Czech out Prague’s restaurant renaissance
No longer just a city of pubs, the Czech capital is finding its way onto the food map.
With the exception of beer, Prague is not a city that’s been associated with food or a restaurant scene. But thanks to a new generation of well-travelled chefs, business owners, and coffee connoisseurs the city’s restaurant experience has been elevated to new heights.
You can feel the difference,” says Jan Valenta, co-founder along with his wife Zuzana Daňková of Taste of Prague, a top food tours company and authors of the first Prague Foodie map. “Three years ago, you could just walk into a restaurant, now you have to make a reservation.”
From Prague’s centre to its surrounding districts, well-designed specialty coffee cafés, neighborhood bistros, Michelin-star restaurants, and some creative combinations have brought the city a vibrant new culinary scene.
Led by founder Tomáš Karpíšek, the restaurant group Ambiente is what set a new precedent in quality, service, and atmosphere through a steady flow of the city’s most innovative restaurant concepts. “Even when I was a chef, I realised it’s not just about the food, but what’s around. It’s about the experience of eating,” says Karpíšek.
After the revolution everyone was hungry for the exotic,” he says. Opened in 1995, The Living restaurant was Karpíšek’s take on Tex-Mex and Ambiente’s first restaurant. He followed it up with two others and then, satisfying a constant request for Italian, opened Pasta Fresca, Pasta Café, and then Brasiliero, a Brazilian concept with two locations. But it was the group’s first Czech concept that put Prague on the food map.
“It was quite tricky at the start,” says Karpíšek. “We needed to earn some credibility for Czech cuisine.” Their idea was to open something a bit upscale. After a first attempt at the historic Café Savoy, they looked to the recipes of a celebrated 19th-century cookbook and opened La Degustation Bohême Borgeoise in 2006. Offering a multi-course tasting menu with an emphasis on sourcing locally, La Degustation brought Prague one of its first-ever Michelin stars in 2012.
Keeping it Lokal
It was through larger conversations about the Michelin star that led to further emphasis on “keeping it local.” Unlike in France and Italy where the conditions make it easier to source from home, the Czech Republic has relied on imports from those countries. “There was a need to discover the local farm scene. To get raw materials from local producers,” says Karpíšek.
This has particularly come into play at Eska, a first-of-its-kind restaurant-bakery combination opened in 2015. Set inside a former factory in Prague’s Karlín district, the light and bright, two-floor space offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“Our generation is trying to restore the riches and treasures we have.”
The group is also spreading an appreciation for the experience of food in other areas of the city through venues like Lokál, a network of neighbourhood pubs where Czech classics have been updated with fresh, regionally-sourced ingredients.
“Communism interrupted Czech cuisine,” Karpíšek says. “Now we’re going back to the past, we’re digging deep into the traditions of our past. Our generation is trying to restore the riches and treasures we have.”
One success story is the bistro. From Karlín to the Letná district, these affordable venues have been popping up around the city attracting locals and visitors as much for their food as for their Instagram-worthy interiors. Among them is Bistro Milada. Located on a leafy street in the popular Letná district, the quaint neighborhood restaurant where warm nights allow for dining al fresco in the inner courtyard garden was founded by La Degustation’s executive chef and co-owner Oldřich Sahajdák and his wife Šárka.
It was his own food travels that inspired Milada. “I travel to Paris where I like to eat in small bistros,” he says. Inspired by one place in particular, he wanted to bring something similar to Prague − “something not posh, the food is very good, everyone can afford it.”
Keeping the restaurant open just four days per week, Sahajdák and his two chefs reserve three off days to head to the nearby Holešovice market where they shop for ingredients.
And then there was coffee
Across the board, all are in agreement that the shining star of Prague’s food scene is coffee.
“Prague now offers one of the top coffee scenes in Europe. The quality of the coffee is super,” says Kamil Srbek, who first helped bring specialty coffee to the city through Café Lounge in 2009. But it was through EMA, one of the city’s first proper espresso bars, that he played a leading role in setting the pace for Prague’s coffee culture.
“Along with the quality of coffee and the food they are eating, people are more interested in interiors and the way things look,” says Petra Lálová, a customer at Místo, another popular specialty coffee café in the city. Local firm Edit! Architects are behind the design which features walls clad in oak with “little views,” says co-founder Vítezslav Danda, and hints of colour through whimsical walls of art by local artists.
Room to grow
Despite the remarkable evolution of Prague’s restaurant scene, those helping to create it agree that there is still room for improvement. “Service is still not there and with the exception of maybe Italian and Vietnamese, variety is still difficult to find because of little immigration,” says Valenta.
One recently opened venue is certainly making an exciting attempt at filling in these gaps. Carved into a formerly neglected space just down the street from EMA, Manifesto Market has brought the city its first proper food hall where a diversity of flavours, from Argentinian to Asian-Fusion to Czech, are mixed with a daily offering of culture.
“We love the diversity of people, food, culture, and drinks,” says Martin Barry, founder of Manifesto and reSITE, a non-profit focused on improving cities. “You can find over 25 nationalities working at Manifesto every day – that’s another story (along with high-quality service) that is difficult to find elsewhere in Prague.”
Looking out at the city from the rooftop of one of the black shipping containers that give Manifesto its distinctive feel, the changing landscape of Prague is visible. Just like the city’s food scene, it’s a bit of past and present, it’s shifting and evolving, it’s finding its way.
Text Joann Plockova
Photos Tuomas Harjumaaskola