Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.
It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.
If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.
Café de Paris, Hotel Paris
For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.
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Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.
Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.
If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.
Barocco Veneziano Café
Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.
Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.
You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.
Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl