Distillations: Having a Capital Time at Cafe Prague

It took Janet 45 minutes to find the Café Prague, and she started just four blocks away. She's incredibly apologetic about being late.

"C'mon," I tell her. "With all the issues I'm dealing with right now? This isn't even worth getting angry about." But she's still upset, feeling that a compact has been broken by tardiness.

We take our seats at a secluded back table, and drink Czech lager. '50s music is playing enthusiastically on the loudspeakers, and a waitress who is unreasonably beautiful and not particularly attentive stops by only once to ask about a refill.

Location Info


Cafe Prague

424 Merchant
San Francisco, CA 94111

Category: Restaurant > Czech

Region: Union Square/ Financial District

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Janet, who edited my recent book, has come to try to cool me down about a mutual friend who has pushed me to the brink. I'm so mad I start shouting five minutes in.

"Calm down," she tells me. "I have anger issues too ..."

"I don't have anger issues! I'm just angry!"

"Well, I did, and I burned a lot of bridges, and I always regretted it."

"The difference is that you burned down bridges because you were mad! I burn down bridges because, like all righteous men, after a certain point I think people should burn!"

In hindsight, I'm not sure how comfortable I am having said that with utter conviction.

"But don't get heated about it," Janet says. "Play along and then find another way to get him later. You know that old saying? 'Revenge is a dish best served cold?'"

"The people who say that don't know how to cook."

She laughs and I grin. It's hard for me to stay angry when I'm being so damn clever.

I thought a café named after Prague would be a good place to have this conversation: Janet and I fancy that we'd feel right at home in one of the great cultural capitals of Europe, discussing music with Mozart and Dvorak, literature with Kafka and Havel, and the nature of man with Freud or Wertheimer.

I lived there, for a short time, in my expat days — when it was a city recovering from the ravages of communism, a city rich in heritage but poor in every other way, whose honest intellectuals had been forced underground for decades. It made for an electrifying, and occasionally terrifying, place to visit.

San Francisco's Café Prague is kind of the sophomore dorm room equivalent of that, plastered with the symbols of cultures but without any particular rhyme or reason. The café's entrance has an Apple logo, a bear, a griffin, fresh flowers, and a replica of Greek statuary on or beside it. How many incompatible symbols does one entrance need? And what's with the '50s music inside, and the posters of the '60s icons, alongside more symbols and representations of the city namesake?

Still, it all kind of works. The eclectic feel represents the convergence of different interests that a Prague cafe — or at least a great dorm room hangout — ought to have. A Prague-themed bar that wasn't a little eclectic, and therefore surprising, wouldn't be trying at all.

The '50s music really ought to be jazz, though — which is far more dangerous and stimulating, and representative of the intellectual climate of a city that made oddball literati who changed the world feel at home. But at least the '50s music evokes a different time and place. And let's be honest, most bar crowds care less where they're transported than whether they're transported. Get them away from their lives for an hour and they'll disregard the where.

The Café Prague makes it work, and Janet and I drink a couple of Czech pilsners ... one of the few kinds of lager I think it's worth the effort to swallow ... and snack on appetizers that remind me of Europe more generically than Prague specifically (caprese salad, Polish sausages, Italian meatballs) — but again, that's fine: What's a cultural capital in the modern world but a place where foreign influences mix?

I think I win every argument on points, but gradually my fury about it fades, so she gets what she wants. The truth is that I can only be a righteous man for short busts, which I have to choose carefully: Otherwise I like to respond to human folly with a curious shrug.

Fire does provide light by which to see the wonders of the world. Still, life is more interesting when you don't chase brilliant oddballs away.

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