Monday, May 26, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Savoy

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 17/05/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

Café Savoy takes its tatarák very seriously.

I discovered this when I was unable to finish my portion of Savoy’s delicate beef tartare (198 CZK) at the end of an especially filling lunch. Even after all the other dishes had been cleared and I’d started on my cake and coffee, the staff still wouldn’t take away my leftover dollop of steak paste.
I didn’t much feel like looking at a pile of greasy topinky while I ate my dessert, so I asked a waiter to remove the offending plate. He lumbered over reluctantly.

"Well, if you ask me to take away your plate, I can." He paused.

"Yes, I would like you to take away my plate, please," I repeated.

"Was there something wrong with it?" He hadn’t yet picked up the dish.

"No," I said. "I’m just full."

Finally, he very slowly reached for the plate and carried it out of my sight. He definitely wasn’t happy about it, though.

Look, I know that in this country it’s considered sacrilege to leave a perfectly good piece of meat – let alone svíčková (beef tenderloin) – unfinished. But I eat out a lot, and if I were to finish every buttery morsel of every dish I ordered, they’d have to start rolling me into the restaurants I review.

And that wouldn’t be very discreet, would it?

The truth is that the tatarák at Savoy is excellent. So maybe the old guy just couldn’t understand why somebody would be unwilling to scarf it all down. But if I don’t want to finish my food, he has no business asking me why not, and he certainly shouldn’t be trying to make me feel bad about it.

Occasional lapses in service are Café Savoy’s only drawback. It’s a weakness that I find frustrating because I actually love Savoy to bits – and as regular readers might already have noticed, I don’t fall in love with restaurants too easily.

Café Savoy, with its huge windows and gorgeous, government-protected Neo-Renaissance plaster-cast ceiling, is an instantly impressive kind of place. On one side of the restaurant is an elevated seating area for smokers; the walls of the room around the corner are covered with wooden shelves stacked with bottles of wine and lit so that the bottles give off a warm glow. Savoy’s atmosphere is certainly hard to beat.

This unique space wasn’t always as pretty as its current incarnation. After it first opened in 1893, Café Savoy became a favorite haunt of local intellectuals (including Franz Kafka, who attended some Yiddish theatre performances held there). But when the property changed hands during World War I, the famous ceiling was boarded up and the café was transformed into small boutiques. The original plasterwork remained preserved under the suspended ceiling for the duration of the Communist era, during which the space was used as a police recruitment center. Post-revolution, Savoy re-emerged as a dingy, smoke-filled café.

In 2004, Ambiente Group took Savoy over and set about restoring its former glory. It is now one of the few restaurants in Prague that serves traditional Czech dishes made from high-quality ingredients. They’re not interested in cheating their customers here, and it shows. All of their meats are fantastic: the Prague ham, the frankfurters served with mustard and fresh horseradish, the aforementioned tatarák.

They win points for presentation, too. Order a cup of the delicious Savoy hot chocolate (55 CZK) and they’ll bring it to you in a little pitcher, and waiters pour the hearty soups (called "Restaurants" here, for reasons explained on the menu) into their bowls right at your table. The old-school details feel elegant and practical – not pretentious, as they might in a stuffier setting.

There’s one thing about Savoy that baffles me a little: it has two different menus. One is their regular menu; the other is something called the "Gourmet Menu." The Gourmet Menu offers fancier, more expensive versions of some of the items on the regular menu, along with some French-inspired extras. If you order food off the Gourmet Menu, you get to eat on a white damask tablecloth. If you don’t order off the Gourmet Menu, you eat on a bare table.

What is the point of this bizarre distinction? If I order the regular steak tartare instead of the Parisian steak tartare, am I unworthy of a tablecloth? And why does the whole restaurant have to know that I ordered from the less expensive menu? They should integrate the two – it’s perfectly fine to have varying price categories on the same menu, and it would create less confusion for first-time visitors.

That’s not to say that the Gourmet Menu items aren’t any good. I had an excellent svíčková na smetaně (beef in cream sauce made with real tenderloin; the version on the regular menu isn’t) that came with a saucière of extra sauce – an incredibly thoughtful touch. I can also recommend the homemade fruit dumplings (154 CZK). When I tried them, they were filled with fresh strawberries and served with do-it-yourself chocolate sauce, strawberry yoghurt, and breadcrumbs. And if you're feeling especially hungry one morning, be sure to check out their elaborate French, English, and American breakfasts.

I occasionally like to have lunch at Café Savoy by myself. There used to be a maître d' there who thought it was very charming to ask me personal questions about my life and to tell me what kind of mood he supposed I was in based on how much make-up I happened to be wearing that day. Why do so many waiters seem to think that a woman eating lunch and reading a book by herself needs to be talked to? Just get over it, please, guys. And while you're at it, bring me that matonka I ordered a half-hour ago. Thanks.

It seems that this man no longer works at Savoy, and I have to say that as annoyingly invasive as he was, I kind of miss him. But that's only because the service seemed to be much better when he was around. Some longtime Café Savoy regulars, including myself, have observed a lot of scowling, snappy, and impossible-to-flag-down waiters there recently.

They'd better manage to work the service problems out soon – in every other respect, Café Savoy is one of the best and most dependable restaurants in Prague. Unless something drastically bad happens, I'll still be a regular there. It's just too loveable for me to let it go.

Café Savoy
Vítězná 5, 150 00 Praha 5
Tel.: +420 257 311 562
Open Mon-Fri 8:00 – 22:30, Sat-Sun 09:00 – 22:30

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Belcarnen said...

I've never been to Savoy for something else than dinner, so maybe it's different in various parts of a day, but I didn't experienced any problems with service at all. Only first time, when we were indeed bit puzzled by menu and actually messed things up by ordering things from two different waiters :) But food and atmosphere is just excellent!
Although there is one problem, which is smoke sometimes entering also the non-smokers area. And I hate when it happens.

Anonymous said...

Have been there for coffee and brunch.... both of which were wonderful!

Glad to see you consider it one of the bests too.

Anonymous said...

kafka attended the Cafe Savoy at Vězeňská 859/9 in Prague 1. It is now Ceska Hospoda, and bears little resemblance to the original.