Let’s be honest here: you did not travel to Prague to eat Italian food. You want traditional Czech cuisine in its best form, and you want it right now.
But what are the classic Czech foods and where do you have them? Well, one way to find out is to book our Traditional Czech Food Tour, where we serve Czech classics that are close to achieving the impossible goal of matching the deliciousness that our beloved grandmas used to serve us when we were kids (albeit with a modern twist - don't expect tourist cliches from us).
But if you - for whatever reason - cannot join us for a few hours of serious overeating and fun stories about what these foods mean to us, we still have a few tips on where to go. Here’s a list of classic Czech foods and our favourite Prague restaurants for traditional Czech cuisine that remind us of our childhood. But beware: Czech food is delicious, filling and addictive, so make sure you reserve enough time to walk off those calories. Yes, there won’t be many salads - or vegetables for that matter - in the list that follows. But you did not travel to Prague to eat salad, right?
Traditional Czech Food in Prague
Beef steak tartare
Oh, the glory of the steak tartare. The guests of our Prague food tours often fear it, then taste it, and end up asking for seconds and thirds. The undisputed king of the “snacks that go well with beer” category (see below), the steak tartare is a Czech classic you should not leave Prague without tasting. It’s raw beef that is cut, scraped or minced and that is served with condiments and an egg on top, or simply sold premixed. It is eaten with toasted bread and a clove of garlic: you rub the garlic on the rough surface of the toast, and put a generous portion of the meat on top for the perfect textural contrast. We have several favourites in Prague but we keep coming back for the beef steak tartare at Cestr. The meat taken from dry-aged Czech spotted cows is premixed with onions, fried capers, oil and cream and served with a sous-vide cooked quail egg and bread lightly roasted on butter (as compared to the often very heavy toasts made on pork lard). The perfect companion? A glass of freshly poured Pilsner.
As Mr Sahajdak, the Executive Chef at La Degustation Boheme Bourgeoise said in our interview, Czech cuisine is all about soups and sauces. And if there is one traditional Czech soup, it must be the Kulajda (pronounced “ku-lay-dah”): a creamy potato soup with mushrooms, dill, vinegar and a poached egg on top. As strange as it may seem, the best version in Prague is served in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel restaurant. While Mr Stift, a judge in the first series of Czech Masterchef, cooks Asian flavours in the hotel’s Spices restaurant, everyone knows he’s a master of traditional Czech food, and this soup shows. The potato wedges are roasted and the egg is sous-vide cooked and when broken, it oozes into the rich creamy potato soup with a strong flavour of forest mushrooms. A true symphony of flavours that is rich and filling. For a decent version of the same soup, visit the Imperial Cafe on the other side of the river.
The Czechs have a national sport: laying claim to things that are actually German. And sausages are definitely one of those things. But hey, who’s to say where exactly were the Frankfurter and the Wiener sausage really invented? Oh wait. Anyway, the Czechs love sausages and eat them as fast food, breakfast (yes, we love sausages for breakfast), and as the perfect solid compliment to beer. For the best Wieners in Prague, we go to the Nase maso butcher shop. More often than we’d actually like, we tend to order the “variace”: one classic, one beef and one Debrecener sausage, all on a paper plate with a bit of mustard and bread, the way these should be eaten. We don’t know what we enjoy more. The snap from the natural skip when you bite into them, or the juicy meat that follows? The fact that we give sausages to screaming three-year-olds to stop them from crying just goes to show how much we love them. Works every time.
Describing the recipe for svickova can be like walking on a minefield: everybody can agree that the vegetable sauce with cream contains carrots, celery and parsley roots, that it involves a piece of beef pierced with speck and that it is served with bread dumplings, but the remaining ingredients, their proportions and especially the finishing touches can stir many emotions. Yes, the svickova, a classic Czech dish made for weddings or Sunday family lunches, is a very personal, intimate affair tied to the family recipe. Your grandma’s the best, and the rest is blasphemy. We like the version at Na Pekarne in the Cakovicky village just outside of the city the most: it is on the sweeter side, the flavours are deep, the sauce, which really makes the dish, has a rich, silky texture, and the Carlsbad dumplings are hard to fault. Finished off with cranberry compote, this dish is a true staple of traditional Czech cuisine. The Cestr steakhouse serves pretty solid version too. Just make sure they have it the day of your visit.
There are not many Czech traditional dishes that would be based around chicken, but duck? That’s a completely different story. Even Hana Michopulu, the owner of the Sisters bistro, made duck confit for Anthony Bourdain in the Prague episode of the No Reservations travelogue. Pair that scrumptious, juicy and tender confit with sauerkraut and dumplings, and you’ve got a staple that is an indispensable part of many Czech Sunday lunches eaten in the family circle. Just like schnitzel, duck can be found on the menu of many restaurants, but we go to U Bansethu in the Nusle district for our favourite. Sure, the place will not wow you with courteous service that will fulfil your every dream. Unless your dream actually involves delicious, juicy duck filled with dumplings and sauerkraut. Combine with fresh Pilsner for a combo that is everything: rich, sweet, tangy, salty and bitter in every bite and gulp. And all that at about CZK 150 for a portion that will fill you for the rest of the day. Yes, you’ve found paradise.
Schnitzel with potato salad
Traditional Czech food is Central European food, and the schnitzel is the perfect example. Claimed by the Viennese, the Wiener schnitzel is veal, the Czech and German versions are mostly pork, and the Cotoletta alla Milanese from Milan, Italy, is veal again. But in all these instances, it’s a piece of tenderised meat that is breaded and fried, preferably in butter. Breading the schnitzel is a specific, zen-like activity that is used to introduce children into the kitchen: you won’t cut yourself breading a schnitzel. The perfect accompaniment? The potato salad, a.k.a. the king of all sides. The traditional Czech version is a mixture of potatoes, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, onions and pickles, with mayo, mustard, brine from the pickles and salt and pepper. The best version in Prague? Cafe Savoy in our book. The breading has a nutty aroma from the clarified butter, and the salad is a perfectly balanced mix of salty, sweet and acidic. Served with cranberries, too, and the evening menu version includes a pice of fried sweetbreads. These schnitzels can be highly addictive, so please beware!
It tells you something about the plight of vegetarians here in the Czech Republic when the classic Czech vegetarian dish actually contains no vegetables, is fried and defies any notion of seasonality. That said, many Czechs would argue that “fried cheese”, i.e. a slice of fried, breaded Eidam cheese, is a gooey, cheesy, rich, comforting and utterly delicious piece of food that never fails to satisfy. And who are we to judge, anyway? For the best fried cheese in the town, head over to Lokal, whose version pan-fried in butter is something Jan’s Slovak cousins always insist on tasting the first moment they arrive in Prague. For a modern update on the classic, try the fried cheese slider at Maso a kobliha, which puts a deep-fried cheeseball made of several cheeses in a brioche bun with a pickle and tartare sauce. The traditionalists would probably cry at the sight of the latter, but trust us: it’s delicious. For a thorough study of the phenomenon, we recommend you get both. Easy.
Just like the schnitzel, the goulash is shared all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, but while the Hungarian version is soupy and is eaten with a spoon, the Czech version is a thicker stew, usually using a cheaper cut of beef, and served with dumplings. And just like svickova, many people can agree what a goulash is, but every pub has it’s own, specific recipe that can vary wildly. It can be a bit spicy from paprika, or it can be sweater from tomato paste, it can be served with dumplings or with bread and so on. Goulash is actually a great safe bet: when you walk into a Czech restaurant and the menu seems to lack focus and be all over the place, goulash is something that you can always rely on, and most restaurants will serve a decent version. For a good goulash in the centre of Prague, we’d visit the Mincovna restaurant in the Old Town Square, which also serves fresh Pilsner, the perfect pairing.
Traditional Czech cuisine incorporates a specific type of dish: the main sweet dish. We’re talking something sizeable, warm and sweet that is not served as dessert but as the main dish, usually after soup or appetiser. And the fruit dumplings are the absolute classic representative of that category: dumplings filled with fruit and served in a deeper dish with melted butter, sugar and other sweet condiments. While Cafe Savoy serve killer strawberry and apricot dumplings, our heart belongs to the fruit dumplings at Krystal Mozaika bistro in the Karlin district. The dumplings have seasonal fillings (although plum dominates outside of the strawberry, blueberry and apricot seasons) but they are always served with a delicious and rich side of melted butter, poppy seeds or farmers cheese, and jam made from the fruit that’s inside the dumplings. Conveniently, the dumplings are served in two sizes, so you can choose one, as dessert, or three… as an even bigger dessert. We opt for the smaller version but hey, you’re on vacation, so go big or go home, right?
When it comes to kolaches, a few things are undeniable. Number One: they come from the Czech Republic, not Texas or Brooklyn. Number Two: the traditional Czech kolache - small round yeast dough treats - come with sweet fillings, not the jalapeño sausage fillings like in Texas. Number Three: the best kolache in the world come from the kitchen of Zuzi’s grandma in Moravia. But if you want to get as near as it gets to the perfection we call Zuzi’s grandma’s kolache, head over to the Simply good bakery in the Karlin district. Sure, the place lacks somewhat in atmosphere and only has one real table, but that does not really matter: you can take the small kolache or the bigger frgale - with plum jam, farmers cheese or poppies or their combinations - to the Karlinske namesti park nearby. Ideally combine with coffee to go from Kafe Karlin.
Buchty, sweet yeast dough buns, are something the heroes of Czech fairy tales would pack to go when they were about to embark on a journey. And why not? They are full of energy, delicious and entirely Czech. We eat them for breakfast, as a sweet snack later on during the day, and if there’s no freshly baked buns on the table when you visit a grandma, people can take serious offence. We eat our buns at EMA Espresso Bar, one of our favourite coffee shops in Prague. They are baked by Lucie, a.k.a. Chez Lucie, a former baking blogger turned baker in Cafe Lounge, the sister cafe of EMA. Her buns are fluffy and bursting with the filling (usually plum jam or farmers cheese), and go incredibly well with coffee. The only problem? They tend to sell them out quickly, so come in the morning! (For a nice version in the Vinohrady district, the buns at Antoninovo pekarstvi with a lot of rummy aroma will do.)
Move over, trdelnik, a.k.a. the “chimney”. Czech pastry-making tradition has better representatives than the over-hyped and often under-cooked cinnamon roll that is not traditionally Czech in the first place. What you should have instead is the vetrnik, a choux pastry (not unlike the French eclair or the Italian profiterole) filled with vanilla cream, caramel whipped cream and topped off with caramel fondant. Yes, it’s sweet, and yes, it’s more addictive than crack. We have tested vetrnik pastries in Prague a while ago, and the vetrnik at Cafe Savoy came head and shoulders above all competition. A tip based on real experience: have the mini version only. The “standard size” vetrnik is a dare that may start with smiles but often ends in tears. Even Cool Hand Luke would have difficulties eating one in a single sitting. For the second best version, the Erhart Cafe with locations in the Vinohrady and Letna districts will serve you well.
We could debate extensively whether chlebicek, the Czech open-faced sandwich, is exclusively Czech. The truth is that you can order something very similar in the Trzesniewski deli in Vienna, and the smorrebrod ubiquitous in the delis of Copenhagen, Denmark, is not that far off, either. Still, Czech or not, the Czechs love the chlebicek: a slice of baguette-like bread or toast bread with savoury toppings, it is a jack of many trades. It serves as fast food, finger food at house parties, office food, and can be had at social events like theatre plays or senior proms here in Prague. For the best version, head over to the Sisters bistro, where Hana Michopulu tries to reinvent the whole concept by fusing the Czech tradition with some Scandinavian influences, and she does it very well. For a very authentic, old-school version of the same, you must visit the the Zlaty kriz deli, a place where time stopped in late 1970s and where hungry locals leave the last bits of any efforts for a healthier lifestyle at the door and devour the chlebiceks so full of mayonnaise. No matter where you go, the classic potato-salad-and-ham combo is still the undisputed king of the category.
You may know that Czech is a very hard language, but there are obviously harder Czech words than “kremrole”. Yes, one of the most popular Czech pastries is basically cream in a roll, a bit reminiscent of cannoli. The roll is made of flaky pastry and the cream is a soft meringue cream, and the combination of the two (dusted with powdered sugar) is mainly responsible for the fact that Jan cannot seem to get back to his college weight despite the jogging he reluctantly took on in the spring. Okay, let’s move on. We (where by “we”, we mean Jan) go for kremrole to the Kulatak farmers market at the Dejvicka subway stop. How will you find the stand where they sell them? Easy. It’s the stand with the longest line. Fortunately, these rather large versions of the pastry are available only on Saturday mornings.
Beer and Czech beer snacks
Beer is the national sport here in the Czech Republic, so it belongs to this list without saying. To accompany it go for Czech beer snacks. While Czech cuisine may be a bit light on appetisers, it more than compensates for it by a specific category of foods: “beer snacks”, or “snacks that go well with beer”. Yes, Czechs like to pair food with the ubiquitous Czech beer, not the other way around. More than often, “beer snacks”, which can be found on the menu of virtually every pub in Prague, consist of a piece of meat and a condiment. The classics include Prague ham with horseradish cream, pickled sausage (sold as “utopenec”) and any result of the traditional pig killings in the winter, like headcheese with vinegar and chopped onion, or blood sausages. Vegetarians may opt for “pickled cheese”, which is really Camembert-style cheese marinated in oil with spices. Yes, no vegetables are usually hurt in the making of beer snacks. We’d go to Lokal to try a proper selection, because that is pretty much the backbone of Lokal pubs’ menu, and virtually the only thing you can order after the kitchen closes at night. Pair with beer. Of course.