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Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

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Kava.Bar

Wifi: Good.

I ducked in out of the afternoon murk of Obchodná, one of Bratislava’s main shopping streets, the other day, into the convivial warmth of the Martinus Bookstore.  As I slurped a coffee in their street front cafe, watching the trams creak by and perusing my Slovak for Beginners book, I noticed that the menu claimed the establishment I was drinking in was striving to recreate the atmosphere of those Parisian cafes of the 1920s – a platform for animated discussion and creative thought, etcetera. Interesting. But there’s a lot of cafes making claims these days. One stop up on the number 5 tram in the direction of Dubravka, Kava.Bar is perhaps most refreshing because it makes no claims whatsoever. It just quietly goes about serving some of the city’s best coffee, in an unpretentious street corner location on the way up to the castle.

The view out ©englishmaninslovakia.com

View out ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So effortlessly serving coffee that is concocted with skill rather than a “close your eyes, press the button of the expensive Italian machine and hope” approach is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Many times over the last few months, in cities that purport to have a coffeehouse culture far greater than Bratislava’s (Budapest, Vienna) I have been served, with the sombre theatrics of airs-and-graces bow-tied waiters in ornate chandelier-hung surrounds which prepare you for food and drink far better, coffee that is barely acceptable, and that – were it not for the fact that I was in those coffeehouses where you need to behave – is 100% returnable. Kava.Bar brews espressos thick with crema, and macchiatos where the milk enhances the flavour of the coffee rather than concealing the fact it has not been made well enough.

Bratislava’s cafe scene reached a peak probably some time during 2014. The closure of Prešporák that winter brought it down again a few notches. It’s somewhere like Kava.Bar that seems set to get in back to that pinnacle.

Blackboard art… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Blackboard art… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Black-and-white Art Deco-esque tiled floor, big blackboards, displaying intricate sketches and fun messages, championing daily specials, just a cluster of small iron tables but plenty of higher-up window seat perches: Kava.Bar is definitely not about main meals and much more about people watching with a cake, quiche or beverage (they also make really nice tea, plus the joint lends itself well to a glass of good wine in the evening).

It’s not quite designed for lingering like the city’s best cafe of recent years, Prešporák, was. They would certainly never claim their coffee was the equal of Hangout Cafe’s and there’s none of the cafe-for-the-masses feel of Panta Rhei’s Café Dias or the amenable mini coffee chain atmosphere of Stur. Kava.Bar is a proudly independent joint that merely tries to be itself, and does well at it. Its location, on the main route up to Bratislava Castle, will always win it visits (although currently it doesn’t appear to be receiving as many as it deserves). But it has the added merit of having more extensive opening hours than a lot of the other cafes around. I don’t know how they manage to get up so early on Sunday mornings, actually. But I’m very glad they do.

I’m just not sure about the name… it sounds a little too modern. When inside, in fact, kava.bar is much more akin to those Parisian cafes of old that other places wax lyrical about emulating.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on the corner of Zamocká and Skalná, just over the dual carriageway from the old town centre.

OPENING: 8am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A wintry Sunday morning when almost every other good place for coffee is shut.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kava.bar it’s a 600m walk southwest to Bratislava Castle, one of the city’s best viewpoints

Štúr (the Cafe)

Wifi: Good.

I like cafes. And perhaps part of the reason I like them, over, let’s say, restaurants, is because I like sitting in them with a coffee and a laptop, eking away hours stealing subtle glances at newcomers to see if they could become characters in my next book, or will at least add some interesting colour to the article I’m working on (all things that are very hard to do in restaurants). Looking like a writer in them, basically.

In a cafe like Štúr that’s easy. The very theme of the joint is, after all, the father of the Slovak language, Ľudovít Štúr (Shtoor, as it mistakenly gets spelt by some, is NOT the correct way of writing it). Štúr is Slovakia’s national hero, but unlike most national heroes he did not heroically prove himself in some conflict or other. Štúr’s war was with words. That was the crusade he fought. The crusade – whilst Slovakia was a reluctant but increasingly proud and distinct part of the Hungarian Empire – to get Slovak recognised as a language.

RELATED POST: MODRA: THE L’UDOVĺT ŠTÚR TOUR (coming soon!)

Štúr the cafe has been successful enough to build up its own mini-coffee-chain in Bratislava – a novel thing in itself for a city which, to its credit, has none of the soulless international coffeeshop chains like Starbucks. I always patronised the original branch on Panská (pictured above, alas now as you will see this image will become a piece of cafe history), sitting at street level as close to the huge bearded likeness of Ľudovít as I could in order to gaze out at the crowds milling about on the cobbles. Yet, in the rapidly evolving world of Bratislava’s cafes, this branch has lamentably closed. Nevertheless, the caffeine tinted gleam on the horizon is that the mini-chain’s two other locations in the city centre are wonderful: near the Tulip House Boutique Hotel at Štúrova 8 (nice touch to have it on the namesake street) and, better yet, in the former location of Bistro St Germain in an atmospheric little courtyard back from Obchodná 17 (very peaceful and cosy). Map links below!

I certainly think that the Slovak national hero would have approved of the Štúr the cafe. You can usually tell a good cafe from its unassuming facade, in my experience, and the old-fashioned pink-brown sign with Štúr’s solemn countenance staring balefully through the window glass is the very antithesis of flashy (this is also the reason those not in the know might stroll by it oblivious). The waitresses that take your order are effortlessly urbane and welcoming simultaneously which lends the cafe a cosmopolitan feel. You don’t feel bad nursing your delicious espresso a couple of hours. No one will tell you it’s time to move on (even though the place does get busy and tables do fill up). The decor is simple, yet beautiful wooden chairs and tables are evocative of a decade – maybe quite a few ago now – of glamorous cafes frequented by artists, and writers of course, and people who thrashed out ideas as they hung out with drinks. And Štúr would undoubtedly approve of how the menu is laid out: in old Slovak, or in other words the nation’s language as he established it (none of the Czech-, German- or English-isms Slovak has today).

Regular double espresso is 2.20 Euros but there are some fancier, sweeter Štúr specials for only a fraction more (iced caramel and vanilla latte, as an example). Of the light lunches available, we love the cheese and spinach quiche most, whilst the cake selection (normally at least three types of cheesecake, including a chocolate one, and a divine lemon cake) will waylay you as you pass the counter on the way in long enough to have queues building up outside.

Štúr was 200 years old in 2015. Honour him with a visit here!

Štúr the Cafe’s Current Locations in Bratislava Old Town:

1:Right near the Tulip House Boutique Hotel, at (appropriately) Štúrova 8… MAP LINK TO ŠTÚROVA BRANCH

2: Bratislava’s cool mini coffee chain has also recently nabbed a very cool location – in those old premises of Bistro St Germain, in an idyllic little alley-courtyard off Obchodná (No. 17). In my view it was a mistake for Bistro St Germain to let this premises go.. MAP LINK TO OBCHODNÁ BRANCH

OPENING: – 8am-midnight Monday to Friday, 9am-midnight weekends

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Any time in daylight: not because it’s dangerous afterwards, but because daylight shows up the place for what it is: a wonderful street cafe with an eye out on the bustling activity of the city centre.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY:  25 metres further down from Štúr the Cafe’s Obchodná branch (following Obchodná, that is) and you’ll hit the crossroads with Poštova: from here it’s another 25 metres north up to the Panta Rhei bookshop/cafe and 40 metres north to the Austria Trend Hotel or, one block further down Obchodná, a full 50 metres from Štúr the Cafe’s Obchodná branch, there is the cool Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar.

brat-presporak_791x591

Top Ten Bratislava Cafes (March 2017)

Fun at the Hangout Cafe... after hours when there's less peeps hanging there

Fun at the Hangout Cafe… after hours when there’s less peeps hanging there

OK, so this list is subject to change – when I hear of a new entry worthy of the list or of one of these entries deserving a different position I’ll update it. But as of right now, here we go:

10: Café Dias

Only come here for coffee and cake. These two items on the menu are pretty damned fine. The coffee at Café Dias is fair trade, often from Africa, and you’ll salivate over choosing your cake from the many-tiered display cabinet. It’s in the bookshop, Panta Rhei, and the other reason it goes in at number 10 is as a great people-watching spot.

Location: Poštová under Austria Trend Hotel

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9: Next Apache

Next Apache does good coffee, including its own special blend, amidst one of the best selections of English and Slovak language second-hand books in the city.

Location: Panenská 28

Website: 

8: Caffe l’Aura

A great hidden-away little spot by St Martin’s Cathedral: at front it doubles as the Old Town’s coolest antique shops, at back the café, decorated with quirky knickknacks, is a place where you can sit and sip and never be rushed.

Location: Rudnayovo Námestie off Panská

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7: Corny Café

Another hidden-away place in an interesting area just east of downtown near the Blue Church. There’s a small outside garden, and the inside is lovably, cosily retro: you could imagine Communist leaders making breakfast business deals here. The coffee is great (fair trade, with produce from coffee growers around the world available, and in my opinion a candidate for the city’s best) and the cake selection is very good. It’s slipped down the list a tad of late because sometimes if you go in it can be quiet, and this can detract from the atmosphere.

Location: Grösslingová 20

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6: Caffé Trieste

This little place at Floriánske Námestie goes in at 6 for the quality of its coffee. It is up there with the city’s best, and for the quality/ price ratio (an espresso costs just €1) for a caffeine fix it could be top. It falls down for having a poor cake selection and for there being a lot of competition for seating: you often feel rushed. It’s so popular though that the outside seats are taken even in winter!

Location: Floriánske Námestie 1

Website: 

5: Avra Kehdabra

And indeed, perhaps you will feel as though uttering the classic incantation to incite magical happenings (the name is the Slovak way of saying Abracadabra by the way) really can occasionally work, when you clap eyes on this cute, tucked-away place on Grösslingová, which styles itself as a literary teahouse, but also serves incredible coffee amongst heavily book-stacked shelves. Places come, and places close, but this little joint has become a permanent fixture in the Bratislava hot drinks scene and comes the closest to replacing the lamentably departed Prešporák – my all-time favourite Bratislava cafe (but watch this space for an interesting update on that score).

Location: Grösslingová 49

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4: Bistro St German

Most people know about Bistro St German now, tourists included. But that’s because it’s a great place: with an atmosphere reminiscent of the Parisian bistros of old, formidable cakes, including a gluten-free option, decent (although betterable) coffee. The soups and lunches (a delicious burger, a succulent quiche) are worth a stop too.

Location: Rajská 7 (It’s now moved as of May 2014 to this new location from its former one off Obchodná – it’s new location is not QUITE as atmospheric which means its position on this list has now changed.)

More on The New Bistro St Germain

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3: Štúr

A bit of an institution now but a pretty good one,  has a menu in old-fashioned Slovak (faithful to founder of the Slovak language, Ľudovít Štúr, after whom it takes its name) and great baguettes and lunches. The cakes are also very good, and it’s open until 10pm.

Location: Štúrová 14

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2: Hangout Café

The owner claims he does the city’s best espresso and he could well be right; the word on the street often backs him up at least. It’s a nice interior: bare-brick walls, seating at the bar or at window tables and a nice big blackboard touting the specials. It only doesn’t get a higher entry because the quality in the centre is getting pretty high.

Location: Kapucinská, right by the tram stop.

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1: Kava.Bar

Kava.Bar was treated with much excitement by englishmaninslovakia.co.uk when we spotted it on a walk up to the castle a couple of winters back. It’s a small place, but huge blackboards and cute window seats and a liberal decoration with various curios make this very eye-catching as cute cosy cafes go. The coffee is great, the cake selection not bad, but  I would also have liked to see a little more in the way of food. But the ambience is perfect.

Location: Skalná 1 

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