A bit of Paris in Prague – the Bohemian coffeehouse Café Montmartre

Café Montmartre

Tucked away on Řetězová street in Prague’s Old Town, Café Montmartre is one of the city’s oldest coffeehouses. While it looks rather unassuming from the outside, the former cabaret has a fascinating history. Famous writers such as Franz Kafka and Egon Erwin Kisch are said to have spent many a wild night here, and Café Montmartre continues to draw artists, writers and actors. We spoke to its manager, Iva Nesvadbová, about the café’s history, its guests and its upcoming anniversary.

“The origins go back to the late of the 19th century. Even before it was opened, there was a pub and guesthouse for Prague visitors by the same name. Later on, the actual café was opened, in 1912. The man who opened it called it Montmartre, because he very much liked Paris and the city’s cafes and pubs and wine cellars. That was the golden age of Montmartre. There were lots of wild soirees here at that time.”

And who were the guests in those days?

“Mainly writers, most of them Czech, German or Jewish. For example Franz Kafka, and Egon Erwin Kisch, who used to dance here sometimes. This was the first place where you could dance the tango in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

Are there any pictures from that era that have been preserved?

“When we re-opened Montmartre, it was closed for about 50 years and used as a paper warehouse, the building had to be reconstructed. We reopened it in 2000 and we will celebrate our 100-year-anniversary in September. So we tried to find all possible photographs and things that would remind people of those old days. Mostly furniture, we have tables, chairs and sofas from the 1920s, and lamps as well. As far as photographs go, we have a collection of pictures from the National Museum.”

During the golden era, you already mentioned that this café had a lot of famous guests. Do you still get famous Czechs who come here?

“I think we succeeded in renewing this Bohemian atmosphere and we created a special place for artists to go. There is a group of surrealists who come Thursday nights, graphic designers and architects who come on Fridays. And then there are a lot of actors who come here, because the Academy of Theatre Arts is right next door, so we get young students and also the professors, who come almost every day and are our regulars.”

And do you still get these wild nights like in the 1920s on occasion?

“Unfortunately, this is totally different from 100 years ago. Strangely, in Prague, all cafes and wine cellars have to close at midnight, and that goes for us, too. So there are no wild, wild nights. Of course, we get a lot of different events, birthday celebrations or book launches, which we do quite often. But it is quite different. Back then, there was no TV or radio, so people were out a lot more.”

Coffeehouses were immensely important for the social life in the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What role do they play today?

“I think that the importance might be the same as before. People still enjoy going out. Even during the socialist era, I went out a lot, we were always in the pub or in cafes. This remains the case, so I think the role of cafés is very important, a place to meet after work. Some people even meet here, to work on script and so on.”

Why did the café close down for 50 years?

“It was closed down during the Second World War, and then it stayed closed until the early 1990s, when the city of Prague decided to restore the whole building.”

And who was behind the effort to reopen the actual café?

“It was our effort but the role of the city of Prague was big, because they wanted to revive the Café Montmartre’s wonderful history. So they were looking for someone who would reopen it in the same style as it was before.”

How attached have you become to it over the years?

“I liked it even as a girl, because I am a Prague girl. I remember coming to this small street, Řetězová, and it was very dark and full of dilapidated buildings. So many years after, when I got this opportunity, I had to think back to my childhood, when we played on the streets and were always scared to go to this particular one because it was so dark and spooky.”

How difficult was the renovation?

“It was very difficult. The building has four floors and the city did a great job on it. We were most active in finding fitting interiors.”

Řetězová street
Where was everything stored while this place was closed down?

“Nothing at all from the original interior survived. It took us a year or longer to find furniture from that era. So there are no originals in here, unfortunately, but everything is from the same era.”

You are coming up on your 100-year-anniversary. Do you have any special events prepared to mark this occasion?

“We are planning to hold cabaret nights in early October, since many cabaret nights used to take place here. So we will try to do something similar and celebrate our anniversary in this fashion.”