Prague, Praha, Prag–all boast restaurants with “genuine Czech food.” This means, for the most part, well-lit rooms with beige walls, a few framed photographs, wood floors, and solid wood tables and chairs. Paper napkins are the new linen in Prague.
The food is heavy on starters of cheese, pork “spreads,” and cabbage or potato soup. The main courses tend to goulash (pieces of slowly stewed beef in sauce with or without paprika), duck halves (so crispy as to beg for some
liquid for moisture), and pork prepared in so many ways.
We got fooled into going to one authentic Czech eatery, Olympia, our first night in town because it was large, well-patronized, on a popular corner just across one of the main bridges, and highly recommended by the Czech tourist agency. Our doubts should have been totally confirmed by the colorful pictures on the over-sized menu, but it was cold outside and warmly buzzing inside. (Strike three should have been the attempt to sit us in Siberia when we requested the nonsmoking section.)
My smoked sausage appetizer for about $2.50 came in a large mason jar with pickled onions and cabbage. The portion was dinner-sized of very modest quality brats. Mustard would have provided some flavor but none was offered. The other starter–Camembert split with a garlic spread between the two halves– was equally inexpensive, large, and tasteless, except for the oppressive garlic. Dinner was a half crispy duck with bread dumplings and goulash that did not use corn-fed beef from Iowa. Even slow braising couldn’t tenderize this cow. The potato dumpling was more moist and flavorful than the bread dumpling, which neither of us liked. Not recommended.
Night #2 and more authentic Czech cuisine at Plzerska Restaurace, Uhelny Trh. 10. But this one, more carefully chosen by us, was much better and also had an English menu. (For those many of us with a nodding acquaintance with menu terms in multiple Latin- or German- based languages, the Czech Cyrillic alphabet is a real challenge. One restaurant’s host was the definition of contemptuous when I asked if there was an English menu available. I would expect great food at such a proud local restaurant except that it was empty.) Potato soup had an extra-heavy chicken stock and was worth the $1.25. My marinated cheese was tasty. Main dishes were a moist pork loin stuffed with sauerkraut and wild boar rump with bacon dumplings. Both in the $15 range were very good. Beer and local “gruner veltliner” white wine are inexpensive. Cocktails are not.
Several “finds” worthy of note:
Great hot chocolate and pastries right near Wenceslas Square at Half & Half, Vaclavske Namesti 51.
Whole hams baked over open, wood-fired ovens with the meat sliced off in hunks and sold by the kilo at the Christmas markets. Also, look for the trdlnik stands. These are spring-shaped donuts that are rolled out and wrapped around dowels then roasted over open coals and sprinkled with sugar. Very popular.
At the very top of the palace complex across the Charles pedestrian bridge is a small restaurant of eight large booths that has an incredible view of Prague. Located directly below the Strahov Gallery (formerly a monastery), the Restaurant Nad Uvozem, Loretanska 15, pays off the narrow and steep stair climb with an unparalleled cityscape of Prague. The food looked good (!) but I can attest to the goodness of the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell local brew. You have to be looking for the place or you’ll never find it, halfway down a steep staircase that leads from the upper road to a lower alley.
I loved the local flavor of the Golden Tiger, Husova 228/17, which, although it serves food, is primarily a beer bar. For most of the bars in Czech Republic, customers are expected to take a seat and wait to be served. Bars with stools are rare, but can be found. Bars without stools may find some men, women and even children (I saw one 10-year-old lifting a full stein) hovering around a small counter space. I can’t say the Tiger was welcoming because it wasn’t. In fact we felt very much like outsiders the whole time we were there. But one of the pleasures of visiting new cities is to find a place the locals go. This was certainly one.
Also, be sure to visit the Municipal House concert hall, náměstí Republiky 1090/5. It’s great if you can get a ticket to a performance, but even if you can’t, be sure to visit the two restaurants on either side of the main entrance. They are
both decorated, as is the concert hall, in art nouveau style with elegant over-the-top chandeliers and other appointments.
By the way, Czech Republic still uses its own currency, the koruna, or crown. Most establishments will accept euros, but as far as exchange rates go you’re better off converting the euros to crowns.