Thursday, August 23, 2018

Prague is a foodie's delight...and bargain

Prague. A city of spires and castles, but surprisingly it's also a foodie's dream. You can dine well here at a fraction of the cost back home. We're talking C$15, including a drink and tip.

Are you kidding? Prague? Isn't it all meat, cabbage and dumplings?

That's certainly the traditional dish (top), along with goulash, fried cheese and schnitzel, often served with boiled or mashed potatoes. But it's been updated with modern flourishes. Czech restaurateurs have invested in their establishments' kitchens, decors and staff, who are friendly and fast. Fading is the stereotype of rude waiters (i.e. U Fleku, c.1992) (check Tripadvisor to avoid the ones today).

What follows is a list of mid-range restaurants, a beer garden and one secret within tourist Prague. They deliver fine Czech food and friendly service within comfy interiors at reasonable prices (200 Czech crowns or C$13 for an entree, and 45 crowns or C$2 for a pint of renown Czech beer). Most places offer veggie options. Unless noted, all restaurants accept major credit cards, and some have free wifi. I didn't reserve at any of them, but reserving is not a bad idea.

Jo's Bar & Restaurant lies steps from the Charles Bridge on the Malostrana side of the Vltava River, amid a cluster of tourist traps. Jo's is not one of them. Rather, its elegant and spacious interior promise something better. That said, find a table outside beneath the arched walkway so you can people-watch (and protect you from sudden rain). Like most Prague restaurants, Jo's offers North American fast food (why bother?) as well as Czech cuisine, including pork cheeks, rabbit leg and lamb. Most entrees are served with a tasty sauce and vegetables. The pork cheeks feature Carlsbad dumplings which are more complex than the typical white-flour-and-onion ones, and reminded me of turkey stuffing--in a good way. The rabbit was tender and seasoned. To the left are two large pieces of pan-seared trout lying on a bed of couscous, mixed vegetables and cream sauce. The trout was a superb alternative to the pork- and beef-heavy menus of Prague, and went well with the house beer (světlé/light). Mains average 209 Kč. and 400 mL of beer is 45. Bonus points to the young waiter who was attentive, super-friendly and spoke fine English. I ate here twice. The first time, we were served within five minutes; the second over 15, but I'll forgive that. The wait was worth it. Tip: dine on the sidewalk, Parisian-style.

Five minutes around the corner from Jo's on Karmelitská Street is Ferdinand (aka Ferdinanda). The entrance is actually off the street, so look for the sign. You walk downstairs into a clean, well-lit and -decorated cellar populated with benches. Like Jo's, Ferdinand has added some fine touches to traditional Czech cuisine, such as the pork with honey and spicy apricot chutney (below), which I had with a salad.

The chutney wasn't as spicy as advertised but rang with flavourful sweetness. The portions were quite generous. The dish set me back 193 Kč (C$13) while a pint of the cerny (dark) house beer (below) was 32 Kč ($2) and boasted hearty caramel notes. The waiter was friendly and helpful, and the kitchen cooked our food within five minutes. (Note: There's another Ferdinand across the Vltava.)

Across the street from Ferdinand is U Maleho Glena Jazz & Blues Club. The live music is downstairs (and good), while the bar and restaurant lies upstairs. It's the kind of cozy place you hang with your friends over pints well into the evening. The music is chill, the bartender is chill--hell, the whole place is chill.

The kitchen pumps out everything from salads to Tex Mex to veggie plates. U Glena offers three Czech mains. The chicken schnitzel (below) with a pile of mashed potatoes (185 Kč) is the perfect comfort food, and we slammed it down with local pints. Tip: Great wifi.

Across the Vltava in Nové Mesto (New Town), near Karlovo náměstí, lies a place that a Czech friend recommended. Šumavy is an old-school bar/restaurant, decorated with deep-brown wooden tables and chairs, plus antique bric-a-brac, including a framed share of the first Czech corporation (a brewery, of course).

Walk in and you immediately see beer. Pivo, pivo, pivo. There are nine Czech drafts, including the gold standard Pilsner Urquell (48 Kč) and the pale, local lager, Albrecht (below) (36 Kč).

Unsurprisingly, the food is traditional, meaning meat-cabbage-and-dumplings (189 Kč), and the roasted pork knee with bread, mustard and hot chilies on the side (below, 219 Kč). This vegetarian's nightmare demanded a big-ass knife to carve the meat out of the fat and bone across a huge plate. It was a feast and a workout. Come with an appetite. Service is very friendly and the waiters speak good English (but speak Czech in return). We were served our meals within minutes. And, yes, they take credit cards.

If you think that Czech food is caloric, you're damn right. But you'll burn it off climbing the city's hilly, cobblestoned streets. It's wise to eat before sightseeing. A good example is Vyšehrad, a park lying high above the east side of the Vltava, a little south of the city center.

Get off the tram at Vyton and walk up quiet Vratislavova Street until you find the patio of U Kroka. We arrived at the end of lunch-time, so the only entree left was turkey with mashed potatoes and onions, bathed in a delicious paprika sauce for only 119 Kč (C$8). Paired with a Pilsner (48 Kč) and it was the perfect lunch before climbing up the hill...

...At the top of winding, rising Vratislavova, enter Vyšehrad. Enjoy dazzling views of Prague, marvel at the vineyard (yup, they make wine in Prague), stroll through the park, then knock back a few pints at Hospůdka Na Hradbách beer garden.

No, this isn't a patio at Thai resort, but the Most Relaxing Bar in Prague, boasting gorgeous views of the south and east. It was glorious to lounge here during a heatwave with a pint (golden Velkopopovický Kozel for 34 Kč, below, and Pilsner at 45 Kč). Grilled meals are available at reasonable prices. There are children's swings and a basketball hoop, but when it's 37C on the humidex, you just want to bask in the shade. The staff are super-friendly.

You'll also find vineyards in Vinorhady. Literally "vineyard" in Czech, the Vinohrady district is renown for its art nouveau architecture and grapes, as found in Havlíčkovy sady (below).

Many foreigners live here, so there's a proliferation of burger and pizza joints. Avoid them and hit U Bulínů for a traditional lunch of chicken, beef, pork or trout. The waiters were friendly and patiently answered questions about the menu. Food was ready in five minutes. Including beers, lunch for two cost 332 Kč (C$22). Tip: Add a standard 5-10% tip.

For something different, wander off the main commercial boulevard of Wenceslas Square onto Vodičkova Street and discover Jídelna Světozor in the basement of a charming mall. Světozor is an old-school place where the locals lunch. No waiters or tablecloths.

It's like a high-school cafeteria where you grab a tray and cutlery, line up and order from a menu of traditional plates. No fear, there is an English menu, though it's in the middle of the ordering lane, which leaves you little time to read. This is down-home DIY dining like a local. Traditional meat and bread dumplings will set you back 109 Kč (C$7), goulash 119 Kč (above) and a pint of Kozel 29 Kč (C$2). That's it. Note that the Světozor staff don't speak English, but their friendliness made up for it. My companion ordered a kava (coffee) that they kindly handed her during our meal. And judging by the number of backpacks, quite a few tourists know about this spot. Bring cash. Tip: Check out the cool European movie posters at the neighbouring Kino Cinema when you leave.

To wind up a long day of sightseeing, enjoy a cake and beer in the Old Town Square. Avoid the overpriced tourist traps at street level, and find the Skautský institut (Scouts Institute), a hidden gem. Instead of shelling out 100 Kč for a beer on the street, here you pay only 35. Wine, hummus, soft drinks and tea are also available at similar prices. You can also recharge your phone here or surf using their wifi. Anyone is welcome, not just scouts. The second-storey hangout has a relaxing college cafe vibe to it, with bookcases, folding chairs and communal tables.

Best of all, the Skautský institut offers a view of the Old Town Square literally above the crowds:

Tourist don't know the Skautský institut, but it's the greatest travel bargain in Prague.

This is only a sample of Prague restaurants. There are many others to be found at Tripadvisor. Just beware that a bad ones secretly add enormous "service fees" to your bill, which must be printed according to Czech law. Also, tipping in Prague is like Paris: round up, typically 5%, though pay more if the server is exceptional. Again, speak some Czech, like prosim and dekuji. It's good manners and you want the same in return, right?

Dobrou chuť! 

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