People don’t come to Prague to eat. At least, they didn’t used to. There was once a time when the Czech capital was a place to imbibe a few excellent beers; wander around the narrow cobbled streets; perhaps amble over the gothic, sculpture-studded Charles Bridge; plant yourself in a pub for a few more beers; and then — oh, yeah – eat some mediocre pub grub to help further extend the evening of beer drinking.
But those days are gone. People still come here to quaff the excellent brews. But now the City of a Hundred Spires is the City of a Hundred Inspiring Restaurants. Well, okay, maybe not a hundred. But there are a handful of great spots to eat here, all emphasizing local Czech dishes.
To understand this renaissance in restaurants, you have to go back to 1948. That was the year of the communist takeover of then Czechoslovakia. The government soon issued a cookbook called “Recipe for Warm Meals.”
It was deemed the only official cookbook of Czech cuisine, and if a chef or restaurant wanted to deviate from it, they had to get special permission from the government. Which could take years. So very few did.
As a result, what became known as “Czech cuisine,” goulash and dumplings, fried cheese, braised beef with a dollop of cream and cranberry sauce, grilled sausages, became staid, stodgy and boring — stomach filler for more great beer.
But after the turn of the millennium, with the socialist state now a thing of the past, a few up-and-coming Czech chefs discovered something interesting: 19th-century Czech cookbooks.
In these books they unearthed a pre-communist-period Czech fare that was much more interesting, complex and wider in breadth and definition than anyone could remember.
And so, in the last decade, Czech restaurants have begun popping up on the Prague dining scene that are serving some seriously inspired Central European and Czech dishes — food that would have made an old Communist’s head spin.
Here are some must-dine destinations in Prague for anyone who wishes to taste the new (or, rather, old) Czech cuisine:
Another major factor in Prague’s dining revolution was chef Zdeněk Pohlreich, a celebrity chef and star of the reality TV show “Ano, Šéfe!” (Yes, Boss!), a kind of Gordon Ramsay–like show in which Pohlreich would attempt to improve mediocre restaurants.
But it’s at Cafe Imperial (and its new outpost across the street, Next Door by Imperial) where you can bite into excellent Czech fare. The art deco–bedecked restaurant has been around for nearly a century, but Pohlreich took it over in 2007 and wildly transformed the aesthetically pleasing place into a taste-bud tantalizing tavern, serving fork-tender duck breast wading in sour cherry sauce, roe deer ragout with stewed plums, and braised veal cheeks.
Located on an untrammeled back lane in Old Town, this Michelin-starred spot with a mouthful of a name kicked off the dining revolution here starting in 2006.
When chef Oldřich Sahajdák discovered the cookbook “Kuchařská Škola,” written by Marie B. Svobodová in 1894, he had a lightbulb moment: Using this book as the basis for his changing-daily menus, he would elevate and expand upon the notion of Czech cuisine.
The result is dishes such as venison paired with pumpkin, and veal and bone marrow soup. Eating here isn’t cheap. The eight-course tasting menu costs 3,450 Czech korunas (about $160) and an extra 2,100 Czech korunas (about $100) if you want the wine pairing.
The restaurant group in charge of Le Degustation also runs Lokal, a casual gastropub just a spatula’s throw away. The interior of the long, narrow room is something of an inside joke for those who lived through communism.
It’s subtly decked out to resemble a socialist-era factory cantina, all the way down to the plastic bread baskets at every table.
There’s often a wait, but the pub grub here is some of the best in Prague. From juicy roasted pork belly and pork leg schnitzel to goulash and dumplings, the food here is next-level pub fare.
And paired with the excellent Pilsner Urquell, which somehow tastes better at Lokal than at other pubs, this is one eating experience in Prague you can’t miss.
Another Michelin-starred restaurant, Field, which first fired up its burners in 2014, does elevated, hearty, Central European fare in a casual atmosphere on the border of Old Town and Josefov, the old Jewish quarter.
Menu items change based on available and seasonal ingredients, and diners can choose between a 10-course fixed-price option (3,200 korunas, or about $150) and a la carte dishes.
Standouts include roasted lamb paired with fennel, dates and nuts, as well as the porkalicious suckling pig with blood sausage.