Monday, August 25, 2008

Restaurant Review: Café Slavia

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 16/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When I was sent to review Café Slavia, I thought I knew exactly what to expect: a stunning relic of Czech grand café history with a great view tainted by bad food, slow service, and lots of tourists.

I was only partly right. The view and the history are still there, as is the stunning reconstructed Art Deco interior. And, of course, Slavia still has its fair share of tourists, such as the trio of young Japanese women I saw there one afternoon, picking at their spaghetti and wearing looks of either absolute boredom or complete disgust (I couldn't tell which).

But the locals haven't given up on Slavia yet. Plenty of old regulars still visit, including a few well-known Czech faces from the café's heyday. And then there's the occasional expat holed up in a corner, puffing away on cheap cigarettes and sucking down one espresso after the other as he writes bad Prague-inspired poetry in his leather-bound journal.

So the clientele is a decidedly mixed bag, which always makes for an interesting café experience. The excellent people-watching is aided by Slavia's unique seating arrangement, which puts many tables close together and at various angles to one another. And with a piano player providing live easy-listening background music in the evenings, you can't really fault the atmosphere.

As for the food and service… well, I'm not exactly sure, since both are frustratingly inconsistent. It depends, I guess, on what you get – and who you get. The waitress on my first visit had a perpetually sour look on her face, and wasn't very attentive besides. But on my second trip, I landed a waiter who was friendly and eager and who even made the occasional unobtrusive joke.

One aspect of the service, at least, seems to be pretty consistent: nobody says hello to customers when they enter. Maybe they thought I was a tourist, but even when I clearly said, "Dobrý den" to various waiters as I walked in, they all looked straight at me and scowled. A coincidence? A specific instruction from the restaurant manager? Or just a general lack of manners? Who knows.

When it comes to critiquing the menus of Czech restaurants, I often feel as if I'm repeating myself. But I have to add Slavia to the long list of restaurants here whose menus try to be everything to everybody and end up being nothing more than a great big mess. There's really no need to have spaghetti and sandwiches and svíčková and eleven types of pancakes on the same menu.
Speaking of sandwiches, what happened to the chlebičky? I'd been looking forward to ordering a nice little trio of variously-topped open-faced sandwiches, but I was instead informed that the chlebičky now came in the form of a big baguette. The sandwich with Prague ham, onion, pickle, and horseradish mayonnaise (129 CZK) was tasty, but I would have liked to have tried some other toppings, too. What a shame.
More than anything else – even more than the tourists themselves – it is the problematic menu that marks Slavia as a tourist destination. It would seem appropriate for a place that was this integral to Czech history to stick with local classics instead of trying to appropriate random international dishes in the hopes of pleasing picky foreigners.

And that's doubly true when the foreign-inspired parts aren't very well made. The gazpacho (a dish on Slavia's summer menu, 169 CZK), for example, is all wrong. Gazpacho is a cold, blended Spanish soup made with fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other veggies. The one at Slavia tasted very much like it had come from a can of tomato puree, and for some reason was served with smoked trout, a yoghurt-dill sauce, and a ton of shredded raw zucchini.

The pork schnitzels with summer potato salad (189 CZK) were better – mostly because of the salad, which was made with sour pickles and onions and had just the right level of acidity. Unfortunately, the řízky hadn't been tenderized, so cutting and chewing through the meat was a bit of a mission, but at least the batter was good.

One dish that you really shouldn't miss is Slavia's trhanec (109 CZK). It's been on the menu ever since its reopening in 1997 and was even better now than I remembered. Light, fluffy strips of torn pancake made with fat raisins surround a luxurious wild berry compote. A side of real whipped cream rounds off this classic dessert perfectly.

The problem with Slavia is that it doesn't really know its own identity. Some parts of the menu indicate that it would like to be a sort of gourmandized grand café along the lines of Café Savoy or Café Imperial. But if that were the case, they could at least wipe down the tables between each visit – mine was sticky with glass rings – and fix up the toilets. More importantly, they should designate a proper non-smoking section. At the moment, the only non-smoking area in the whole restaurant is a tiny alcove hidden in the back room (pictured below) with no view whatsoever, and I'm sure they could do better than that.

At least Slavia's prices are still relatively low. That's the only fact that somewhat excuses its unreliable food and service, though its management seems to think the great décor and atmosphere are enough to make up for any other weaknesses.

Well, they aren't. A lot of people fought very hard in the early 1990s to revive Café Slavia from near-extinction. The least the current owners could do now is to make it a place worth visiting – not just once, but again and again.

Café Slavia
Smetanovo nábřeží 2
Praha 1 - Old Town
Tel: +420 224 218 493
Open Mon-Sun 08:00 – 23:00

images: praguespoon,


Anonymous said...

Throughout last 8 years I visited this place few times. I happened to get the good waiter ONCE. Otherwise I had to wait for taking my order, for the food and for the bill - three excruciating waits each time.
Why did I do that? For the nakladany hermelin and their home-baked rolls.
Other food looked like a joke.
Still - I don't know other places in this area with comparable atmosphere and prices. And I also dream of non-smoking section.


Jarda said...

did i miss it or there is no mention of coffee in your cafe review?:) well anyways, good for you, the coffee there is absolutely disgusting ... take care, Jarda Tucek