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Slovaks with cash changing face of Old Town nightlife

THERE IS evidence in Bratislava's Old Town that the faint, but lingering scent of money sifting in from the West is wreaking havoc on the local restaurant and café scene in Bratislava.
The Old Town on Friday and Saturday nights is overflowing with business professionals, young locals and expatriates willing and able to pay for quality food and entertainment. It is obvious that many Slovaks have more cash at their disposal than in the past. While one-room flats in Petržalka selling for Sk1 million ($20,000) or more remain out of reach for most young Slovaks, the odd cocktail for Sk100 or dinner after work in the Old Town seems no longer unreasonable.


With summer just around the corner, patrons of cafes and bars in Old Town will be pouring out onto the streets
photo: Ján Svrček

THERE IS evidence in Bratislava's Old Town that the faint, but lingering scent of money sifting in from the West is wreaking havoc on the local restaurant and café scene in Bratislava.

The Old Town on Friday and Saturday nights is overflowing with business professionals, young locals and expatriates willing and able to pay for quality food and entertainment. It is obvious that many Slovaks have more cash at their disposal than in the past. While one-room flats in Petržalka selling for Sk1 million ($20,000) or more remain out of reach for most young Slovaks, the odd cocktail for Sk100 or dinner after work in the Old Town seems no longer unreasonable.

Even babies are on the move as the odd toddler can be seen drooling in a high chair, waving a drumstick screaming for another cappuccino.

As a result, the Old Town is in the midst of reorganising itself in order to ensure that consumer spending continues to flow in the right direction.

Restaurants in the Old Town are undergoing a slow but persistent metamorphosis. Old haunts that have long stuck with basic attire and local delicacies are investing in renovation projects and resurfacing as more polished, upscale versions of their former selves. Small shops, beauty salons and toy stores are vanishing from the cobblestone streets to make way for eateries, bistros and cafes better suited to the financial climate.

The result thus far has been mixed. Some restaurants consider a leather chair and a piece of parsley upscale enough to justify either a massive leap in price, a remarkable service charge, or both. Others throw a pineapple over some potatoes and bellow, "It's Mexican!" The hotel lobby interior design kit that many establishments doggedly pursue to protect business custom continues to be popular, despite complaints from those still in the 'yet to buy my first tie' demographic.


Gremium cafe and restaurant, ready for the crowds.
photo: Ján Svrček

However, in general the renovation projects and new restaurants are having a positive effect on the Old Town. They are attracting attention in the form of consumer dollars and are proving financially rewarding for those willing to invest beyond table flowers and new doormats.

There is still a glaring gap between the fried cheese dens of old and the new, upscale establishments focusing on business clientele that could easily be filled with truly international cuisine.

Watered down versions of Chinese, Mexican and pizza no longer count as exotic in Bratislava. The chow mein is edible, pizza is pizza and the Mexican should be considered a failed experiment. While Indian and Mediterranean places linger in small numbers quietly in other areas of the city, the old town is particularly sparse in this area. Slovaks are not terribly adventurous in terms of cuisine, so most purveyors of foreign food hedge their bets, and usually compromise quality in the process, by slapping a slab of fried cheese or some pizza alongside the rest of the menu items.

One compromise that continues to make a comeback that locals seem to applaud has been the increase in cafeteria-style lunch spots. Line-ups often stretch to ridiculous lengths because the quality is good, the price is better and the food is always piled high. The fact that people are willing to wait in line for thirty minutes, shuffle through a cafeteria and wolf down a mound of food before running back to work is a sure sign that there is something missing in the Old Town.

Cafes in the old town are also slowly refurbishing themselves to meet the changing demands of the local social scene. Often, new cafes are continuing to cater to local suits by offering coffee, whipped cream and all combinations thereof at rather gaudy rates while failing to manage anything imaginative in terms of décor and atmosphere. This of course is a safe bet as the local business crew seems to be wary of damaging a done deal by meeting colleagues at a venue dissimilar from a boardroom.

However, the real shift in Bratislava has been in the continued growth of places attempting to offer an alternative to the standard café. The prices are of course higher, but the service, surroundings and quality are far superior to the old smoking lairs that continue to linger about town. The music strays beyond top 40 or radio, quality art work covers the walls and air space is free of excessive amounts of smoke. Perhaps it is partly due to increased competition that new establishments are generally making a greater effort to create a warm, inviting atmosphere that will encourage patrons to return.

Bratislava is changing, but slowly. Have a cocktail and be patient. All things good take time.

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