Prague still has a long way to go before people travel here just for the food, but the quality and variety of restaurants have improved tremendously in the past decade. Not that long ago, dining out meant choosing between a pizza covered in ketchup, listless pub grub, or a handful of overpriced "luxury" restaurants -- the kind where stiff waiters wheel around tired appetizers on a little cart.
Today, thanks to a massive influx of tourist dollars as well as rising incomes of ordinary Czechs, Prague now supports many very good restaurants, with traditional Czech places supplemented by French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian restaurants. The past couple of years have also even seen the country's first Michelin star awarded to Allegro, the house restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel.
But that doesn't mean every place is good. For every decent restaurant that has opened its doors in the past couple of years, it seems at least two inferior restaurants -- tourist traps aimed squarely at fooling unwitting visitors -- have popped up. More than ever, it pays to be careful. Avoid places in the heavily touristy areas of town around Old Town Square and Karlova street. These are pallid imitations of real Czech restaurants that are meant to empty your wallet, not satisfy your palate. Many of the best places are located outside of the center, so be prepared to hit the metro or grab a taxi if serious food is on the agenda.
To supplement our picks and see what Prague's expats are saying, check out two English-language restaurant blogs: the "Prague Spoon" (http://praguespoon.blogspot.com) by local critic Laura Baranik; and "Czech Please" (http://czechoutchannel.blogspot.com), by an American known as "Brewsta."
Staré Mesto -- Staré Mesto has Prague's largest concentration of restaurants, but be sure to choose wisely. Be especially careful around Old Town Square, where a dozen different restaurants set out tables in warm weather to take advantage of the incredible views. The problem is these are mostly undistinguished kitchens and prices are high. If you're only here for the views and don't mind the food, then by all means sit back and enjoy. If you're looking for an excellent meal, however, have a beer on the square and choose one of the places listed.
Reservations -- The economic recession in 2009 hit Prague's restaurants hard. In the boom days, reservations at the best places were often a requirement for getting a table. Harder economic times have eased demand substantially, though to avoid unpleasant surprises it's always best to phone ahead. Most restaurants should be able to handle a reservation request in English. Alternatively, ask your hotel reception desk to make the call.
Service -- Service remains abysmal in Czech restaurants, a fact that needs to be stated bluntly upfront. Restaurant owners seem unwilling to commit the resources to proper training, and the result is often impossibly slow service, messed up orders, unfriendly staff, and long waits to pay your bill. The good news is that you're on vacation and time won't usually be a main concern. Just be sure to check your expectations at the door.
Some tips for getting better service are as follows: Be sure to greet the staff as you enter the restaurant. This lets everyone know you're here. Also, have a pretty good idea of what you might want (even before you enter the restaurant). That way you'll be ready to place your food order as soon as the first round of drinks arrives. Finally, resist the temptation to wave or call out loudly to the staff. There is no surer way to put yourself on the blacklist.
Tipping & Tax -- A tip of 10% of the bill is considered standard for good service in a tablecloth restaurant, but don't feel obliged to go the full amount if service was poor. Most Czechs tip considerably less and simply round up the bill to the next logical point. For example, on a 480Kc check, they might hand the waiter a 500Kc bill and tell him to keep the change. Tips are usually handed directly to the waiter or left discreetly in the little pouch or wallet that the bill is delivered in.
Some restaurants have begun the irritating practice of adding the tip -- usually 10% but sometimes more for groups -- directly to the bill. It's a good idea to look over the tab carefully to make sure you understand all of the charges.
Guidelines on tipping are in a state of flux. Under the old Communist regime, tipping was not encouraged, and tips tended to be on the low side -- usually no more than a few crowns no matter what the size of the bill or the quality of service. Many Czechs, particularly older people, still tip like it's 1985.
That modest-tipping rule, sadly, doesn't extend to visitors. Although Prague waiters will rarely expect the 15 to 20% that's become common in the U.S., they do tend to get a bit peeved with tips of less than 10%, especially if they put in a hard night.
A good rule of thumb is as follows: For tabs under 100Kc, round up to the nearest 10Kc increment. If the bill comes to 75Kc, for example, hand the waiter your money and tell him or her the amount. On larger tabs of over 100Kc or so, a tip of 10% is considered standard for decent service (don't be afraid to go less for lousy service). Resist the temptation to go much higher, save for those times when the service is truly outstanding or the restaurant has gone to great lengths to honor a special request. You can hand the tip directly to the waiter or simply leave it on the table.
Dining Customs -- Traditional Czech custom is simply to find whatever seats are available without the assistance of a hostess or maitre d', but newer restaurants have started to employ staff to seat you. Barring this, just point at the table you want and nod at a nearby waiter to make sure it's available. Don't be afraid to sit in open seats at large tables where others are already seated, as is the case in many pubs and casual restaurants. However, it's customary to ask "Je tu volno?" ("Is this spot free?") before joining a large table. Likewise, don't be surprised if others ask to sit at your table. Just nod or say "Ano, je" ("Yes, it's free"), and make some new friends.
Restaurant prices in Prague have skyrocketed, and the unfavorable exchange rates for both the dollar and the pound have only added to the pain. These days, if you're not careful, it's quite easy to drop $50 a person on a meal that's only average. There are some tried and true techniques, however, for keeping the tab manageable.
By far the highest prices (and lowest quality) are to be found in the tourist joints around Old Town Square, so try to be as far away as possible from the throngs at mealtimes. Restaurants that use touts to haul in customers, have colorful plastic menus with photos, or are plastered with the words "Air Condition" on the front door are usually best avoided. You'll find the cheapest meals at traditional Czech pubs outside of the center. These offer a daily menu (denní nabídka) of a soup and main course for as little as 150Kc.
Other ways to save money include having your main meal at lunch and not dinner to take advantage of fixed-price luncheon specials around town. The same good food is available but for a fraction of the evening price. If you do happen to be out at a pricey tourist place in the evening, remember to politely refuse any offers of aperitifs or appetizers before seeing the menu. Keep in mind that Czech dinner portions are pretty big and there's often no need to order a separate appetizer. For the beverage, choose a local Czech wine. The quality is nearly as good and the price will be around half of what you'd pay for an imported bottle of wine. For very cheap meals, try the places covered in "Inexpensive Meals on the Run".
A Few Dining Warnings
Though the practice is declining, in the past some Czech restaurants have tried to raise a little extra revenue by placing seemingly free bowls of nuts or olives on the table or offering platters of appetizers or aperitifs that appeared to be on the house. Needless to say they were not and diners were often surprised to find they were paying the equivalent of $5 or more for a bowl of stale cashews.
These days it's more common for dining establishments to simply charge a cover, labeled couvert on the menu, of anywhere from 30Kc to 50Kc per person to cover things like the bread basket, spreads, and condiments. Regardless, it's good to be aware of the practice and if in doubt ask the waiter before touching any food on the table.
Many restaurants now accept credit cards, but waiters may not be adept at tricks like dividing a bill between two or three cards. It's best to keep it simple. Leave tips in cash on the table rather than charging them to the card; otherwise the server may never get them. Stories of credit card fraud by waiters are rare, but still it's always a good idea to keep a close watch on credit card statements.