You know the feeling: most of the time when you read a media article about something you intimately know yourself, the article is usually plainly wrong, or you feel you could improve the article with your point of view. We feel the same way when it comes to travel write-ups about Prague that appear in foreign media. Most of them just go through the usual suspects and safe options, and the journalists seam to be content with repeating what was already written about our city. With one exception.
Evan Rail and his articles about Prague for the likes of the New York Times tend to be spot on. Evan clearly loves Prague for what it is and it shows in his writing. We must confess that it is hard to claim ownership of some of our tips after he writes an article for the NYT because he seems to like exactly the things we like. We like the Karlin district and recommend a visit, he writes about it. We like Sisters or Vinograf, he writes about them in his selection of things to do if you have just 36 hours in Prague. We had to settle this. That is why we invited Evan to have a chat at the newly opened Maso a kobliha. Turns out Evan is a really nice guy and truly loves Prague (and Scotch eggs served by Paul Day).
How did you end up in Prague and why did you stay?
That’s a long story, but I was traveling through Europe in 1998 and I came through Prague and liked it a lot. I came back to Europe in 1999 for graduate school in Paris. But instead of going back to the US, I moved to Prague to see if I could make it work here. Pretty soon after that, I got a job as a food writer at the Prague Post, where I worked for 6 years.
Have things changed since you came here and how?
Yes, things have changed a lot. Back in 2000, the state of food journalism in the Czech language was terrible. There were only very snobby food and wine columns, where the idea was that anything that was not French was not good, and that was it.
Today — 14 years later — you have Cuketka and all the other Czech food bloggers who started writing much more interesting articles, and even the newspapers finally got into that. But back then it was really non-existent.
That is another difference, too. Part of what is changing in the culture is that the new generation of Czech food writers like Mr. Cuketka can read really follow international food news — they read food magazines like Lucky Peach in English, while the older generation could not. That applies to the younger beer writers, as well. They read in English and travel to international beer festivals.
Another thing that’s different now is the growing popularity of Vietnamese food. That’s only been in the past six or seven years, at least in the mainstream. Although the interest in Vietnamese food is quite small, considering how large the Vietnamese community is here, but I think that’s going to change.
Also, nowadays things are getting better at all levels. The big changes started at the top, and then at the bottom — in terms of both haute cuisine and street food. But now we’re starting to get better pub food and casual food, which are now filling up the middle ground between the low end and the high end. Nowadays there are places like Paul’s Sansho where you can get great food for a great price.
The changes are everywhere. Even the service is getting better. Part of the change comes from disposable income and part of it comes from better understanding by locals who travel. That is why we are getting more and more places where you can get much better value for your money.
Many things changed after the Czech Republic’s EU entry in 2004. The standard of living is growing. At the same time, Prague is still a very livable city. It’s not outrageously expensive so it offers the best of both worlds: the living is getting better, but it’s still very affordable.
Have you always liked beer?
I’d have to say yes. But I like wine, too, and I write about wine as often as I can. I like whisky a lot and I write about whisky very little. There are many things I enjoy: I like tea, I love coffee. I love Vietnamese food — absolutely adore it — and I have, long before I ever came to Prague.
How did you get into beer writing?
When I started writing here, I thought Czech beer was the most interesting thing to write about, and yet absolutely no one was covering it seriously. So I started a column about beer at the Prague Post in 2003. As I started writing, I started reading and studying about it, especially about the history. Now I do both beer writing and travel writing and for many different publications, usually for the New York Times. And I recently wrote a small book called “The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest” about the brewery in Kout na Sumave.
Do you have a favorite Czech beer?
I always say my favorite beer is the next one. But I have three serious favorites for classic Czech pale lagers (i.e. Pilsners, or what Czechs call a “svetly lezak”): the wonderful Kout na Sumave (Koutska 12°), the beer from Unetice — both the 10 and 12 are wonderful — and my new favorite is Brevnov. The beer is exceptional. It has a lot of hop character that you don’t often get in pale lagers. But all of them are wonderful beers.
Would you recommend any top-fermented beers?
Yes. I really like beers from Letajici pivovar Falkon, which are brewed at different locations by a young man named Jakub Veselý. They’re fantastic. Everyone knows that Matuska is making absolutely amazing craft beers: they have very good pale lagers, IPAs and Double IPAs. I especially love Matuska’s Galaxy. That’s home for me. And I have to also mention Zhurak, absolutely spot-on American style craft beers made by the only American brew master in the Czech Republic. These beers are usually only sold as draught, though you can get Matuska’s beer in bottles.
Where do you like to go to get your beer?
I like Nota Bene for good beer and food, and I recommend it constantly for the great value they offer. I like Zly casy, which is probably ground zero for beer culture in the Czech Land. I also like Kulovy blesk a lot. I’m probably going to be a really big fan of Maso a Kobliha, since I live about 100 meters from here.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Well, I don’t usually eat sweets. But if I had a guilty pleasure, it’d be a vetrnik (Czech chaux pastries with vanilla and caramel cream filling). I like Paukert’s vetrniks a lot: CZK 33, and it’s about as big as your head. It should come with insulin, because it’s covered with sugar and it has three kinds of cream inside. I eat one about once a year.
Is there a particular thing you like about Prague?
You don’t realize this until you have kids, but Prague is a wonderful city for families, which some great cultural opportunities. My son was recently invited to join a chorus, and they told us that they’re going to have their first concert at Dvorakova sin. How cool is that? Also, it’s a relatively flat society, without a lot of distance between social classes. We were once at our local playground, and the former prime minister was there with his son. There are not many countries where your kid can play with the former prime minister’s kid.
What is the ideal Saturday or Sunday for you?
Well, we’ve started to travel more, and we spend a good amount of time with my wife’s family in South Bohemia. We also spend a few days this summer in the Ceske Stredohori, which are lovely. One of the things I’ve been trying to do in my writing is to get people out of the center into the neighborhoods and to get people out of Prague into the regions. But when we can’t travel, I would spend an ideal weekend at the Petrin hill, have a picnic with the kids and pick some pears and apples. The views are beautiful and it doesn’t cost you anything to be there.
We also like to wander the small streets in Mala Strana. There are actually places like U Hrocha where you can get a decent lunch and Pilsner for very little money. The food is not sublime, but the old atmosphere is wonderful and the beer is good and cheap.
What places out of Prague you would recommend travelers to visit?
I think the Ceske Stredohori are absolutely beautiful. There’s a very nice hotel there called penzion Cernodolsky mlyn. We really liked it. Also, the mountains like Rana near there are absolutely stunning. Next year, Pilsen is the European Capital of Culture, and it definitely has a lot to offer. Brno is great, especially in terms of the architecture. You can also eat well in Brno now. There’s great coffee and an interesting beer culture as well. And then you have Vila Tugendhat. It’s weird: the tickets are expensive, their staff couldn’t care less, you only get about an hour to see it, and yet it’s completely worth it. I mean one minute in that living room with the onyx wall, the view… and if you do it on one of the last tours of the day and you see the view right at sunset, it’ll kill you. It’s phenomenally beautiful.
Is there anywhere you recommend to go for beer in Brno?
I like Ochutnavkova pivnice. It has a different feel than pubs here in Prague. It feels a bit like a wine bar. Also, the Lucky Bastard brewery is great. They are young guys, they speak English, they are well aware of the trends in in craft beer and they are trying to do something similar. They’re doing good stuff. There is Pegas brewery which is a well known place down in the center.
What are your three things any visitor to Prague should not miss?
It depends on the weather. There are different things you would do in the summer and in the winter. But I would say music is incredibly important here. So if you can make your way to Dvorakova sin or a concert at Obecni dum, do it. The National Theatre is also fantastic, as is Stavovske divadlo.
I always recommend people go out into the residential neighborhoods. If you walk among those 19th century Art Nouveau buildings in Vinohrady or among the large-scale architecture in Dejvice or in Bubenec, you’ll get a feel for how people actually live, and that’s very different from being in the center.
When it’s at least decent weather, I cannot explain how wonderful it is to drink beer out of a plastic cup at the Letna beer garden. When you happen to be there around sunset, and see what Prague looks like from above, you get a feel for why they live here. Also, taking the tram around the city is great. Not just the infamous line 22, but take line 24 or line 17 out to Kobylisy, and you’ll understand Prague much better.
Also, there’s something different in drinking beer in a Prague beer halls than almost anywhere in the world. There are some similarities between the beer culture here and Bavaria, especially Franconia, but if you can squeeze in a visit to an old Czech beer hall like U Rudolfina, you should do it. It’s not touristic, it’s been there for a long time, you get an impression of how people lived here hundreds years ago. And that’s worth doing, even if it’s slightly touristic.
The cocktail culture is wonderful here, too. But that’s only been going for the past two or three years. Before you had only Tretter's and Bugsy’s, but now you have Black Angel’s, Hemingway Bar, Bonvivant's, Anonymous Bar. Five years ago, there was nothing. So, it’s all moving forward really quickly.
You know, I really love this place. People sometimes ask me, “Why do you live in the Czech Republic? Were your parents Czech? Was your babicka (Czech for grandma) Czech?” And I always say, “No, I just love it here.