BY TATIANA CIRISANO
It’s fitting that Aladár Lašanský, who plays live piano at Narodni coffeeshop Kavárna Slavia, has done so every evening for decades. The Prague mainstay is quite literally built on tradition, from its 1920s art deco interior to its long list of historic clientele.
The iconic, 300-seat cafe opened across from the National Theater in 1884, intended to lure theatergoers for pre- and post-show drinks. It wasn’t long before Slavia earned a reputation as a gathering place for Bohemia’s culture scene, serving coffee to the likes of composer Bedřich Smetana, poet Jaroslav Seifert, and painter Viktor Oliva, whose famous “Absinthe Drinker” now hangs in the cafe above the most-reserved table.
It’s not hard to imagine these legends huddling around the cafe’s cozy leather booths or window tables, which overlook postcard views of the Vltava river and more distant Prague Castle. But it’s not just famous figures who keep the cafe’s history alive—it’s also dedicated customers like Zuzana Matějková, a regular who recently began working as the restaurant’s manager.
Matějková, who has been visiting the cafe since she was girl, says the cafe serves as a reflection of Czech history. After the Velvet Revolution, she recalls the cafe’s transformation into a center for celebration. And when rumors spread that Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk would parade past the cafe, Slavia charged extra for window seats to watch.
“Whatever is happening in Prague, it’s reflected here,” Matějková says through a translator. “How the cafe is, the nation is also.”
Matějková has fond memories of visiting the restaurant with her parents as a child for her favorite dessert, a Czech dish of buttery cakes and cream known as buchtičky se šodó. She still orders the dish now, and it’s a good thing it’s still available—Matějková says the cafe’s most loyal customers are known to protest even the most minute menu changes.
“Many people come here and they’re nostalgic,” she says, stirring an espresso inside the cafe. “Whenever they move some tables or make some small change, the customers go to them and say, ‘why did you change it? It was like this when we were young!’”
There’s only one nick in the cafe’s rock-solid history: in 1992, it was forced to close due to a thorny legal dispute. Slavia reopened in 1997, much to the delight of former President Vaclav Havel, who was a frequent guest of the cafe.
Nowadays, the air is always filled with conversation, be it Czech businessmen conducting meetings, students from the nextdoor film school stirring cappuccinos, or bowtie-bearing waiters taking orders for dishes that have been on the menu for 130 years.
And though traditional cafe society may be a thing of the past, Matějková says that Cafe Slavia isn’t letting go of its bohemian roots just yet.
“There are still some mornings where people sit with the newspaper and take their time,” she says, sipping her coffee. “So you can sense the history here, somehow.”