In the last decade the number, quality and variety of Prague's restaurants has expanded beyond all recognition. You can now enjoy a wide range of international cuisine, from Afghan to Argentinian, Korean to Vietnamese, and even expect service with a smile in the majority of eating places. However, don’t let this kaleidoscope of cuisines blind you to the pleasures of good old-fashioned Czech grub.
Prague Restaurant Scene
Back in the 1990s, eating out in Prague was a hit-and-miss affair. To be honest, it was mostly miss. You could get cheap pork and dumplings in smoky pubs, or expensive pork and dumplings in international hotels, and that was about it.
But the opening of the Ambiente group's first restaurant in Vinohrady in 1995 marked the beginning of a transformation in the city's restaurant scene that has gathered pace ever since, and has really taken off since 2008 when the city received its first Michelin star (for the Allegro restaurant, now closed, in the Four Seasons hotel).
Ambiente has gone from strength to strength, and now has a stable of around 18 innovative restaurants in Prague, ranging from the Lokál chain of Czech pubs to the Michelin-starred La Degustation, and as locals have come more and more to expect good food and good service, more chefs have championed the use of top quality, locally sourced produce.
Prague is now a fully fledged foodie destination, with a lively, ever-changing restaurant scene, and a growing band of food bloggers and food tour guides. As the Czechs say, dobrou chuť! (bon appetit!)
Taste of Prague Locals Jan and Zuzi are passionate about Prague's restaurant scene. They lead four-hour foodie tours of the city, tasting trad and modern Czech dishes and drinks in a variety of venues, with intriguing asides on Czech history and culture along the way. Private one- or two-day tasting tours of Moravian vineyards can also be arranged.
Eating Prague These guys lead a four-hour walking tour of central Prague that takes in tastings of classic Czech dishes such as chlebíčky (open sandwiches), svíčková (braised beef and dumplings with cream sauce) and perníček (decorated gingerbread) at various eateries. They also offer a 3½-hour beer-tasting tour of Prague's beer gardens (2.30pm Tuesday to Saturday).
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Served from 7am to 9am, a typical Czech snídaně (breakfast) is a light affair consisting of chléb (bread) or rohlík (bread roll) with butter, cheese, jam or yoghurt, washed down with tea or coffee. A hotel breakfast buffet will normally also include cereals, eggs, ham or sausage. Many cafes serve British- and American-style breakfasts.
You can also go to a pekárna or pekařství (bakery), or to one of the French or Viennese bakeries, for loupáčky (like croissants but smaller and heavier). Czech bread, especially rye, is excellent and varied.
Oběd (lunch) is traditionally the main meal of the day and, except for Sunday, it’s often a hurried affair. Czechs are usually early risers, and so they may sit down to lunch as early as 11.30am, though many restaurants continue to serve lunch as late as 3pm.
Having stuffed themselves at lunchtime, for many Czechs večeře (dinner) is a light meal, perhaps only a platter of cold meats, cheese and pickles with bread. However, city restaurants gear up for a three-course dinner from 6pm to 10pm.
Celebrating With Food
Christmas is the most important celebration on the Czech domestic calendar, and food and drink play an important part. Christmas Eve (Štědrý den, or ‘generous day’) is a day of abstinence from meat, with people saving their appetite for the evening meal, which is traditionally smažený kapr (crispy, fried carp) served with bramborový salát (potato salad). The carp are farmed in medieval rybníky (fish ponds) in the countryside, mostly in South Bohemia, and in December they are brought to city markets where they are sold, live, from water-filled barrels. In many homes, the Christmas carp then gets to swim around in the bathtub until it’s time for the frying pan.
There is no national tradition as to what is served on Christmas Day (vánoce), but meat is definitely back on the menu; pečená kachna (roast duck), served with gravy and dumplings, is a widespread favourite. There are also vánoční cukrovi (Christmas cookies), baked according to traditional family recipes, and vánočka, Bohemia’s answer to Christmas cake, made with bread dough, sweetened with sugar, flavoured with lemon, nutmeg, raisins and almonds, and plaited; it is usually served after the Christmas Eve dinner.
New Year’s Eve (Silvestr) is also a big celebration. Few people still prepare the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner of vepřový ovar (boiled pig’s head) served with grated horseradish and apple, but the day is still a big party day, with plates of chlebičký (small, open sandwiches), brambůrky (potato pancakes) and other snacks, and bottles of šampaňské or other sparkling wine on hand to toast the bells at midnight.
Although the vast majority of Prague’s tourist-oriented restaurants have long since adopted international manners, a dinner in a Czech home or a traditional eatery still demands traditional local etiquette.
To the Czech way of thinking, only barbarians would begin a meal without first saying dobrou chuť (the Czech equivalent of bon appetit – the correct response is to repeat the phrase); even the waiters in tourist restaurants will murmur dobrou chuť as they place the plates on your table. The first drink of the evening is accompanied by a toast – usually na zdraví (nahz-drah-vee; ‘to health’) – as you clink first the tops and then the bottoms of your glasses, then touch the glass to the table.
It’s considered bad manners to talk while eating, and especially to distract a guest while they are enjoying their food, so conversation is usually kept to a minimum while food is being consumed; the time for talk is between courses and after the meal.
There is a wide variety of self-catering options available with potraviny (grocery or food shops), delis and supermarkets everywhere, the best stocked and priciest being in flashy department stores near the centre. Note that some perishable supermarket food items bear a date of manufacture (datum výroby) plus a ‘consume within…’ (spotřebujte do…) period, whereas others (such as long-life milk) have a stated minimum shelf life (minimální trvanlivost) date, after which the freshness of the product is not guaranteed.
For supermarket supplies, head over to the Albert Supermarket, which is beneath the Palladium shopping mall, or to Tesco, which is in the basement of the MY Národní department store. In Malá Strana you will find the handy Vacek Bio-Market, a well-stocked mini-supermarket.
The city has several open-air produce markets. The biggest one in the city centre is the tourist-oriented Havelská market, south of the Old Town Square, while the Italian goods at Smíchov's Wine Food Market are well worth seeking out. Best of all are the city's farmers markets, including Dejvice and Náplavka.
Places that are good for stocking up on picnic supplies include Culinaria, a deli which sells handmade bread, pastries, French and Italian specialities, and freshly made sandwiches, and Gurmet Pasáž Dlouhá, which offers a range of speciality food and drink shops. Bakeshop Praha is a fantastic bakery that sells some of the best bread in the city, along with pastries, cakes and takeaway sandwiches, salads and quiche.
Cellarius is the place to head if you’re looking for Czech and imported wines.
Need to Know
Lunch is generally from noon to 3pm, and dinner from 6pm to 9pm. However, most Prague restaurants are open all day, from 11am or noon to 10pm or 11pm.
It’s always a good idea to reserve a table at upmarket restaurants, especially during the high season; almost without fail the phone will be answered by someone who can speak English.
In most tourist-area places the helpful message ‘Tips not included’, in English (hint, hint), is printed on the bill. The usual rate is 5% to 10% of the total. Usual practice in pubs, cafes and midrange restaurants is to round up the bill to the next 10Kč (or the next 20Kč if it’s over 200Kč).
In 2017, the ban on smoking in public places was revised to include pubs and restaurants in the Czech Republic.
Prague Food & Drink Blogs
- Czech Please (www.twitter.com/czechplease)
- Bohemian Bites (http://bohemianbites.wordpress.com)
- Eating Prague (http://eatingpraguetours.com/blog)
- Pivní Filosof (www.pivni-filosof.com)
- Taste of Prague (www.tasteofprague.com/pragueblog)