THE PRAGUE FOOD REVOLUTION
The Czech capital’s culinary scene has been transformed
When the Czech Republic was born in 1993, dining at Hamburk pub offered an all too familiar Prague culinary experience. The meat-and-almostno-veg fare could be euphemistically described as hearty, the ambience smoky. Twenty-five years on, a respected Prague restaurant group runs its reincarnation, Lokál Hamburk. The fug has vanished, but the convivial atmosphere remains, and the pub stands in once grungy Karlín, now abuzz with new eateries. For these days, a food revolution is sweeping Prague, just as it did when Czechoslovakia emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
No longer just about dumpling mountains or hefty slices of pork, dining in the city now entails a rediscovered pig breed, Michelin stars and bustling farmers’ markets – to name a few. “When I got here in 1990, eating for us newly arrived Westerners was a big problem. Now the choice of good restaurants is
endless,” recalls Briton Jo Weaver, director of the leading PR firm JWA, and a Prague resident since 1990.
When she arrived, Prague teemed with canteens serving cheap but decent food. Today, of the handful left, Lidová jídelna Těšnov is the best value. Still sporting the décor typical of 25 years ago – dark veneer panelling, blue checked tablecloths and net curtains – the canteen vividly illustrates how much dining in Prague has changed. Its numerous devotees, from labourers to blue-chip managers, keep faith with Lidová jídelna Těšnov. And while the prices remain retro, this traditional local bastion boasts a website with information in English.
After 1989, pizzerias and other global eateries, often of questionable authenticity, opened in Prague. But Lidová jídelna Těšnov continues to serve local dishes, as does V Kolkovně restaurant. Manager Luboš Havlíček states that “visitors always want to start with Czech cuisine”, which strongly resembles that of Bavaria and Austria. Menus feature sausages, smoked meats, sauerkraut, beef and pork. Vegetables play a bit part, and flavourings stretch to herbs but not exotic spices.
Havlíček suggests it is best to visit a pub ( hospoda) at lunchtime, when they offer good value meals. Local office workers opt for the lunch menu ( polední menu) of soup ( polévka) and a main course ( hlavní jídlo). Goulash in various versions forms a staple of the latter, as does svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin bathed in creamy vegetable sauce with dumplings. Crisp pork or chicken schnitzel, other favourites, come with a hefty dollop of the ever-popular potato salad.
But even this traditional world is changing – thanks to the food revolution. Prague dining is constantly improving, but Havlíček explains that quality and variety have rocketed especially over the last five years, fuelled by greater consumer awareness of food. Social media is also raising the stakes, as meals are posted on Twitter or Instagram. “Diners demand more and want better quality ingredients and an experience,” he explains. British chef Paul Day, owner of Maso a Kobliha and Sansho, also notes Czechs’ fondness for travel and exposure to other cuisines. At Divinis, Zdeněk Pohlreich, the Czech Republic’s most famous chef, provides a third explanation. “I believe that it is the improved Czech economy that is making the public more demanding.” And the healthy forecast continues, with 3.2 per cent economic growth predicted for 2018.
Pohlreich and other chefs are one factor driving the transformation. They are most strongly influenced by French and Italian approaches to cuisine, but Radek Kašpárek, executive chef at Field, contends that Prague cooking is simplifying. “Restaurants are no longer combining cuisines, and fusion is waning.”
At Eska, chef Martin Štangl, is inspired by Nordic cuisine, and he argues that globalisation has helped his profession in the Czech Republic, and is thus transforming Prague dining. “People travel more, and it isn’t as difficult to land an internship in the world’s best restaurants as before.” Additionally, Radek Kašpárek states that “young chefs with lots of potential are arriving, and the old
“The improved Czech economy is making the public more demanding”
guard in Prague is on the way out. These young guys are opening new bistros and bringing a breath of fresh air to the scene.”
Chefs are also promoting appreciation of produce quality, another factor changing Prague’s food scene. Kašpárek notes the trend towards “seasonal, regional and fresh ingredients”. Meanwhile, Paul Day uses meat from his butcher business, The Real Meat Society. In turn, Czech organic farmers supply him. They are enjoying a surge in popularity partly thanks to greater consumer awareness of flavours. “Seven years ago, when I met the first farmer suppliers, we didn’t have enough. Now, many rear their animals outside and have much more meat to sell.” Martin Štangl concurs: “Credit to the farmers, who are interested in doing good business by providing restaurants with the highest-quality produce.”
Besides produce quality, sourcing, on which Paul Day refuses to compromise, is contributing to the revolution. “Several years ago, everyone in Prague was advertising meat from the US and South America. I was determined to have only Czech protein on the menu.” The enthusiastic Englishman’s commitment also motivated him to popularise a local breed, the Přeštice Black-Pied pig, which he regards as one of the best around. “They are outside all year and lead happy lives. You can taste that,” he adds, grinning.
Prague food lovers are positive about the future, including the continued improvement of customer service. “There are still waiters who aren’t service-oriented,” points out Isabelle du Plessix, although she is confident that this will change.
And food commentators view the emphasis on produce and localism as an opportunity for traditional approaches to Czech cuisine. Oldřich Sahajdák, executive chef at La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, is regarded as a champion of such cooking, which he promotes at his Bistro Milada restaurant. By contrast, the chefs also predict the growth of Asian cooking, partly thanks to the city’s large Vietnamese community, which settled here during communism. In addition, high-quality ingredients are available from the SAPA Asian market. “I think there will be many more Asian restaurants in the future,” says Sahajdák.
LEFT: La Degustation Bohême BourgeoiseABOVE: Lidová jídelna Těšnov
TOP LEFT: Jams at the farmers‘ market ABOVE: Divinis BELOW: Modernist cooking at Field
LEFT: Coffee Room ABOVE: Eska restaurant, café and bakery BELOW: V Kolkovně’s frontage, and draft pilsner
RIGHT: Chef Radek Kašpárek of Field restaurant BELOW: Přeštice Black-Pied pig