Bistro Praha, 101 Street, Thursday, 2:30 p.m.: There’s a soft afternoon light on these tables. I’m listening to Kamila, the waitress, talk about how busy it has been. I’m on my second glass of red and the place is, for now, empty.
I’m sitting at the corner table under an expansive tableau of the Alps. It’s a conundrum, as the Czech Republic doesn’t have any Alps, and “the Bistro” is quintessentially Czech, but it’s always been there.
It’s rare that a rebirth of a restaurant will match its ghost. Even rarer, the reborn incarnation will surpass its former self. Such is the case with the Bistro, which rebuilt itself after a 2009 fire forces it to move.
I grew up sitting at these scarred wooden tables. I remember lining up to get into the old Bistro 25 years ago. I had scant money. I had ripped jeans before they were cool. I would go there to read, or write, or study or drink coffee. And Milan, one of the Bistro’s brilliantly steady waiters, and a man who’s been a permanent figure in my life for more than 25 years, would forgive me for being a student and a struggling writer; some nights he would bring me coffee and keep refilling my mug for hours. At the end of such a night, I would pay for one cup. Sometimes I could afford a couple of beers, and the cabbage soup was inexpensive and delicious. The classical music was a steady treat. And the owner, Frantisek, with his passion for music and opera and women, was, for me, a larger-than-life Zorba the Greek. There were nights when a flute of champagne would show up at my table followed by Frantisek, and then the stories would start and the bottles of champagne would appear, and soon it was four in the morning and I knew I’d be walking home.
This afternoon, just as I’m fumbling for some cash to pay for my drinks, Milan comes in and says, “Hello Tommy.” Nobody calls me Tommy except a couple of aunts, long dead. But he somehow makes it sound all European and cool and, in that moment, I decide to order one more glass of red.
Thomas Trofimuk is a prize-winning writer. He’s currently on the final stages of his fourth novel, tentatively called, The Venn Diagram of Them.