Prague, one of the world’s top ten cities to visit, lives with one foot firmly in tomorrow and the other staunchly rooted in yesterday.
Prague is a city with enough splendid architecture to quicken the heart of any history buff. The Sugar Palace (circa 1916,) is one of its most iconic, century-old buildings and still an architectural gem with an impressive pedigree. It caught the eye of a savvy hotelier who gave it a new and dramatic life as the Andaz Prague. Standing in the heart of historic Old Town, it’s a mere stroll to the famous Wenceslas Square. Now, open just over a year, it has already won a coveted, world renowned Interior Design Award.Since this is a Heritage Protected building, I anticipate beautiful 20th century design. Surprise, surprise. I am swept away by the décor and design which includes art so naturally placed, one almost takes it for granted. I share a sofa in the lobby lounge with a life-size nude sculpture of a sophisticated city woman and, looking around, I feel excited to be here. To get to this spot I have passed by a sculpture of an enormous shiny snake, but my favorite is the cobalt blue dog, standing guard at the elevators. The lobby library is filled with fascinating books, ceramics and small sculptures by local artisans and craftsmen. Wherever the eye falls, it is clear that the Andaz marches to its own drummer. The inviting, casual ambiance of this spacious lobby lounge includes a table where guests experience a comfortably seated check-in and the concierge responds discretely to personal requests. But first, I am invited to the complimentary afternoon tea. The array of pastries and petite delicacies is generous and inviting, and tea is so rejuvenating after travel. This lobby is a luxurious living room–the beating heart of this hotel.
Creative designers have placed Mez Bar in-between the restaurant and the hotel. (Mez means in-between in Czech). It is inspired by Czech spirits, local craft beer, as well as the sugarcane and spirits that came from plantations in Latin America. They say here, “We’re keeping the sugar in the Sugar Palace.” It is hard to imagine that this structure served as offices for sugar manufacturers and as a distribution center of refined sugar for Central Europe; and that the largest grain market in the country was right at its front door.Connecting guests with the local community lies in the telling of tales. The fascinating myths and fables and historical anecdotes of the country are woven into the décor of my room, and the entire hotel. A brass Golem hangs from a mirror and is the body of a lamp. Two elegant brass hands hold open the ombre window coverings during the day. The washroom and toilet are separated and, looking in from the door, the design is like a bank vault. Every square meter in the room is filled with a handcrafted design. An eagle wing, a fan, the lion holding up the glass coffee table. There are twelve Winter Garden Suites featuring unique towers with original, heritage protected windows, and a real, winter garden in the suite. Ah, the sheer historical decadence of it all. Are the exceptionally high ceilings one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in this room? Or is it the relief sculpture of the lion with its shaggy mane over the headboard of my bed, protecting me while I sleep. A designer has put some creative magic into the comfort and appeal of the color scheme and scale of furnishings. Bohemian blown-glass in the bright color scheme of the hotel is well in evidence. And, like every guest in every hotel room in the world, I open the fridge to check out the stock and find an amazing array of wine, beer, water and packages of nuts, chocolates, and snacks. All local products. All complimentary! I have not seen the likes of this anywhere else in the world. The point is that we are invited to indulge in a generous introduction to the hospitality of Czechia. My favorite meal of the day, whether at home or abroad, is breakfast. Laugh at me if you will, but when the dish of avocado toast, and two perfectly poached eggs with a scattering of the tiniest, prettiest ferns and flowers, is set before me, I get a lump in my throat and my eyes glaze. I am overwhelmed by my feelings of privilege and gratitude for the gift of such beautiful and pure foods prepared for me. For me, food is love. Is anyone else in this dining room reacting as I am? I hope so.
An exciting day of exploring castles, cathedrals and the Old Town will be the subject of the next story of my visit to Prague. A huge number of attractions, relatively low prices, and high levels of public safety put Prague near the top of a new ranking for solo-travel cities. The subway system could be a model for other cities, and there is no charge for seniors.ZEM, the main hotel dining room, is a fascinating experience. (Say, did you notice that ZEM is MEZ backwards?) This avant-garde Czech bistro seems to contrast the aesthetics of Prague’s traditional coffee houses with its 1920s retro-futuristic Czech art, literature and engineering. The menu is a creative blend of Czech produce with occasional hints of Japanese flavours, crafted from a theatrical kitchen stage of charcoal and steam. Servers are polished to the tips of their shoes, and knowledgeable about every nuance of the menu and the wine list. While blending casual conversation with European professionalism, they are sincere about creating a splendid dining experience for us. It’s a visual feast for people-watchers to see the mingling of international hotel guests and locals.
This menu challenges my decision-making skills. There is the Izakaya section that includes my favorite, Tuna Tataki. But no, In Prague, I will order from the Czech Avant Garde section. Chestnut Soup with a cloud of Buttermilk souffle is like a sentimental nod to the Chestnut trees in my neighbourhood in Toronto. Poppy Seed Spaetzle is a dish I’ve only read about in cookbooks. How luscious are these dumplings with black trumpet mushrooms, truffles, shrimp and mushroom espuma. I imagine a forager comes to the back door with fresh mushrooms every morning, I am curious to try the strudel, and this crisp Apple and Caramel Strudel with Ginger Ice Cream is a splendid ending to this outrageously delicious dinner.
The Andaz appears, as we say in Canada, up-scale casual, with a friendly sophistication toward its guests. But you can be certain that the management behind the scenes are intensely professional. In conversations with other guests, the consensus is a desire to return. The hotel has a unique personality, characterized by a scent that comes from small discreetly-placed black boxes. Months of work and smell-tests with a renowned Prague-based perfume house, Pigmentarium, has gone into creating the scent of Andaz: welcoming, home-like, neither strong or perfumy, but pleasant and clean. It can go unnoticed, until you return from a day of exploring, and realize that you are welcomed back by this familiarity.
Prague is a city of artists: Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, David Cerny and many foreign writers who have set their novels in Prague. Architecture, new and historic, live amicably side by side. Step out of the Andaz and there it all is, in front of you, inviting you to explore. I want to embrace it all and commit it to memory, so that on a cold and dreary winter day in the future, I can close my eyes and be back in the lobby of the Andaz for Afternoon Tea.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.