The last week's edition of one of the most popular Czech weekly magazines, Tyden, ran a feature on bad restaurants in Prague that cheat and rob tourists and locals alike. Oh boy, what a read! We thought we should post a summary of the article here as a public service announcement for all potential visitors of Prague.
Well, first of all, the author singles out the Caupona restaurant (in the Michelska street) as the worst restaurant in Prague. You cannot count the ways they cheat the customer - the restaurant has two separate menus, one with pictures of the food, one with the prices; they add "couvert" to the bill for every item but the bill clearly says tip is not included and should amount to 10 to 20% of the price; the goulash soup was made of leftovers. Unfortunately, restaurants like these create a very bad image for Czech cuisine.
First of all, we must point out that restaurants like Caupona are exceptions that become rarer every day. Virtually all the guests who joined our tours or cooking classes had nothing but words of praise for Prague restaurants, including restaurants that Zuzi and I would not necessarily recommend. But still - like in any place that attracts many tourists - you can find a restaurant that can be labelled as nothing else but a tourist trap. So what can you do to detect a bad restaurant before you enter or order your meal? The Tyden weekly has approached some of the best Czech chefs with the same question, and these were some of the clues that are likely to indicate a less than stellar dining experience:
1. Long menus
Good restaurants usually have focus. Some Czech restaurants make the mistake of trying to play to everyone's taste... ...but end up disappointing instead of pleasing. Does the restaurant offer some 200 dishes? Does it offer pizza, Thai food and Czech classics in the same menu? If the answer is yes, look elsewhere...
2. Cryptic dishes
Calling dishes very cryptic, enigmatic names is a strategy that dates back to the Communist era. Some restaurants offer dishes named something like the "Executioner's swing" or "The Baroness' Balls". That's wrong. First of all, the customer should always know what he or she's getting. Second, these names are used to allow the kitchen some leeway with the recipe. For instance, you may get a low-quality cut of beef and the service can easily claim that's what the recipe calls for. Everybody has an idea what a Wiener schnitzel should look like, but what about the "Wizard's Pocket"?
3. The surroundings
Look at the toilets before you order food in a dodgy restaurant. Are they clean? Plastic flowers on the table may indicate that the kitchen does not use fresh ingredients.
4. Read the reviews
Word of mouth and online reviews are the best pieces of advice you can get. Follow them. Try to check the local gourmet guides in addition to the usual suspects (TripAdvisor, Qype etc.).
5. Look for local and seasonal food
The Czech Republic being a landlocked country, it makes no sense ordering seafood in Prague. Of course, you can get great seafood here but you will pay a lot for it. Cheap seafood on the menu is suspicious - it will be either frozen or of bad quality, or both. The same applies to ingredients that are exotic or out of season in the Czech Republic. Cheap dishes that contain these ingredients usually indicate that something's not right.
We think these tips do not apply to Prague or the Czech Republic exclusively - they are good advice for any country or cuisine in general. Again, we think you can have the meals of your life here in Prague - if you make the effort and find something local and nice. In any case, feel free to contact us and we can definitely help you out!
PS: The feature image of this post - just like the title image of the Tyden 5/2012 edition - is a still capture from a wonderful 1981 Czech comedy entitled "Waiter, Scarper!" In the movie, a Czech comedy classic available with some English subtitles on YouTube, a poor librarian that struggles to pay alimony payments to numerous mothers (you get the drift) earns extra money by pretending to be a waiter, raiding restaurants and cashing the customers. The movie is definitely worth watching although many jokes will surely be lost in translation. It is a great and funny insight into the life under the Communist regime in the early eighties here in Prague.