Prague: foodie heaven

by Paul.Sullivan

Though more associated with boozy stag weekends than sophisticated foodie expeditions, Prague has lately come into its own as a serious culinary destination

While it’s never going to go pound-for-pound with heavyweight dining hubs like Paris, London or New York, the Golden City now offers a vast array of eateries that extends way beyond traditional beer halls to embrace svelte international eateries, Michelin-starred hotspots and – gasp! – even vegetarian options.
 
In fact, the city even gained its first Michelin spot in 2007, with the arrival of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Prague, with a distinctly anti-maze interior (designed by David Collins and located inside the Hilton hotel) resembling its London namesake. As you’ll have already guessed, this isn’t a place for those on a budget – nor for those seeking simple foods like salads or soups. But if you want to have your taste buds remixed by dazzling, palette-provoking dishes, this could be the place to head.
 
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maze is merely the latest in a long line of sophisticated establishments to arrive on Prague’s foodie scene. One of the first was Nils Jeben’s Kampa Park, which raised the bar considerably when it arrived in the city back in the mid 90s. With its peerless location under Charles Bridge - its riverside terrace is an unbeatable place to dine on a warm summer evening or afternoon – Kampa Park still manages to claim a place in the top ranks with an elegant and ambitious fusion of Czech and international dishes.
 
Even more established - the restaurant is from the 11th century, and its wine cellar is a good three centuries older - is Flambée, whose intimate, quasi-romantic interior draws a slightly grander clientele of politicos and celebrities (Baron Rothschild has eaten here, as has roundhouse supremo Chuck Norris). The special five-course set menus, live piano playing and superlative wine list are as good a combination as it gets, making this a prime choice for special occasions. 
 
While eating in hotels is a no-go for many, some of Prague’s best restaurants - like Maze - can be found ensconced in five stars. With its watery vista and world-class Med/Czech fusions, the Allegro (part of the luxurious Four Seasons hotel), is justly regarded as one of the city’s top eateries. True, it carries a slightly formal air but the imaginative cuisine more than compensates. The same goes for Essensia at the Mandarin Oriental. The slick selection of Asian dishes found here makes it one of the best of its kind in town.
 
Those seeking a degustation experience will be pleased to know there are a couple of excellent options in Prague. Vinarna V Zatisi, an atmospheric restaurant squeezed into an Old Town lane, offers tasting menus (Bohemian, V Zatisi, Luxembourg) alongside à la carte options – whatever you choose, you can rest assured it will be memorable. La Degustation, as its name suggests, is a slightly less formal venue, where the chefs have reconstructed some of Bohemia’s former culinary wealth using recipes from an obscure 19th-century recipe book. Rest assured, these intimate, scaled-down dishes are about as far away from the floury-dumplings-and-boiled-meat ‘classics’ as you can get. With a great wine list and knowledgeable staff, plan on spending a good few hours here.
 
A great place to try some of that aforementioned ‘weightier’ Czech cuisine is U Modré Kachnicky (The Blue Duckling), an atmospheric time warp of a place that serves up all manner of traditional meat and game, as well as delicious palacinky crepes for dessert. Even more down to earth is Kolkovna, a gastropub  with an Art Nouveau interior and a menu that’s all goulash, pork knuckle, beer dishes - and, yes, knedliky.
 
If you’re thinking of going French, try the winsome La Provence, which has a breezy brasserie upstairs and an authentic – and romantic – Provençal-style eaterie below. Just around the corner, Le Saint Jacques is a more gregarious but equally credible spot, where you’re likely to be cheerfully serenaded by gypsy music while tucking into your scallops.
 
Those who like to ‘see-and-be-seen’ might want to head to Pravda and Barock, sister restaurants located opposite each other on the glamorous Pariszka street. Both pull off a savvy mix of chic interior, vibrant atmosphere and fairly innovative food. Those wishing to plunge further into anonymity, on the other hand, will find some excellent eateries out in hip Vinohrady: L’Ardois dishes up excellent French cuisine in an unpretentious, friendly setting, while the popular enoteca Aromi offers superb pasta and seafood dishes from the lesser-known region of Marche.
 
And, as promised, 21st-century Prague really does cater for vegetarians too, predominantly at the small but utterly lovely Lheka Hlava (Clear Head). Here you’ll find a vivid selection of tapas and starters, plus soups, salads, stir-fries and mains that include spinach quesadilla, risotto and veggie kebabs, all served up in a colourful and fanciful interior.
 
Add to this a multiplicity of plush accommodation options – from designer spots like The Hotel Josef, Domus Balthasar and The Yasmin Hotel to luxurious one-offs like The Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa and The Aria Hotel – and you’ll see that, far from being merely a city of beer and meat, Prague is as enchantingly refined as you’d like it to be.
 

Paul.Sullivan

I've been covering travel, music and culture as a freelance writer & photographer for a decade.

My articles and images have appeared in various international publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Sunday Times, Easyjet Magazine, Financial Times, Intelligent Life, Matador, and I've written, photographed and contributed to several high profile travel guides for publishers like Time Out, Cool Camping, A Hedonist's Guide To, Rough Guide...and more.

I first came to Berlin in 1999 to write about the city's incredible music scene. I fell immediately in love with its rawness, its history and its expansive, overwhelming sense of possibility. I returned over the years and finally got commissioned to write a guidebook (HG2 Berlin) in 2007, which was published in 2008. A year later I was living here, in leafy, laid-back Prenzlauer Berg.

I adore many European cities - Madrid, Paris and Amsterdam are among my favourites - but Berlin is the only place I've felt compelled to live. If anything, since I've been here my passion and respect for the city have grown exponentially.

My Berlin

Where I always grab a decent coffee: There are literally zillions of places to get decent coffee in Berlin. But for a truly outstanding cup I head to The Barn in Mitte, Bonanza Coffee Heroes in Prenzlauer Berg or No Fire No Glory in Friedrichshain.

My favourite stroll: In summer I really enjoy a walk along the section of the Spree where you can see the Reichstag and the Hauptbahnhof, and relax at one of the cafes on the embankment. In winter I like the atmosphere and relative emptiness of broad boulevards like Karl Marx Allee or Unter den Linden.

Where to be seen: Oh my, there are so many places to be seen in Berin. My favourite see-and-be-seen restaurant is Grill Royal, as it backs up the hyperbole with good views (if you can get a terrace seat) and excellent steaks and seafood dishes. Clubs like Tausend are good for showing out, but I prefer the more underground feel of Berghain and the Panorama Bar.

The most breathtaking view: Berlin has some great view points. You can take a lift up the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), ride to the top of the Kollhoff Tower on Potsdamer Platz or climb up to the memorial in Kreuzberg's Viktoriapark - Berlin's highest natural viewpoint.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Berlin has many leafy parks in which you can easily get away from it all. My favourite is Volkspark Friedrichshain, which is vast and dotted with interesting historical monuments (as well as the gorgeous Märchenbrunnen fountain).

Shopaholics beware!: Both downtown Mitte and the side streets of Charlottenburg (between Kantstr. and Ku'damm) are full of amazing boutiques selling everything from underwear and jewellery to designer clothing and accessories. You'll need a lot of resolve to resist.

Don’t leave without...visiting the atmospheric Mauerpark flea market on a Sunday. In summer you'll also find the famous Bearpit Karaoke underway.