Prague’s Hanau Pavilion – pricey restaurant with interesting history and great city views

17-08-2011

On the edge of Prague’s Letná plain, overlooking the Vltava and the Old Town, stand several remarkable buildings from the Belle Époque when Prague was hoping to become the Paris of the East. One of these structures is the Hanau Pavilion, a church-like edifice of cast iron and bricks built to demonstrate the dynamic development of Bohemian industry. Today as in the past, its restaurant offers amazing views of the capital.

On a Wednesday night in this rainy August, the Hanau Pavilion is nearly empty, with just a few guests coming to enjoy their dinner in this out-of-the-way spot.

Except the annoying music, which unfortunately spoils the atmosphere in most Prague restaurants these days, and some modern additions to the interior, the renovated pavilion looks just like 120 years ago when it first served visitors of Letná park.

But this chapel-like neo-Baroque building adorned with cast-iron turrets, lanterns, handrails and dormers was originally set up in another big park, Stromovka, where in 1891, Bohemia’s ambitious industrialists and entrepreneurs presented their achievements in the Jubilee Exhibition where, inspired by a similar event in Paris. Zdeněk Lukeš is a leading architecture historian.

“We must start at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889 and the first presentation of such iron structures as the Eiffel Tower and the Machine Hall. This exhibition inspired the event in Prague, called Jubilee Exhibition, which was held near the Stromovka park two year later, with similar type of structures.”

Several of Prague’s landmarks were built at that time, including the iconic Petřín Tower, a smaller copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Industrial Palace which to this day stands at the entrance to the exhibition area.

“The main pavilion, called Industrial Palace, was built of iron; also, a small copy of the Eiffel Tower was erected on the Petřín Hill during the exhibition, and there were also some other cast-iron pavilions were built, like that small one called the Hanau Pavilion created as promotion for the foundry in Komárov which belonged to the Prince of Hanau.”

The ironworks in Komárov, also known by its German name Komorau, some 50 km southwest of Prague, had existed for centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the factory was acquired by the princes of Hanau, which is a town in the German state of Hessen. The iron working industry was well developed in Bohemia and Moravia, and the princes of Hanua soon become leading producers of cast iron in the country. Jana Bělovská from the Prague Municipal Museum specializes in the history of industry.

“There were two big cast iron factories here at the time – one was in Komárov in Bohemia, and the other in Blansko, in Moravia. Two years before the exhibition, the one in Blansko had two big projects – the colonnades in the spa towns of Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary. So it was a healthy competition.”

The Komárov ironworks therefore decided to showcase their products – and built the Hanau pavilion as a showroom for that purpose. In fact, the factory’s owner at the time – Karl von Hanau-Hořovice, was one of few German entrepreneurs who took part in the Prague Jubilee Exhibition which was otherwise boycotted by German industrialists over nationalist controversies between Czechs and Germans.

The exhibition was a great success, and prince von Hanau donated the pavilion to the city of Prague which found just the right spot for it – on the southern edge of Letná plain, just off the city centre that was already a popular outing destination for the people of Prague. Zdeněk Lukeš again.

“There were already some structures there from the 1860s, like the popular restaurant called Letenský zámeček. During the exhibition of 1891, the inventor František Křižík created the first electric tram line connecting that restaurant with the exhibition area.”

With time, the area got another important addition – the restaurant built for Expo 58, an exhibition held in Brussels in 1958 which had a profound impact on Czechoslovak design.

The Hanau Pavilion with its popular restaurant however was only open until the 1960s when it was so run down that the authorities closed it down. But several years later, it underwent a renovation and re-opened as a luxurious restaurant. Zdeněk Lukeš recalls his visits to the pavilion at that time.

“This was the so-called first class restaurant. It was extremely expensive at that period – you cannot really compare it to today!s prices – but back then, it was very expensive, one of the best in Prague. I think they had a European menu, and most people there were foreigners, tourists and so on.”

The Hanau Pavilion still belongs to the city of Prague which now again rents it out as a restaurant. Most of its clientele are still foreigners and tourists who come primarily for the view – but what about the food? To place the Hanau Pavilion on Prague’ culinary map, I invited a respected food blogger who goes by the pen name Brewsta for dinner there.

We were sitting inside the pavilion which is quite small; the only other guests were a couple who must have come for the romantic setting. For starters, we ordered a terrine of duck foie gras and veal carpaccio.

“The duck foie gras was quite simple, it wasn’t exactly like I imagine it would be based on the description. It was tasty, it was good quality but it’s something I could probably find in five or ten other restaurants in Prague.”

For the main course we had steak with tomato salsa and veal glaze and pork tenderloin on herbs in creamy mushroom sauce. I quite liked what I had but according Brewsta, the restaurant has a lot of room for improvement.

“The steak was cooked to order, it was medium rare, so that was good. I found the meat a bit tough, and I found the steak and the sauce under-seasoned, I added a lot of salt.

“Overall, I thought that the salsa that came with it really didn’t go with it at all. It didn’t go with the meat based glaze, which was hot, while the sweet-and-sour salsa was cold.

“I really thought that the pork tenderloin with the mushrooms sauce and the gnocchi was a much better dish and I enjoyed that more although I thought the tenderloin itself was a little on the tough side.“

For the dessert, which we had outside on the terrace overlooking the city, we had homemade fruit pie and Sacher, which pleased Brewster just us much as it did me.

The meal was quite pricey but not extremely expensive. But the restaurant has another way of making up for it – serving a small Pislner Urquell beer for 60 crowns is an outrage, only paralleled by some of Prague’s most notorious tourist traps.

“The atmosphere inside the building is kind of stuffy in a way. It has old tablecloths that remind you of an old Czech pub; it has annoying music that gets on your nerves. There aren’t many people and there are only five or six tables, so there is a feeling of emptiness.

“I don’t think I would recommend people to go there for the atmosphere of the food which is not any more exceptional than a lot of better places in the centre of Prague.

“But what I would say is that if the weather is good on a beautiful summer evening and you don’t mind paying above-average prices, you will get your money’s worth out of the view.”

More details about the Hanau Pavilion – including the menu – can be found at www.hanavskypavilon.cz

17-08-2011