Nostalgia of the 1920s at the Café Imperial

29-08-2003

On a busy street corner on Na Porici Street in Prague, where cars drive by and trams roll along, stands an imposing time-worn building, its façade blackened by the years. On the corner a large sign features a portly man wearing an old-fashioned suit and top hat, brandishing a cue for a game of pool. Lest you be mistaken though - this is no billiard hall - it is a kavarna, a café - the Café Imperial to be precise. Even in a city like Prague, with its many coffee houses, this establishment remains a rarity, cultivating nostalgia from the beginning of the last century, a period of by-gone innocence and fragility now evoked only in black and white prints, silent pictures, and the sensual works from the period of the Art Nouveau. Café Imperial first opened its doors in 1914.

"There is a most unusual atmosphere here that I felt the very first ever came and began to work in the café, something I hadn't felt anywhere else. Everyone who sits down here feels the ghost of times gone by, and for a little while escapes the rat-race of modern life..."

Libor Pisa is the manager of the café and he says no customer is immune to its charms. Mostly, the wide spaces, rising ceilings, great windows, and careful patterning of white and brown ceramic tiles. Depicted on the tiles: Art Nouveau elements in sharp relief: the hunter and the stag, the archer, the ploughman, and the occasional cherub running along on its fat, stubby legs. A large clock, flanked by statues of a woman and a man lost in antiquity. Great curly-cued columns rise-up. For a moment time stands still; one gets the sense that as light fails vampires will slowly come in.

The café is rich with the weight of time and there is something slightly decadent about it: red velour hides a hidden salon; Byzantine-like tigers flank the entrance. But, to say it was 'heavy' would be to miss the point. There is also a myriad of elements that are decidedly light-hearted. The simple design of the chairs. The board games - like chess - you can borrow at the bar. Dixieland evenings on Friday and Saturday nights when you come dressed as a flapper to do the swish or swoosh, or slippy, or whatever those dances were called. And then there are the specialty doughnuts. Connected with them: a mischievous tradition at Café Imperial that will appeal to the trickster in anyone. The café's manager Libor Pisa explains:

"The idea was the owners', inspired by the Czech novel Saturnin. They came up with the idea that people pay to freely throw old doughnuts at the customers. Of course, each at their own risk. Unfortunate minor damages are covered by the café."

Throwing doughnuts at the customers? It's all true: for the price of almost 2,000 crowns - or, about sixty dollars - you can order a tray of day-old samples, which you can throw without the slightest warning, at anyone you like. The old lady sitting by the window sipping on her tea, pinky outstretched. The square suit and tie-guy who ran in for a quick coffee before his business meeting. The chess players in the corner. Three words: Do you dare?

At your own risk - if you're willing to put up the money. Imagine the looks on peoples' faces, I must admit it's a tempting thought. If you ever do take the plunge enjoy yourself don't spare a thought for the staff: though a food-fight that takes just fifteen minutes can take up to three hours to clean up, that's exactly what you paid for. Even at that price, they wouldn't have it any other way at Café Imperial: it is the cost of being original - the cost of staying young.

29-08-2003