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Prague's Traditional Reinvention

Touring Dlouhá street.

Photo: Monika Hoefler

The cappuccino I’m drinking in Prague’s Grand Café Orient is utterly mediocre, and that’s okay.

This is because the point is really the setting, which is by contrast utterly impressive: the café is on the second floor of the House of the Black Madonna, originally constructed in 1912 as a department store by the Czech Cubist architect Josef Goćár and, as of 2003, home to Prague’s Museum of Czech Cubism, an architectural and design movement that emerged, flourished, and faded away here in the course of about 15 years. After being neglected for decades, the Orient was restored in spring 2005 to its original, rigorously angled splendor. Everything is a faithful replica of what once was: immense polished-brass and silk-shaded lamps are suspended from the glossy, white-beamed ceiling; the ornate geometric woodwork surrounding the mirrored bar is finished to a high shine; the half-octagon banquettes flanking the tables are covered in a perfect reproduction of the original green-and-white upholstery. Once visited almost exclusively by scholars and aficionados of its architecture, today the café is a map-marked stop on many a hipster’s list and the tables around me are occupied by good-looking young locals and a smattering of travelers. Barring their presence, the room is a near-perfect time capsule of a place that existed here, and only here, for little over a decade almost a century ago.

Which is why the sub-par coffee’s not such a problem—considering that the promise of a perfectly good cup lies all around me at any number of Italian cafés or Starbucks-like chains in the city’s bustling Old Town. But the loving restoration of the Grand Café Orient and, equally important, the warm reception it has received from Prague’s own citizens speak to something interesting: a renewed affection among Czechs for their own heritage and traditions, whether of Bohemia or of the 20th century.

And it is a new sensibility, a change from the city’s years-long, full-throttle embrace of foreign cultures and far-flung influences—a preoccupation that was perhaps to be expected in a country whose borders were thrown open so abruptly in 1989. As travelers’ expectations—fed by the burgeoning 90’s phenomena of increasingly affordable airfare and the proliferation of Wallpaper culture for growing numbers of self-styled jet-setters—grew to include the inalienable right to have, say, pitch-perfect northern Italian cuisine or an “it” bag (or a faultless cappuccino) no matter where on the planet they were touching down, so Prague developed by leaps and bounds to meet those expectations. Local entrepreneurs and canny foreigners alike were keen to invest in this new European capital that was evolving so promisingly. By 2001, the city offered cappuccinos in spades and even a few “it” bags and, for good measure, a beautiful new Four Seasons Hotel, set on the Vltava River with the Michelin-starred Allegro restaurant (still the best in the city, serving that pitch-perfect northern Italian, natch).

After watching their city achieve the trappings of global-destination status, however, a handful of creative residents have begun mining Prague’s own traditions—of food, art, design, architecture—for inspiration. And they’ve been subtly but tangibly changing the look and feel of the city ever since.

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