Czech food is filling and hearty, and when it's done well is reminiscent of a good home-cooked meal. Not surprisingly, given the country's long period as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czech cuisine borrows heavily from its neighbors. The schnitzels, strudels, and goulashes you'll see on menus here have all been gently appropriated but often given a local twist. Czech goulash, for example, is milder than its Hungarian cousin and comes in a number of variations depending on whether the main ingredient is beef or pork. Schnitzels are typically built around fried chicken or pork instead of veal, normally the heart of a Viennese schnitzel.
If there's a uniquely Czech contribution in all of this, it's likely to be the bread or potato dumplings, knedliky, that accompany many main dishes. These are essentially big balls of dough prepared in boiling water that come sliced and (hopefully) steaming hot to your plate. They are great for soaking up the extra gravy or sauce from the goulash.
Starters -- Traditional Czech meals invariably start out with a soup, often beef or chicken broth or maybe something heartier like kulajda, a potato-mushroom cream soup, seasoned with dill and a shot of vinegar to make it slightly sour. The herb soups are often the most piquant part of the meal, but the meat-based broths, whether chicken or beef, are frequently served without filtering the heavy renderings.
Appetizers are often passed over to get to the main course, but traditional starters are likely to include salads, ham rolls, and sometimes imported dishes like beef carpaccio or smoked salmon.
Main Courses -- No self-respecting Czech restaurant could open its doors without serving at least some version of the three national foods: vepro, knedlo, and zelo (pork, dumplings, and cabbage). The pork (veprové maso) is usually a shoulder or brisket that is baked and lightly seasoned or breaded and fried like a schnitzel (rízek). Unlike German sauerkraut, the cabbage (zelí) is boiled with a light sugar sauce. The dumplings are light and spongy if made from flour and bread (houskové knedlíky), or dense and pasty if made from flour and potatoes (bramborové knedlíky). This "VKZ" combo cries out for an original Budweiser (Budvar), Kozel, or Pilsner Urquell beer to wash it down.
Other standard main courses include svícková na smetane, slices of beef that are baked and served in a vegetable-based cream sauce served over tender, spongy, sliced dumplings; roast beef (rostená); baked chicken (grilované kure); and smoked ham and other spicy cured meats (uzeniny).
A local favorite is cmunda, found at the pub U medvídku: a steaming potato pancake topped with sweet boiled red cabbage and spicy Moravian smoked pork. Also popular is wild game, such as venison, goose, rabbit, and duck, and the more exotic, like the wild boar goulash served at U modré kachnicky (one of the better Czech-centric restaurants). Czech sauces can be heavy and characterless but occasionally they are prepared with daring doses of spice.
There's also usually a good selection of indigenous freshwater fish, such as trout, perch, and carp, the Christmas favorite. People worry about the safety of waterways, but most fish served in Prague come from controlled fish farms. Since the country has no coastline, you'll find most seafood at the more expensive restaurants, but a growing selection of salmon, sea bass, shark, and shellfish is shipped in on ice.
Beer, called pivo, is the Czech national beverage. It's a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to either lunch or dinner (and occasionally even breakfast). You'll find it not only at the lowliest pubs but also the finest restaurants. Indeed, wherever Czechs congregate, you can be sure there will be pub or a beer stand somewhere nearby. And it's not just a guy thing either; it's very popular with women too.
Beer goes back a long way. It's been served in pubs for centuries, often made by monks who lived off the proceeds. The earliest incarnations bore only a faint resemblance to what we consider beer nowadays. Modern-day Pilsner-style pale lager was first brewed in the western Bohemian city of Plzen (or Pilsen, hence the name) in 1842, and the beer industry hasn't looked back since. That brewery, Pilsner Urquell, by the way, is still going strong.
Typical Czech beer is not exactly the same as you're used to back home. Czech beer tends to be heavier and hoppier than standard American or English lagers, and even a bit zippier than German beers. There are also not as many varieties here. While Czechs do dabble occasionally in dark beer (tmavé pivo), stouts, and porters, the main diet invariably consists of the pale Pilsner-style beers known locally as "light" beer (svétlé pivo). That said, you won't find American-style "light," or low-calorie, beer. Instead, beer is sold according to degree (a technical term that refers to the amount of malt extract used in brewing). The two most common strengths are 10-degree (often confusingly written as 10% -- though it doesn't mean 10% alcohol content) and 12-degree. Ten-degree beers typically contain less alcohol (about 3.5% by volume as opposed to 4% for a standard 12-degree beer).
Ordering a Beer in a Czech Pub -- Ordering a beer Czech-style is simple and takes just a few words to master. After sitting down at a pub or restaurant, when the barman or waiter comes to take your order, simply say pivo prosím (beer please) and indicate with your fingers how many you want. A thumb is one, a thumb and index finger is two, and so on in order. The next question, invariably, will be "large or small?" Velké (vel-keh) means "large" and refers to a half liter (about 16 oz.); male (mall-eh) means "small," or a third of a liter (about 10 oz.). It will be taken for granted that you want the golden Pilsner-style lager; so if you'd like a dark beer, make a point of saying "tmavé" (tuh-mah-veh). The last question might be what octane you want. If you'd like the lighter, less-alcoholic 10-degree beer, say "desítku" (des-seet-koo). Standard 12-degree brew is dvanáctku (duh-vah-naht-skoo). After you've finished, if you'd like another, say jeste jedno (yesh-tye yed-no) for "one more." If you'd like to pay up and move on, say zaplatím prosím (zah-plaht-eem pro-seem), which translates awkwardly as "I will pay now, please."
Wine, called víno, is not quite as storied as beer in the Czech Republic. Nearly all of the drinkable wines come from a small grape-growing area in southern Moravia, just across the border from the Austrian Weinviertel. For years, the big wineries were mostly state-owned and suffered from overproduction. Now, smaller vintners are setting up shop and quality is on the rise. Many Prague restaurants stock the better Czech varieties, and so don't be afraid to dabble. Czech wines have the virtue of being much cheaper than imported wines, and the quality is getting closer every year.
Czech wines come in both white and red, with most of the better bottles in white. Popular whites include Tramín (better known abroad by its German name, "Gewürztraminer"), Sauvignon, and Rulandské bile, which seems to sound better as "Pinot Blanc"). The best reds include Frankovka (sometimes known abroad as "Blaufränkisch") and Rulandské cervené ("Pinot Noir").
In Prague, at least, wines take a distinct back seat to beer. That situation is reversed in Moravia, where wine and beer seem at least equally appreciated. On hot days in the summer, though, Praguers do enjoy sitting back with a bilý strík, a glass of white wine cut with soda water. In winter, a cup of mulled wine, called svarené víno (or svarák for short), is great for cupping your hands around during a chilly stroll of Prague's Christmas market. In season, you'll find it at vendors everywhere. Also, in the fall, look out for burcák, young wine that's still in the process of fermenting. It looks and tastes like juice but packs a powerful wallop.