Let’s be honest here: you did not travel to Prague to eat Italian. 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).
Cannot join us for a few hours of serious overeating and fun stories about what these foods mean to us? Then there’s the Prague Foodie Map, the next best thing if you want to see Prague and its food and culture through our eyes.
Okay, enough with the shameless plugs. You want free stuff. Here’s a list of classic Czech foods and our favourite Prague restaurants for traditional Czech cuisine that remind us of our childhood. Before you follow these, beware: Czech food is delicious, comforting, very 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? What? You did? We pity the fool.
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 served with condiments and either an egg on top, or simply sold premixed.
How do you eat this thing? With toasted bread and a clove of garlic. This dates back to the time Italian workers built our railways, and brought bruschettas with them. We don’t grow olives here so we toast the bread on the Czech equivalent of olive oil: pork fat. (Butter will do just fine.) You grate the garlic against 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 Nase maso or its sister, Kantýna in the New Town. The meat taken from dry-aged Czech spotted cows is premixed with onions, egg, oil, cream, fried capers and other things. The perfect companion? A glass of freshly poured Pilsner, but you’ll get a pass from us if you take a disk of this meaty beauty from Nase maso and eat it with a glass of Czech red at the Bokovka wine bar next door. (Yes, they will allow it.) For French-style steak tartare mixed on the spot, visit the elegant Café Savoy.
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. A recipe by Mr Stift, a former judge in the first series of Czech Masterchef, this has become a staple on the Lounge and Terrace all-day menu of the otherwise Asian-focused Spices restaurant. This is the fine dining version of the soup. For a more rustic, traditional version of the same soup, visit Café Imperial on the other side of the river. Don’t be scared to share one portion: it’s a bucket of soup. Vinohradský parlament in the Vinohrady district serves a fairly sweet version of Kulajda if you like those flavor profiles.
The Czechs have a national sport: claiming things that are actually German. And sausages are definitely one of those things. But hey, who really knows 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 (the first time Jan saw cornflakes was when he was a 16yo foreign exchange student in the US), and as the perfect solid companion 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? Czechs give sausages to screaming three-year-olds to shut them up. Works every time. ‘Nuff said. Now, for an updated, cool, and slightly globalized hot dog experience, we’d book a table at the brilliant Mr.HotDog.
Describing the recipe for svickova is a minefield: everybody agrees that the vegetable sauce with cream contains carrots, celery and parsley root, that it involves a piece of beef pierced with speck and that it is served with bread dumplings. But that’s where the consensus stops: 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. The rest is crime against humanity. Think Thanksgiving dinner in the US.
We like the version at Na Pekarne in the Cakovicky village just outside of the city the most. (Yes, you can Uber it there.) 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. Don’t want to travel that far? That’s okay. Just visit the Next Door restaurant and order their version. What sets it apart from other versions is the quality of the meat: while the sauce is nearly always decent, Next Door version’s meat towers above the rest.
There are not many Czech traditional dishes that would be based around chicken, but duck? A completely different story. Even Hana Michopulu, the owner of the Sisters bistro, made duck confit for the late 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 personal favourite, albeit an idiosyncratic version: the duck is actually stuffed with a mixture of dumpling and sauerkraut (both normally served as a side), and you simply get a quarter of the entire thing. Combine with fresh Pilsner for a combo that is everything: rich, sweet, tangy, salty and bitter in every bite and gulp. Also, at CZK 130 a pop, this is a steal.
Another great version of duck is served at Ossegg in the Vinohrady district. We’d pair it with the tasting board of the craft beers made in the basement. Want something fancier? The duck confit at Next Door never disappoints - this is where we’d take the in-laws. And last but not least: we do know about The Blue Duckling, of course. It’s a place that has a duck in the name for Christ’s sake. Nothing wrong with having duck there. The only thing that keeps us from recommending it more is the fact that it tends to be pretty touristy.
Dill Sauce (“Koprovka”)
Mercilessly tortured for ages by the school cafeteria, the dill sauce is on the most beloved - and hated - dishes in the repertoire of Czech cuisine. When done properly, it is an absolutely fantastic companion to either slow-cooked beef or poached or cooked egg (yes, the dill sauce is one of the best Czech vegetarian dishes, too) and usually served with potatoes. It has always been the biggest surprise of our Prague food tours whenever served.
Our current favorite dill sauce in Prague is served by The Eatery in the Holesovice district. Chef Bycek serves a refined version of the classic that has all the deep, slightly sweet and sour flavors of the original, without the heft. Another great version can be served at Kuchyn in the Prague Castle district, but the fact is that the concept of the restaurant relies on frequent changes in the menu, so you can never know if they will have it. Finally, the dill sauce with pork tongue at Vycep in the Vinohrady district is a fantastic modern update on the classic. That said, calling that dish traditional would be a bit of a stretch.
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, will you? The perfect die? The potato salad, 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? Café 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, this is our go to when we return from a long vacation and need to recalibrate our taste buds to Czech cuisine again.
That said, the best schnitzel (sans the potato salad) is served by Kantýna. It is a specific version: a thick slab of pork neck, the fattiest of cuts used for schnitzel, it is reminiscent of Japanese tonkatsu, and takes nearly half an hour to fry and bake. It is just incredibly crispy, juicy and tender. Next to the carpaccio and the dry-aged beef burger, it’s the best thing Kantýna serves. The only problem? It’s not always on the menu, but that should not stop you from ordering it if you’re willing to wait. Asking for it won’t hurt. Drop our name. Good luck.
“I could write a whole book on fried cheese,” said an Israeli vegetarian expat taking our food tour with his friends once. He is so right. It tells you something about the plight of vegetarians here in the Czech Republic when the classic Czech vegetarian dish actually contains zero 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?
Now, who are we kidding? The only place to have fried cheese in town is any of the Lokál pubs. Their cheese is aged in house for extra six weeks and pan-fried in butter. In Dlouhá street Lokál, one of the five chefs in the kitchen is responsible solely and exclusively for breading and frying cheese: they can sell around 500 a day. And it is something Jan’s Slovak cousins always insist on tasting the first moment they arrive in Prague. We don’t blame them.
Just like the schnitzel, the goulash is shared all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czech version is a thicker stew, usually uses a cheaper cut of beef (sometimes pork, too), and is 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. That said, goulash is actually a great safe bet: when you walk into a Czech restaurant and the menu seems to lack focus, goulash is something that you can always rely on, as 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, or the KATR restaurant nearby (popular among former Czech hockey and and football players). Both serves fresh Pilsner, the perfect pairing. Vegetarians should take note of the mushroom goulash, a very popular version that takes advantage of the Czechs’ knack for mushroom picking. The best version of that can be had in the recently opened U Mateje restaurant in Prague’s sixth district. It uses a variety of mushrooms for a beautiful mixture of flavors and textures.
Let’s get real. You may not want to, but you should definitely try carp in Prague. It’s a game changer, as the French say. Imported from China in the Middle Ages and now representing 9 out of 10 fish farmed in the Czech Republic, it is the number 1 fish in the country by a wide margin, mainly due to the fact carp schnitzel with potato salad is the classic Christmas Eve dish here.
Don’t know where to start with carp? Glad you asked. Start with peprenky, or marinated carp, in the recently opened Vycep restaurant in the Vinohrady district. It’s an updated version of a classic beer snack served in many pubs, and it is absolutely delicious. U Mateje serves kapri hranolky, or carp fries. Think fish and chips, but carp. (Disclaimer: we were actually not impressed by that version on our last visit, but we trust the chef he’ll improve them.) Finally, look for carp on the menu if you visit Prague around Christmas. Served as schnitzel with potato salad, it is absolutely delicious.
Traditional Czech cuisine incorporates a specific type of dish: the main sweet dish. We’re talking something sizable, warm and sweet that is not served as dessert but as the main dish, usually after soup or appetizer. 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 Café Savoy serve killer strawberry and apricot dumplings with butter and cheese curds, our heart belongs to the fruit dumplings at Krystal 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: one as dessert, or three… as an even bigger dessert. Go big or go home, right?
When it comes to kolaches, a few things are undeniable.
The traditional Czech kolache - small round yeast dough treats - come with sweet fillings, not the jalapeño sausage fillings like in Texas.
The best kolache in the world come from the kitchen of Zuzi’s grandma in Moravia.
If you want to get as near as it gets to the perfection we call Zuzi’s grandma’s kolache (or their regional version called “vdolecky”), head over to Moravské kolácky Dolezal in the Vrsovice district. We love a place that has a focus, and this one is no exception. Combine that with coffee by Café Jen around the corner and eat them in the park above the Grébovka vineyard, overlooking the southern slopes of Prague. You’re welcome, guys. Not willing to travel outside of the centre? Cukrár Skála serves solid poppy seed and cherry kolache.
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. You know, to slay a dragon and win the princess or something. And for a reason: they are full of energy, delicious and entirely Czech. (And when we say “energy”, we mean gluten.) We eat them for breakfast, as a sweet snack with coffee, 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. We go for the plum jam buchta, but they tend to disappear of the counter very quickly. For the same product, visit Café Lounge and Alf & Bet, EMA’s sister coffee shops. In either of these you are killing two birds with one stone, because coffee. ESKA, the hip restaurant in the Karlin district, is another great place to have buchtas - they use sourdough base (and you can taste the tartness a bit) but their fillings - plum jam, farmers cheese, poppy seeds or nuts - are of great quality. Finally, for a sit-down dessert version of buchtas, head over to the recently opened U Mateje in the Hanspaulka district: they are warm, served with melted butter and melting ice-cream, and just sinfully delicious.
PS: For traditional Czech pastries, please see our blog post about Prague pastry shops. Thank you.
We could debate extensively whether chlebicek, the Czech open-faced sandwich, is exclusively Czech. The truth is that you can order something fairly similar in the Trzesniewski or Zum Schwarzen Kameel delis 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 modern version, head over to the Sisters bistro, where Hana Michopulu, a big personality of the Czech food scene, tried to reinvent the whole concept by fusing the Czech tradition with some Scandinavian influences. 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. Need a more local touch? Try Chlebícky Letná in the Letná district, or Príma chlebicek in the Vinohrady district. No matter where you go, the classic potato-salad-and-ham combo is still the undisputed king of the category.
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.