By David Farley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2008
As soon as the waiter put the dish in front of me -- succulent, falling-off-the-bone pork ribs resting on a slanted slab of metal to showcase their meaty goodness -- I thought something was wrong. And when he placed a plus-size bowl of halusky (a creamy sheep-cheese-laden Slovak version of gnocchi) before my dining companion, I knew something was wrong. After all, this was a Czech pub. The food wasn't supposed to be this good.
When I lived in Prague in the 1990s, you went to the pub to drink beer, and you ate foods like haunch of pork and pub classics like goulash (made with inferior-quality ingredients) only to help boost the longevity of the bibulous evening. Beer was the star of the show, and food was, well, the guy mopping up the stage after everyone had gone home.
But things have changed. We were at Budvarka, a pub behind Prague Castle that was until recently a smoky, jaundice-hued dive. In late 2006, the owners renovated, adding rich wood walls and a revamped menu. The pub also entered into a more formal relationship with the beer it serves, Budvar, which translates to Budweiser. For the better part of a century, a Czech brewery in the southern Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice (Budweis, in German) has been entangled in a legal dispute with America's Anheuser-Busch over naming rights. The Czech beermaker doesn't own the pub, but per the agreement, the brewery is helping run and promote the establishment in exchange for having its beer exclusively on tap.
Budvarka isn't an anomaly. Other pubs, both in the capital and countrywide, have metamorphosed into foodie-friendly havens, forming similar partnerships with big breweries and reinventing their decor, service and menu to please a population with a growing appreciation for higher-quality edibles.
Bankrolled by the Staropramen Brewery, a chain of pubs called Potrefena Husa (there are 22 sprinkled throughout the country) has injected a contemporary style. Brightly painted walls, sleek banquettes, colored lights, flashing TVs and thumping music compete for drinkers' attention.
Potrefena Husa has a slightly different strategy from the others: to attract female customers. Listed beside such Czech classics as svickova (tender beef wallowing in gravy with a dollop of sour cream and cranberry sauce on top) are big salads, seafood and nachos. There's also a long wine list and fruity Belgian beers (the Prague brewery is owned by the Belgian corporate giant InBev). "If women go," said David Petrik, who oversees the chain of pubs, "the men follow."
Not to be outdone, the juggernaut brewery Pilsner Urquell has been quietly turning stodgy old pubs into a thing of the past. Literally. Famed Czech writers including Karel Capek once held court at Deminka, near Wenceslas Square. The newly revamped pub now harks back to the 1930s, a golden age when, for the first time in centuries, Czechs ruled an independent nation (okay, they shared it with Slovakia) and the period before the Nazi invasion in 1938 and the Soviet takeover a decade later. The designers were inspired by historical pictures from the Museum of Brewing in Pilsen (where Pilsner Urquell is made), about 60 miles west of the Czech capital. Deminka boasts beautiful dark-wood paneling and oak tables, and beer is poured from antique-looking taps into thick glass mugs.
U Bulovky, a microbrewery and pub outside Prague's historic center, has become ground zero for pub-grub gourmands and beer aficionados. Surrounded by dark wood and, most surprisingly, young families, I met there with Martin Kuciel, a restaurant critic for the weekly magazine Tyden and founder of a respected food blog, Cuketka. I wanted to find out what he thought about the recent evolution of the Czech pub.
"I think it's a good thing," the 28-year-old Kuciel said. "It's a reflection of where we, as Czechs, are right now. People are earning more money here, and they can pay for better food at restaurants. They're no longer satisfied with a smoky pub that serves mediocre cuisine and has bad service.
"Besides that," he added, "they've traveled a lot and have had experiences with good food. Now they want it back home."
U Bulovky's owner and brew master, Frantisek Richter, is the perfect example. After escaping to Munich during the Cold War, he honed his palate and beermaking skills before returning to his homeland to open a pub that's a step above the rest. His unpasteurized lager Lezak could be the best brew in the country, which is saying a lot, considering Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else on the planet. To accompany such near-perfect pivo (the Czech word for beer), there's a menu of creative Czech cuisine: steak, though tougher than it should've been, and saved by a tart black-cherry sauce; tender sesame-encrusted chicken; and goulash, thoughtfully presented in a rich gravy alongside dumplings and a spicy pepper. After my meeting with Kuciel, I returned to U Bulovky that night for more.
When I stopped by Deminka for lunch a few days later, I thought it fitting to take along a famous writer. The 77-year-old Ivan Klima, one of the best-known living Czech scribes, had never visited one of these newfangled pubs in Prague. He didn't seem fazed by the sparkling interior, though he wasn't fully prepared for the menu: sausages baked in dark beer, smoked duck breast with honey, beef tartare, smoked pig's tail, beef tongue served with horseradish.
"You can't compare this with the pub food that was served 20 years ago," Klima said, pointing to his wild boar wading in a semisweet rose-hip sauce and surrounded by doughy dumplings. "First of all, portions were much smaller because ingredients were in short supply. Then there was the fact that we didn't have the type ingredients available to us then that we have today."
During the communist era (1948-1989), Czech law kept a short leash on the development of the country's cuisine by insisting that every new recipe undergo testing at the Ministry of Health before being offered to the public. Understandably, most restaurants and pubs found it more convenient to offer the same standard dishes (goulash, pork and dumplings) from the state-sponsored book "Recipes for Warm Meals."
That book is now a relic of a time that Czechs would prefer to forget. And if the current dining scene is any indication, the past has been securely buried under a pile of great eateries. Allegro, an Italian restaurant in Prague, was just awarded the first Michelin star this side of the old Iron Curtain. And Gordon Ramsay, the first celeb chef to make the leap to the other side, recently opened an outpost of his acclaimed London eatery, Maze. The food that pubs such as Deminka, Budvarka and others are serving probably won't win any big culinary awards, but they have made a huge step, considering the state of the dining scene a decade ago.
With all the improved pub grub, don't get the wrong idea: Beer is still the star of the show in Prague. But while a decade ago pub food was mere tummy filler, it has been promoted to supporting cast.
David Farley last wrote for Travel about Turin, Italy.