfasts (from 149 CZK), sea bass, duck, rabbit and salads.
Na poříčí 1072/15. Nearest landmark: metro station náměstí Republiky
Grand Café Orient
This café wins the award for uniqueness. It has a Cubist interior and there can’t be many of those in the world. Cubism is a form of art pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Czech Cubist architect Josef Gočár built the House of the Black Madonna in Prague; the Grand café Orient is on the first floor. Cubism was a short-lived fashion and the café closed down in the 1920s after only 10 years of business. In 2005 it was recreated with the aid of old photographs of the interior.
With 1920s music, brass chandeliers, modernist furniture, waiters with bow ties and tea delivered on square stainless steel trays it feels like a different era. The menu contains plenty of treats like apple strudel, ice cream sundaes and crêpes with sweet fillings. On this occasion I had a healthy goats' cheese salad with cherry tomatoes and sprinkled with walnuts and sunflower seeds (150 CZK). There is a balcony overlooking the street which is a nice spot when the sun shows up.
The same building houses the Czech Cubist Museum (100 CZK), a small collection worth visiting if the café design has inspired you to learn more about Cubism.
Ovocný trh 19. Nearest landmark: Old Town Square
If Art Deco is your style then this is the place to be. There is wall panelling of cherry wood and onyx, big chrome light fittings and tables with limestone tops and chrome bases. Window seats let you look onto the river and back towards the castle and Charles Bridge.
This is the kind of place to spend hours reading a book and watching the world go by. I visited during breakfast when the local pop radio station filled the vast space (live piano music provides the atmosphere in the evenings if that is more your thing). Near me a man sat with a pipe and the day’s news, unperturbed by the vibrations caused by trams rattling by.
I had coffee with a croissant that was warm and flaky; one of the best I can remember tasting in a long time. The extensive menu includes Norwegian salmon, Czech cheeses, salads (from 130 CZK) and beef goulash (150 CZK).
Národní 1012/1. Nearest landmark: opposite National Theatre
Hotel Europa is one of Prague’s most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. The exterior is stunning and, in my opinion, the most eye catching facade on Wenceslas Square. In contrast the café interior is a story of somewhat faded elegance, but still very much eluding to the good times of the early twentieth century. There are elaborate light fittings, marble walls, oval balcony and a piano.
It is the kind of place to get a touch of glamour and not feel guilty at wearing a pair of jeans to do so. The cake cabinet looked rather limp and bland, so I settled for a draught beer (40 CZK). European cafés like this one always have alcohol on the menu. As a result people wishing a quiet beer or glass of wine in a relaxing environment do not have to brave a noisy pub to do so.
Hotel Europa, surprisingly for its location and heritage, offers pretty basic two-star rooms. If you don’t mind roughing it a little this can be one of the most affordable places to reside in the city centre. It featured in the “Mission: Impossible“ film starring Tom Cruise. A double room with no bathroom costs 1,700 CZK.
Václavské náměstí 25. Nearest landmark: Wenceslas Square
Kavárna Obecní dům
A tuxedo or ball gown seems like the only appropriate attire for this place. It is the Art Nouveau antithesis to Café Europa. Polished, perfect and perhaps pretentious it feels like a Tsar’s winter palace. Chandeliers, marble tables, statues and a fountain are the kind of things you will get to enjoy with your coffee. The menu has light meals like salads and sandwiches (from 145 CZK) and a good selection of breakfasts (90-210 CZK).
It is located in the 1912 Municipal House (Obecní dům) which is a building that will stop you in your tracks and definitely use up some megabytes on your camera. The café is popular with tourists because of the central location and it always looked packed whenever I passed. Early morning is probably the best time to be sure of a seat. Although I would not have missed such a gorgeous place for anything I did feel a little uncomfortable: it was perhaps a bit too touristy for me and I could not help but feel underdressed in such opulence.
Namesti Republiky 5. Nearest landmark: it is inside Municipal House, next to the Powder Gate
In 1902 this was the biggest café in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka were once regulars. Then in 1948 the communists shut down Café Louvre; they ripped out the interior and chucked it through the windows. It was restored and re-opend in 1992.
I would describe the interior as chunky with a touch of the gentleman’s club. There are leather sofas, huge dome ceiling lights and near my seat was a massive painting of a woman lounging in stockings. The billiard room with 5 tables is the café‘s most distinguishing feature.
This appeared to be a real social hub for Prague locals and not just some tourist theme park café. The sound of hundreds of different conversations created the atmosphere. I looked around at tables of friends, families and couples all chatting animatedly. This was a sure sign of a grand café staying close to its roots.
I had beef goulash (170 CZK). It was melt in the mouth tender and came with dumplings. I don’t normally eat beef and was expecting something fatty and tough, but it was nothing of the sort and was easily my most memorable meal in Prague.
Národní 116/20. Nearest landmark: Národní třída metro
Where to stay
On my recent visit to Prague I stayed in Hostel Tyn which has a brilliant central location. It is directly behind the Old Town Square in a warren of small streets; it took me a few attempts to find it. The entrance is in a courtyard shared with a gym and very good vegetarian Indian restaurant. The dorm rooms are a bit dark and basic but perfectly acceptable for a mere 350 CZK per night. If you prefer more privacy there are double (from 500 CZK) and single rooms (from 800 CZK).
This map (http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=201247600010388108507.0004995987b64dd5e2e4a) pinpoints the locations of the cafés and the hostel.