The Spot – Grand Café Orient

The Spot – hangouts you should visit at least once in your life.

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One of the great things about Prague today is that ever since the Velvet Revolution there has been an ongoing process of renewal that has understandably put a lot of effort into restoring the city’s impressive past splendour. A bit like Berlin, Prague’s period as a poor cousin under the Soviet yoke saw all available resources go into the militaristic activities that characterised the Cold War, leaving little over to preserve the physical infrastructure of its cultural heritage. Unlike Berlin, however, Prague always had a lot more significant historic architecture worth restoring compared with Germany’s capital which, let’s face it, was largely a backwater barrack town until Bismarck made it his capital of a unified Germany. Furthermore, the fact that a lot of Prague’s architecture bears a direct relationship to the Habsburg obsessions of religion and dynastic imperial power didn’t exactly make it a priority for restoration during the Soviet period.

What is less fathomable, however, is why Czechoslovakia’s rich tradition of modernist design was also allowed to lapse into disarray, especially since the period in which the Soviet Union really started flexing its muscles in Czechoslovakia was already after the death of that great enemy of modernism, Stalin. However, in the repressive period that followed the brief Prague Spring of the late 1960’s, perhaps simply anything that embodied Czech aspirations for autonomy was off-limits.
So, given that Kubista, an incontrovertibly Czech modernist movement of the early twentieth century, may have had the potential to rally nationalist feeling, perhaps it is no wonder that its shining achievement, the Grand Café Orient and its home, Josef Gočár’s House of the Black Madonna, was allowed to fall into complete disrepair. Maybe this is simply politicising things too much: the Grand Café Orient already closed in the 1920’s when the turn-of-the-century Czech craze for cubism had already subsided. Kubista’s crowing glory may simply have fallen out of fashion and been forgotten.

Today it’s another story altogether. Lovingly restored to its original glory and function, Grand Café Orient pulls in everyone from architectural historians making a pilgrimage to culture-curious tourists and regular Praguistas far more interested in its convenient location and gossip with friends than its august history. But, whether those slurping the perfectly good coffee or raising a glass of Bohemian sekt are fully aware of the significance of the building almost seems irrelevant. Grand Café Orient’s vintage charm and role as a fully revived hub of Prague social life mean that it’s a perfect place to hang out, afternoon or evening. The menu offers up a tasty selection of dishes ranging from snacks to full meals, but there’s no pressure on anyone to bite off more than they can chew. This makes it an ideal locale to kick back for a snack between bouts of sightseeing in the nearby Old Town or for a leisurely drink in the evening before moving on to somewhere else. In the warmer months, the tables of the narrow balcony that wraps around the front of the building literally elevates the flanneur to a privileged position; the building’s position on a main junction affords the perfect perch from which to people-watch.

For those who are interested in such things in more depth, Gočár’s interior offers many delights including the unique cubist light fixtures and striking original buffet bar. Arguably Grand Café Orient’s closest living relative is arguably Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, both in terms of period, bold use of geometric forms and, perhaps above all else, that it remains vehemently accessible and non-elitist. Everyone from students to the French Foreign Secretary and celebrated authors can be found in here especially since the place’s unique charm has made it a favoured venue for press launches in recent years. Fr those who really want to learn more about the Czech Kubista movement, the building also houses a small museum to this early Czech modernist movement in architecture and the decorative arts.

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