Prague generally gets high marks for architectural beauty and decidedly lower marks for the quality of the food. But this is an unfair assessment based on impressions from the 1990s, when finding a decent meal really was something of a challenge. Since then, the global slow-food, fresh-food revolution has washed up onto the shores of Bohemia. Everywhere you look, serious restaurants are touting the freshness of their ingredients, and often claiming to source everything locally where possible. Some places are reviving classic Czech recipes that may be more than a century old, while others are liberally borrowing ideas and inspiration from cuisines around the world.
Part of the credit for this dining renaissance goes to the Ambiente chain of restaurants, which through its stable (including La Degustation, Lokál, and Pizza Nuova) has greatly raised standards. And it’s done wonders for the Czech national pride that excellent food is now easy to find. Other leading chefs have made their mark: Paul Day at Sansho, Roman Paulus at Alcron, Jiří Stift at Essensia, and Jiří Nosek at Zdenek’s Oyster Bar, among others. And Czechs have responded. A few years ago, it was a given the best restaurants were for visitors and businessmen. Now, many Czechs are discovering for themselves the pleasures of truly good food outside their kitchens.
International trends and fads, of course, have had an impact here, too. Every year seems to bring a new dining mania (and with it some great restaurants). The latest crazes for handcrafted burgers made from locally raised beef and for good Vietnamese cooking have brought the latest crop of contenders. Past years have seen waves of sushi places, steakhouses, and Thai noodle bars. We say, keep it coming.
Alas, what still needs an upgrade is service. English is widely spoken, but service can still be brusque or, worse, incompetent. Restaurateurs spend millions on the food, but don't put the same thought into training their staff. This will be surmounted in time, though, and in general the dining scene continues on the upswing.
Classic Czech fare is best sampled in a hospoda, or pub. These local joints have menus that usually include dishes for which Czech cuisine is justly (in)famous: pork and sauerkraut with bread dumplings; roast duck; beef stew; and, for the vegetarian, fried cheese. In recent years Czech brewers like Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell have opened chains of branded pubs (Potrefená Husa and Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant, respectively). These chains are to the traditional Czech pub what a new Swiss timepiece is to an old watch—light years ahead in terms of the quality. If you're looking to dip a toe into the waters of Czech cuisine, these pubs are an excellent place to begin.