Café Coffee Day at Hlavní Nádraží’s Fantova Kavárna

Bringing cafe elegance back to Prague’s renovated main train station

Sitting at a table in the vestibule of the Fanta building, what was once the primary entrance to Prague’s main train station, I sip my cappuccino, gaze at the painted murals overhead and listen to the train whistle announcing arrivals and departures. It’s hard to believe after years of standing empty that the once iconic Fantova Kavárna has returned to operation.

In late July of 2015, Café Coffee Day, owned by parent company Coffee Day Global Ltd., reopened Fanta Cafe, presenting international travelers, local commuters and anyone with an affinity for architecture and history, the opportunity to see the cafe in its renovated glory and taste Indian coffee at its finest. As the largest producer of arabica beans in Asia, the Indian-owned company made its first foray into the European coffee market on Vienna’s high street in 2005. It has been operating cafes in the Czech Republic since 2010.

Initially acquiring Cafe Emporio in Prague’s Jindřišská street downtown, Café Coffee Day jumped at the chance to bring a reconstructed Fanta Cafe back into operation. Ved Malhotra, head of Café Coffee Day’s European operations, told me that “location was key” in deciding where to expand his growing chain of coffee houses in the Czech Republic. Café Coffee Day also operates cafes in Prague’s Novy Smichov and major Czech cities including Brno, Plzen, Pardubice and Liberec.

In India, CCD, as the company is locally nicknamed, is known for its shade-grown coffee raised on 12,000 acres of trees on the company's own plantations. Their Indian coffee shops serve 300,000 guests daily, and the brand is more popular than American or English brands. They offer 22 blends of coffees in India and have prepared 4 blends specifically for the European market.

For travelers entering Prague’s main train station in the early years of the twentieth century, Fantova Kavárna wasn’t just a place to grab a coffee. Located in the station’s main pavilion, a domed vestibule with a vaulted ceiling reaching toward the heavens, Fanta Cafe represented the epitome of train travel in the heyday of the First Republic. Designed by Czech architect Josef Fanta, the Art Noveau style cafe was a place where travelers from different cultures, time-zones and heritages formed their first and last impressions of the Czech Republic.

A look up at the cafe’s ornate ceiling reveals shields painted to represent each of the grand European destination cities that could once be reached from Prague’s train station. A wrought-iron railing, large glass windows and a door leading from the cafe to the platform separate cafe-goers from the main ebb and flow of travelers. Open seating in the main vestibule allows customers to observe the hustle-and-bustle of travelers on the sub-ground level without being drawn into the chaos. Café Coffee Day brought its own wooden furniture from India, designed by a Spanish designer and executed locally. The dark wooden tables, winged-backed chairs and high-backed bar stools make for a pleasant, comfortable spot to meet a friend for an early breakfast, a mid-morning meeting or a late-afternoon cocktail.

The resplendence of the cafe’s surroundings and its location at the cross-roads of Czech train travel made it an iconic landmark for more than half-a-century. During the First Republic and the years 1943-1953, the train station was named Wilsonovo nádraží (Wilson Station) in honor of the US President Woodrow Wilson for his support for the first independent Czecho-Slovak Republic. On the level below the cafe, there is a plaque dedicated to Wilson with his quote, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” In 1990, under the leadership of President George Bush, the station was once again renamed for Wilson.

Yet, by the early years of the twenty-first century, the romantic image of travelers passing through Prague’s main train station, sitting at Fanta Cafe for a few minutes or a few hours while waiting for their next train was replaced by a dimmer, more dismal picture. When I arrived in Prague in January of 2002, the train station and the park surrounding it had become a spot that locals avoided and travelers tried to get through without getting mugged or attacked. Fanta Cafe was replaced by a second-hand shop and the elegance of train travel all but disappeared.

After a massive train station remodeling project that took over eight years, the Fanta Cafe space is now renovated for a new generation of Czech and international travelers. Renovations preserved the architecture of the original Fanta building and gave the cafe a place of elegance once again in the main train station.

On the morning I visited Café Coffee Day at Fantova Kavárna, I tasted their homemade lime cheesecake, made in their own local kitchen, and my friend sampled their breakfast combo –a coffee of choice, a croissant and a large cup of yogurt with mixed fruit muesli for 75 CZK. Since all of Café Coffee Day's European cafes have full table service, you get both the benefits of a big coffee chain as well as the feeling of an old, traditional coffee house.

While I sit, I watch as a young Hungarian couple, travelers with oversize packs, count out their last Czech crowns to get a coffee and a tiramisu. I hear an older Czech couple, locals going for a day-trip by train, order a black tea and the breakfast combo with a latte. Businessmen and women in suits order espressos in English. Train whistles announce arrivals and departures, but no one in the cafe is in a hurry.

For the moment, I can sit dreaming of the time when having a cup of coffee meant spending an hour or two with friends in a cafe, enjoying good coffee and conversation. The new Fanta Cafe has an air of the Golden Age about it, and sitting under the dome built during the First Republic, I can imagine a revival of coffee culture at its finest.

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