For more then fore decades, the Czech restaurant scene remained at standstill behind the Iron curtain. Today, however, the sector has its own innovative concepts to offer. A tour through prague. By Maria Hornikova.
Up until the Second World War, the Czech restaurant industry operated at a very high level. In Prague, Brno and other cities there were elegant cafés and excellent restaurants. The reputation of the Prague restaurant scene was so good that European restaurateurs would go there for inspiration. However, the Second World War, the communists‘ rise to power and the subsequent 40 years of socialist rule put an end to development in the sector. Businesses were nationalised, specialist staff sent to factories and contact with other countries made almost impossible.
When everything changed very abruptly in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution, Czech restaurateurs had to recognise that the world had moved on in the intervening years and that they had been left behind. Starting afresh was difficult; the first attempts by many self-confessed gold diggers in the restaurant business failed after just a few years. Unfortunately, projects of people who wanted to restart an interrupted family tradition also came to grief, because they lacked the knowledge and experience passed down over years and generations.
Whilst some got started immediately with setting up their businesses from scratch after the end of communism, others went abroad to gain specialist experience. At the same time, foreign investors began to take an interest in the Czech Republic. Both, returnees and new investors, brought their expertise with them and thus provided for the emergence of new restaurant concepts.
Recent awards also bear witness to the ambitions of Czech restaurateurs in March 2012, two Prague chefs each received a Michelin star. After many years, the Czech restaurant business is now once again gaining a new self-confidence and subsequently attracting ever more specialist staff as well as people wanting to start their own businesses. In 2011, the sector employed 118,416 people.
Low prices, slow growth
The greatest challenge faced by Czech restaurateurs is basically the customer. Czech people still regard anything new with suspicion. Also a willingness to pay high prices for correspondingly high quality food is something that needs to be developed. “Today, traditional local cuisine is very much influenced by certain global trends. At the same time there is the desire to use more local and seasonal ingredients and the resurrection of recipes ‘just like grandma used to make them’. Nevertheless, 85% of the time, traditional Czech diners recognise only five basic dishes,” says Pavel Maurer, organiser of the Prague Food Festival and publisher of ‘Grand Restaurant’, the Czech restaurant guide. “Our top 5 are: roast pork with dumplings and cabbage, goulash, schnitzel, fried breaded cheese and beef sirloin in cream sauce.”
When it comes to the quality and creativity of the cuisine, there is still a marked difference between Prague and other towns or the countryside. 1.2 m of the total of 10.5 m Czechs live in the capital Brno, the country‘s second largest city, has currently just 370,000 inhabitants. A short tour of this small country, however, shows that even outside the capital all gastronomic trends are represented. So far, fast casual has the least to offer and there is still room for plenty of interesting new concepts!
Concepts ‘made in the Czech Republic’
It is impossible to think of Czech cuisine without beer and cosy pubs, though dark, smoky beer taverns have been replaced by modern saloons. Over the last couple of years several beer-based concepts have come into being, and these are already proving quite successful. Their common denominator: a revamped image for beer and a new balance between beer and food. One of the large Czech breweries is usually behind most concepts of this kind.
Kolkovna Restaurant stands for traditional pubs with traditional Bohemian specialities but also offers an international cuisine. The brand‘s restaurants – there are now seven of them – are partnered by the famous Czech brewery Plzen?ský Prazdroj. The concept has already expanded abroad: Kolkovna has also opened in Moscow. www.kolkovna.cz
Potrefena husa is a brand from the Staropramen (InBev) brewery, which embraces three different concepts: Potrefená husa Restaurace, Potrefená husa Sport Bar and Potrefená husa Beerpoint. The first of these is popular mainly with the young and the middleaged. A wide range of draft and bottled beers is on offer. Potrefená husa Sport Bar concentrates on beer, traditional cuisine, darts and billiards as well as showing sports programmes. Potrefená husa Beerpoint is the latest concept and has been specially developed with city shopping centres in mind. www.potrefene-husy.cz
C?estr takes its name from the abbreviation of the name of an old breed of pied cow, which was once raised in Bohemia and had long since faded into oblivion. Here beef specialities are served from meat which is aged in special rooms within sight of the customers. A set menu (starter, roast and steak) costs CZK568 (€22) per person, a main dish around CZK210 (€8). www.cestr.cz
Behind the name of La Degustation Boh·me Bourgeoise lies a concept based on a tasting menu made up from traditional Bohemian recipes but with a very modern twist. So, for instance, you can try poached Prague ham with horseradish foam, fresh smoked calf‘s tongue with pea purée and horseradish dumplings or veal steak with a cucumber jelly. A menu of seven courses and seven amuse-bouches for a set price of CZK2,250 (€88) also delighted the Michelin Guide inspector and, as a result, the restaurant was awarded a star this year. www.ladegustation.cz
Although Czechs still lead the European rankings for pro capita beer consumption and their beers are world famous, the wine bar and wine restaurant sector is also gaining in importance. These include the Red pif restaurant in Prague‘s historic centre. Red pif is indeed a restaurant, but it is, above all else, a wine bar, which is personally stocked by its proprietors with top quality natural wines from small French vineyards. All bottled wines are also served by the glass here. The daily changing offer consists of some French as well as some local specialities. www.redpif.cz
The newest Coloseum restaurant is located right beside the National Theatre in a building, which belonged to the St. Ursula convent complex since the 16th century. Where once there was a very famous cloister wine bar much visited by Czech artists and politicians, there is now a restaurant, which opened by the end of last year. The operator, Coloseum Restaurants, can also already boast a network of eleven popular Italian restaurants under the same name of Pizza Coloseum. In this new one however the concept has been elevated to a new level. Beside the regular Coloseum choice, fine dining dishes star on the expanded menu. All priced between CZK122 (€5) and CZK610 (€25). In addition, the restaurant offers a set menu at CZK1.070 (€43), or CZK1.520 (€62) including wine. www.pizzacoloseum.cz
Although organic food can count on a growing number of followers, Prague does not have a single restaurant for organic food. Brno, on the other hand, already has four of them. Four certificated vegetarian organic self-service restaurants trade under the name of Rebio. The price of dishes is calculated according to weight: 100g costs CZK21.90 (€0.85). There is a wide selection of fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Organic spelt beer and organic yeast beer as well as organic wine can also be ordered. www.rebio.cz