Prague’s wealth of traditional coffeehouses is a legacy from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But even in today’s hectic time, grabbing a quick cup on the run is fortunately not the only option for coffee lovers in the Czech capital. Probably the best-known café in the golden city is Kavárna Slavia, or Café Slavia. We recently visited this traditional coffeehouse.
It is rare for Café Slavia to be this quiet – usually, the 300-seat art deco coffeehouse is crammed with guests and tourists are lining up by the door for a seat. On a quiet Monday morning, however, just briefly after eight, you can soak up the beautiful leisurely atmosphere and have the café almost to yourself. Lucie Kleknerová, one of the managers at Slavia, joined me for a quiet cup of coffee and told me all about this legendary Prague institution, which first opened its doors in 1884.
“The café was opened in 1884, at the same time as the National Theater. It was intended that way; when the national theatre was built, the plan was to have a coffeehouse right across the street from it.”
After the café first opened in August 1884, it quickly became a hotspot for lovers of culture –of course, this was due mostly to its proximity to the National Theater. Among the regulars at Café Slavia at that time were the composer Bedřich Smetana, the actor Jindřich Mošna, poet Jaroslav Seifert, avant-garde writer Vítězslav Nezval, the famous Josef Čapek and many others. In a way, the list of visitors reads like a who-is-who of Bohemian culture at the time.
During the era of the First Republic, the interior was changed to the popular style of art deco and has remained unchanged since then. When you step inside Café Slavia, it almost feels as if you were taking a step back in time. The original Tonet chairs, the dark wood tables and the green marble walls evoke the long-gone glamorous era of the 1920s.
Of course, much has changed since then, but is coffeehouse culture still going strong in Prague? I put the question to Lucie Kleknerová.
“I don’t think we come in first place, I think Austria and Vienna come first. But in Prague, you can still find some nice and traditional coffeehouses with a great atmosphere, and that is good, to not only have modern and new places.”
You spend a lot of time here. What is your favorite time of the day at this café?
“There are two times that it is very nice here. First, in the morning. We open at 8, and when you come in that early, you can see people who come for a cigarette, the newspapers and coffee. And it is really calm and nothing is rushed or stressful. Mostly these people are Czechs, they are business people who have meetings or lovers getting breakfast together.
The other time I really enjoy is in the evening, because in the evening, the atmosphere is very different. You can hear a live piano player. And it is more rushed, there are more people, but it is still great. You can see Prague Castle all lit up, and it is a very romantic atmosphere.”
You said originally, the café opened as a place for theatergoers to get something to drink either before or after the show. Now, you still are just across the street from the National Theater, which remains a very active cultural institution. Has this tradition survived?
“Yes, we are happy to have people here before and after the theater. It is part of the atmosphere. They come nicely dressed, and you can tell they are going to the theater. They are usually not rushed, and in a good mood, they come for coffee and wine and just to relax and talk.”
Of course, a coffeehouse is only as glamorous and interesting as its guests – and Café Slavia can pride itself in its long list of famous visitors, among them the late and much-beloved former president Václav Havel. He was Lucie Kleknerová’s favorite guest, but she also has seen Hillary Clinton drink coffee here, and the well-known Czech-Jewish writer Arnošt Lustig was one of Café Slavia’s regulars as well. What was he like as a guest?
“He was always full of fun, and he always had special requests. He would say: I would like to get rajská, tomato sauce, which isn’t on the menu. But in the kitchen they were always nice enough to make it especially for him.”
Maybe here we can stop and take a look at the phenomenal view you have from the windows of Café Slavia?
“From the windows, you can see Žofín and also Prague Castle, it is more beautiful in the evening. And we are right by the Vltava river, so you can also see Malá Strana from here.”
So the window seats fill up quite quickly I believe?
“They fill up everyday. If you want to sit by the window, it is better to make a reservation.”
We are now walking towards one of the main draws of this café, the painting of the absinthe drinker. Maybe you could describe it a bit?
“So the painting is quite large, 2 meters by 1.80 meters. And it is not an original but a copy. On the picture, which again has a brown color scheme, you can see the Tonet chairs and round tables of the café. You can see a man, who is drinking a glass of absinthe and reading the newspaper. Opposite this man, who looks quite sad, we can see a waiter who is getting ready to serve him. And on the table we see his drink, but also a transparent woman, who is sitting opposite him. That is maybe a lady that the absinthe drinking has conjured up, a muse of sorts maybe.”
The absinthe drinker, a painting by Viktor Oliva, has certainly become an important element of Café Slavia in the past 15 years – originally, a painting of the mother of the Slaws, Slavia, hung in its place, but it was moved to the city’s gallery in 1997, despite the protest of many Prague residents.
During the times of the communist regime, the café became state property, but it still continued to draw the artistic and eclectic types, even during the normalization period and after the invasion of Prague by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. Among the guests in those days were Václav Havel, then a dissident and playwright, and the poet Jiří Kolář.
The iconic coffeehouse has also found its way into some works of literature – Jaroslav Seifert refers to it in his book Halleyova kometa, and in 1985, Ota Filip published a novel titled Kavárna Slavia. While today, the café draws many tourists, it still remains popular with Prague residents as well. On the quieter weekdays or early in the morning, when the sunlight is reflected by the nearby Vltava river and shines into the coffeehouse, it is easy to see why.