Like most cities in Central Europe, Prague has a long history of café culture. It is here, in the grandest Prague cafés that the country’s history was made.
Café Culture: Europe’s Cultural and Intellectual Life
Years ago, I read a book about the Vienna Circle. The Circle was a group of intellectuals who included the mathematician Kurt Gödel and the philosopher Wittgenstein. They gathered in a grand café in Vienna regularly. It was in this café that many of the ideas which shaped the 20th Century were formed.
The grand cafés of Prague are no less illustrious. In the grand Café Slavia, Czech historical figures like the composer Antonín Dvořák and film director Miloš Forman met regularly. Café Louvre boasts of being a favourite haunt of Albert Einstein. The café in Hotel Paříž was frequented by international surrealists, including the French poet André Breton.
The End of an Era and New Beginnings
This golden era was sadly brief, a mere few decades around the turn of the century, including those heady interwar years. After the Second World War, the communists took over. These grand Prague cafés become symbols of the intellectual bourgeoisie.
Coffee became an unnecessary, expensive luxury, and the opulent interiors of the cafés were seen as an unnecessary indulgence. The communist regime shut down the cafés or converted them for other use during this time.
The irony, of course, was that these cafés functioned as an affordable place for the intellectual class (who, despite their status in society, were not particularly well off) to study, work and meet. Here they had a comfortable space in which to think, bright electric lights at night to work, and heating, all for the price of a coffee.
Not long after the Velvet Revolution, however, Prague’s indomitable spirit brought back all the intellectual and cultural trappings of its heyday. Private investors with the means (and some without) took risks and resurrected their beautiful cafés, reviving an essential facet of Czech city life.
First on the list of the grand Prague Cafés is Café Savoy. Take a walk from Prague’s Old Town, crossing the Legionnaire Bridge, and you’ll find Café Savoy to the left. Its coffee cream colour facade is elegantly decorated with Rococo flourishes, with its name printed in Art Deco font. We opened its glass panelled doors and stepped into a different time.
MH TIP: Visiting Café Savoy for Brunch
We had read about long waits for brunch but did not experience any when we arrived around noon. We were here during the Christmas period – maybe the delays were in the summer. That said, not long after we were seated, the café began filling up quite quickly. We would thus recommend coming to the Café Savoy for brunch around eleven in the morning.
The first thing that caught our eyes was the ornate Art Deco ceiling. This ceiling, like the rest of the café, was built in 1893, during the heyday of Prague cafés. I loved the ceiling’s simple geometric layout and the contrast against its intricate patterning and gilded embellishments.
The Grand Prague Cafés During the Communist Era
We can understand a bit of Prague’s Grand Cafés during the communist era by looking at the history of Café Savoy’s well-preserved ceiling. This ceiling is protected as a piece of Czech heritage and is listed as a Neo-Renaissance work of art. The owners of the café, fortunately, had the great foresight to cover up the ornate ceiling during the communist era, thus saving it from being destroyed. The irony of it is that the café dining halls were a popular place for the communist party to recruit new members.
It was like this for many of the other grand Prague Cafés. During their communist years, they were drab places, their beautiful interiors stripped or hidden.
Today, the dining halls of the Savoy boast a classic style, with classic 1920’s furniture. Although it is very recently restored and has modern flourishes, it remains a Grand Café through and through.
Brunch at the Café Savoy
When I cracked open the menu, I was immediately nostalgic for the time I studied in Budapest. Classic cafés in the former Austro-Hungarian empire have a style of breakfast that is unique in Europe. The breakfast menu here was quite extensive. Along with the usual suspects (eggs scrambled, boiled, fried or poached), there were also novel items like croissants stuffed with savoury fillings and traditional soups. The Czech breakfast for two included poppy seed rolls and came served with locally produced apple cider.
We ordered a croissant filled with stewed pork, onions and herb, and a meat plate with duck, pork, beef and lamb. And two glasses of Czech wine to go with it all, of course.
The food was excellent. The croissant was buttery, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The pork filling was creamy and delicious. Every piece of meat on the platter was done to perfection. The meat was tender and juicy inside and caramelised on the outside. After I finished the meal, I found myself wondering why more restaurants didn’t serve savoury filled croissants.
Why We Recommend Café Savoy?
Of all the cafés, I thought the Savoy had the most exciting menu. It has many traditional dishes with a twist, or modern recipes with a classic touch. It also serves up some excellent platters where you can have a little bit of everything if you’re feeling indecisive.
If there is one Prague café you have to visit, it is Café Louvre. It’s probably the most authentic of them all. Located on the first floor of the Louvre Palace, its location on an upper floor deters tourists.
Therefore, its clientele is mostly Czech. Its owner prides the café on its conservative menu, which keeps the same items for many years. If they wanted to, patrons could keep ordering the same dishes for a decade or more!
When we were there, we did encounter a few other tourists. Many of them tended to have newly bought books by Franz Kafka laid out on the table beside their meal. In general, the crowd was a good one – Czech regulars or tourists who were there to soak in the café’s history.
The moment you step into the café, you get a strong sense of its tradition. Although its interior was redone in the early 90s, the vibe is going back to its origins in 1902. The unique thing about Café Louvre, though, is the service. The waiters here are classically trained waiters. That might sound weird if you’re not from a place where waiting tables is considered a profession – but in many cities in Europe, being a waiter is a lifetime dedication.
Here, the waiters are operation staff and behave like it. They keep everything moving efficiently while maintaining an unhurried air, and it is a true art. I think the older waiters here have been around since the café reopened after its restoration in 1992
Café Louvre’s Famous Patrons
Café Louvre’s claim to fame is that Albert Einstien was a regular. He often visited when he was teaching in Prague before World War I. It can also boast of other well-known figures like Franz Kafka, who was a member of the German Philosophical Circle. This Circle met regularly at the café every fortnight, discussing ideas that would greatly influence the 20th Century.
The Grand Café Telephone Network
At the entrance to the casual dining hall of the café is a large map of Prague. On this map are a ring-dial telephone and several buttons listing different prominent cafés in the city. In those days, household telephones were not a thing. Prague’s cafés were often used as offices for the Czech literati, who communicated with each other through the grand cafés telephone system. All the cafés listed in this blog post were connected through this system, in those days.
The First Café Lit with Electric Lights
Equally as important as the telephone network were the electrical lights of Café Louvre. It was the first café in all of Prague to be lit by electric lights. This simple fact of life now, was a luxury then. Having bright electrical lights meant people could now discuss and work on ideas over books, late into the night.
Café Culture and Women
Although men and women have equal rights now in all of Europe, this was not always so. It was only at the beginning of the 20th Century that women began to be included in the social and cultural fabric of Europe. Café Louvre played its part by being one of the first places in Prague where women were not merely tolerated but welcomed on their own or with their female friends.
The Food at the Café Louvre
The food at Café Louvre is excellent. Most of the dishes on the menu have been there a long time, and improved upon incrementally, over the years. The menu is very Central European – that is meat with gravy and potatoes or bread dumplings. There are also several vegetarian options and an extensive selection of cakes and desserts.
We visited the Café Louvre a couple of times because we liked its ambience and the food. Prices here are very affordable, with each meal going under €30 for two.
We tried the beef goulash (it’s listed under Czech Cuisine, although it’s a Hungarian dish) and the liver soup on one visit. We then returned on Christmas Eve to sample their Christmas menu. Booking a restaurant for Christmas Eve can be a bit of a pain, so if you want to have a traditional Christmas lunch somewhere without the fuss, Café Louvre is an excellent place for it.
Here you get to sample the Christmas Carp, something that is unique to the Czech Republic. Carp tends to be fatty – so fatty it’s not edible most of the year. However, around Christmas time, they use up most of their fat stores. This makes them suitable for eating, so the Czech eat them during this season. They are served with a rich, sweet vegetable and fruit sauce – not unlike the sauces often served with rabbit or lamb. It’s an unusual choice of meat, but a very Christmassy dish none the less.
Why We Recommend Café Louvre?
We love its cosy, laid back and personal atmosphere. We came back to Café Louvre the most times because we felt comfortable here. I think it is because this café is the only one of the list that is a real café. People come here to socialise, talk about ideas and even read.
Continue walking down Národní Street, towards the Vltava River, and you will see the Grand Café Slavia to your right. There’s no missing this most prominent of the Prague cafés, located as it is, right on the banks of the river. We passed it so many times during our week in Prague. Located right by the Legionnaire Bridge and the Národní Theatre, it conveniently sits along the way to most attractions in the city.
While strolling along the river bank, we often looked into it – its warmly lit interior inviting and full of life. The heaving plates of food brought to the tables by the waiters, hot and delicious.
Café Slavia’s Famous Patrons
The Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke was one of Café Slavia’s patrons during its early years. He visited the café often when he was a student of letters in Prague in the 1890s. Franz Kafka also visited it often. It is unlikely that these two writers ever crossed paths in Café Slavia, as Rilke had already left for Munich when Kafka (who was eight years younger) began his career in Prague. It is nevertheless fascinating to note the importance of this cafe through the generations of intellectuals that influenced much of European thought.
In more modern times, Café Slavia is a popular place for entertaining political dignitaries that come to visit the Czech Republic. Obama visited the café while he was serving as president of the USA, as did Vladimir Putin and Pope John Paul II.
Refurbishment in the 90s
Like the other Prague cafés, Café Slavia had suffered throughout the World Wars and the Communist Era. It did, however, keep its function as a café and was not repurposed for other uses.
During the First World War, the Germans renamed it Café Victoria, but likely kept most of its original decor. I’m not sure if the communist reinstated its name during their regime, but they definitely did not refurbish it with respect to its original interior. After the Velvet revolution, everybody was itching for a return to the golden age of Bohemian intellectual life.
The president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, who was also a patron of the National Theatre across the street, insisted on it reopening. He went so far as to submit a petition to ensure that the café would be quickly reinstated to its former glory. In 1997, it finally reopened, to the great joy of theatre-goers and lovers of cake.
Why We Recommend Café Slavia?
Did we already mention the cake? Well, yes, cake. But we think foreign dignitaries are often brought here for the beautiful view of the Vltava and its reasonably priced menu. If you get a table along the window facing the riverbank, it might even be possible to see the Charles Bridge.
One of the “hidden” secrets of Prague is Lucerna Palace. Vácslav Haval, the grandfather of the President Václav Havel, built it between 1907-1920. The gallery, along with the café in it is a beautiful example of Art Deco and Art Noveau architecture. Then, as now, the gallery is filled with many shops and cultural facilities, including a concert hall and movie theatre.
The Lucerna Café, therefore, is a popular place for people who are waiting for things to happen in the gallery. They are mostly locals waiting for a movie to start or a concert to begin. Many are men and women who have just finished a shop in the galleries and are resting over a coffee before heading back home. It’s a slice of everyday life in a truly stunning location.
Art Movements of the Early 20th Century as Seen through Café Interiors
Of all the Prague Cafés, Lucerna is the most different in architecture. The turn of the Century had seen significant shifts in taste and a strong desire to break away from tradition. Instead of the elegant, brightly lit Neo-Renaissance interiors of the other cafés, we get the bold lines of the Vienna Secessionist movement.
The most notable features are the stately, polished wooden beams in the ceiling which are most unusual and make a grand statement. The Art Deco style, being so different from anything that had come before was a favourite of the secessionists. Café Lucerna is predominantly Art Deco, and you can see this in the lighting and the impressive grate over the bar.
No natural light enters the bar, so it’s always lit artificially. This means the beautiful lamps are still the first thing one notices upon entry. In fact, it looks like a 1920s Jazz club always, no matter the time of the day.
Why We Recommend Café Lucerna?
I’m a big Art Deco/Art Nouveau fan, and I’ve been on a few tours taking me to many places with really fascinating interiors, but Café Lucerna is one of the best. It feels like something right out of a period movie. If you are into art from this time period, you cannot miss Café Lucerna.
Kavárna Obecní Dům
Perhaps the most impressive of the Prague cafés is Kavárna Obecní Dům. We visited this on Christmas Eve, when many other places were either closed or booked out. Luckily this place was still open because there were shows going on in the Municipal theatres, and it stayed open to serve the patrons.
The municipal house itself is incredibly impressive. At its entrance, a beautiful Art Noveau Mosiac greets visitors as they enter. As for the café, its elegant and bright interior really made me feel like I had entered a palace.
Art and Architecture Inside the Municipal House
Before entering the café, we would recommend taking a wander around the interior. If you get a chance to catch a show in one of the ceremonial halls, you absolutely must. Not least because the ceilings have some incredible mosaics by the most exceptional Art Nouveau artist of all times – Alphonse Mucha.
The hallways of the building are expansive and spacious, giving one a sense of grandeur. To be honest, many public buildings in Prague are very grand – this is the Municipal House, so it is even more ambitious than most. The building is built on a triangular-shaped piece of land. Because of this, it has many odd twists and turns in its corridors.
The Architecture of the Kavárna Obecní Dům
I read that the mirrors which line one side of the main dining hall were a unique design feature at the time the café was installed.
Today, we’re used to having mirrors indoors to give the illusion of space; back then this was a genuine innovation. Some art critics attribute the mirrors of the Kavárna Obecní Dům at having influenced black light theatre, which entertains the audience through optical illusions. (I admit it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s an amusing conclusion nonetheless.)
Review of the Food at the Municipal Café
For food, this was my favourite café. The menu was traditional and not fussy. But although the dishes were simple, they were very well prepared. Like the other cafés there is a focus on regular meals. There was a choice of beef, veal, lamb or pork in gravy, served with either potatoes, croquettes or bread pudding.
The only way to describe the food was that it was tasty. The meats were very tender, having incorporated all the gravy. The sides provided an excellent accompaniment and a means to transport the rest of the sauce into your mouth.
We ordered lamb, spinach and croquettes, goulash with bread pudding and beef steak with potatoes. They were all great, although I think my favourite was the lamb.
Cakes from the Grand Cafés of Prague
The Prague Cafés are mainly known for their cakes. Some of them have been immortalised in a collection of recipes from the grand cafés of Central Europe: Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.
We had a lot of cake on this trip. Unfortunately, we got too excited most times to remember to take photographs of the cakes before shoving them into our gobs. So we only have photos of these from the dessert cart from Kavárna Obecní Dům. It has around 10 – 15 different types of rich cakes falling mainly into two categories. Mostly creamy with fruits or nutty with chocolate. I’ve eaten a lot of cake in this part of the world and can say that the cakes here are representative of the cakes from the region.
There are a few things that differentiate them. Firstly, the “sponge” part of the cake is at least 50% nuts. Cakes here were already on their way to being gluten-free a long time before it was even a thing. Secondly, if there are fruits on the cake, they are not decoration. They are part of the cake filling, at least an inch think on the top layer. Finally, they use as little sponge as necessary to hold the shape of the cake. This means you usually end up with a very rich, creamy cake which is far superior to their counterparts farther west.
Before we flew over to Prague, we had booked several trendy restaurants to dine at. However, we didn’t make it to any of them except Nejen Bistro. (Unless you count Café Savoy, which is owned by Ambiente, a group that operates a number of these other restaurants.)
We did not make it to all those restaurants because many of them were not in the old town, and after a long day sightseeing, tramping too far from our hotel just didn’t seem worth it when there were so many great options right at our doorstep.
But, we did make it to Nejen Bistro and were glad we did. At least we got to try some modern Czech cuisine, and we were not disappointed. To be honest, I’m not sure if the food here is particularly Czech or a more general modern European Fusion style. Whatever the case is, it was excellent
The Food at Nejen Bistro
We ordered the daily fish, which came served in crab broth and brown butter, and “carrots on fire”.
The fish and carrots were cooked on their charcoal grill, where they also do most of their mains. The chef knows how to work the grill, I can tell you that. The food was cooked to perfection – caramelised and tender on the inside, nicely roasted on the outside.
I enjoyed the crab broth (which was more like a gravy than a broth) and thought it was a great combination. The dish with the carrots, I have to say, was once more the most inventive vegan meals I’ve had. It had a variety of different textures, which I loved. The roasted crunch of the carrots went nicely with the crunch cereal base, and there was a lovely smokey flavour over everything.
Prague’s cafés are more than just places to have coffee or a meal. They are many pieces of living history we can all experience when we visit. Here, good food, history and a slice of everyday life come together to give a perfect impression of Prague as the cultural capital that it is. There are many more that we didn’t get to visit, but would love to the next time we return to Prague.