Let’s be honest, when most people think of tasty European destinations, the Czech Republic doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a must-taste place to be. Beer, sure, but noteworthy cuisine? Not so much. Let’s change that.
Take it from a Czech who’s eaten all over; Prague, but especially the rest of the Eastern European republic, is right up there with the top European foodie destinations, the ones you’ve read about in cookbooks, saw on TV, and dreamt about eating in forever. There - I said it.
While not as polished as the epicurean gems of France, Italy, Spain, and other formidable cooking giants, the Czech Republic boasts a food-loving culture that can quietly rival the big boys, and that’s not just bias talking.
Fresh in-season berries, wild local fish and game, gorgeous organic produce? Czech, Czech and Czech (sorry, had to). Quality ingredients are never an issue here.
Foraged fall mushrooms, farm-raised chickens and eggs, prairie rabbits and succulent boar are as good and easy to come by as they are in Provence or Tuscany, but at a fraction of the cost.
Apart from hockey, football, tennis and politics, the Czech Republic has never taken itself too seriously, and that goes for its kitchens too. While a slight spin on classic Czech dishes sometimes does occur, Czechs tend to relish in the simple goodness of what they grew up with, and while far from exotic or innovative, common Czech fare is just so darn comforting and too good to mess with.
If you’re planning a trip to Eastern Europe, don’t leave the Czech Republic without sampling one (or all) of the amazing eats below.
Obloženéchlebíčky (garnished breads) are the Czech Republic’s answer to Spanish tapas. Sometimes served as an appetizer, these 2-bite wonders often make a showing at dinner parties, and like tapas, are perfect for grazing on when having a few drinks. Any leftovers are generally saved for breakfast the next day.
Crusty baguette slices are topped with a fresh garlic spread, sliced boiled egg and even caviar, ham or salami, pickles, olives, smoked fish, cheese and whatever else is on hand. There are a few staples, but it isn’t uncommon for chlebíčky to vary greatly between households and restaurants serving them.
Made either from potatoes or the basic - eggs, water n’ flour variety (bread dumplings), Czech dumplings, or knedliky, are the ultimate side dish, and sometimes, even the star. Here, they are big, the size of a loaf of bread, sliced and splayed on your plate, drenched in rich, goulash-style ragus.
Savoury, they can accompany roasted duck, pork or beef tenderloin and even a trout fillet. To round out the plate, expect a cabbage component, be it sweet, sour or pickled, often flavoured with caraway seeds.
Made sweet, softball size bread dumplings can be filled with late-June strawberries, wild blueberries or ripe plums, topped with crumbly cheese, melted butter and icing sugar, served whole as a meal or a dessert.
Soups & Sauces
Goulash may be Hungarian, but you can find it all over the Czech Republic. Served as a soup or a sauce, this hearty, paprika-rich stew can be spooned over white rice, boiled potatoes or dumplings, or just enjoyed with a crusty bread for dipping. If you have the option, go for the dumplings.
Svíčková (pronounced: ‘sveetch-ko-va’) is a classic Czech dish, punctuated by the double cream-based sauce of the same name – and it’s serious. Usually poured generously over marinated sirloin steak medallions, it’s sweetened by cooked down carrots and onions, flavoured by bay leaves, black pepper and thyme, finished with homemade cranberry sauce. This is a must-try for anyone looking for an authentic Czech dish.
Meats, Fish & Fowl
Fantastic schnitzel (řízek) is everywhere. Traditionally made from pork, chicken and veal are also popular, and all are delicious. Served with a wedge of lemon and the usual side of potato salad, don’t sauce this breaded cutlet if you don’t want the stink-eye from the waiter – a squirt of lemon is all you need.
Like dumplings, every country or region seems to have their own version of a minced-meatball, and ćevapčići (pronounced: ‘che-vab-chi-chi’) is what’s happening here. Originally from the Balkan region (where it's called ‘Ćevapi’), they can be made with beef, lamb or pork (or a combination), and are grilled or pan fried.
In the cevapi vein but larger, karbanátky are essentially thick, bun-less burgers made from ground beef and pork, onions and milk-soaked bread. They are lightly coated in breadcrumbs and pan fried, served with mustard and usually a potato side.
Sausages and cured meats, like Russian kolbasa or German salami, are also popular, found at soccer games, as fast food in sandwiches or at cookouts throughout the country.
Czechs can roast the heck out of a bird, too – duck (kachna), goose (husa) and chicken (kuře) mostly. Roasted duck (pečena kachna) is a celebratory dish and is mastered here.
As far as fish goes, stay away from salmon and ‘fresh’ tuna, instead, try the local trout (pstruh). Usually baked whole or pan fried, it’s the tastiest fish in the country. You’ll notice carp (capr) on menus too, but unless you’re into picking the finest bones out of your plate throughout your meal, you may want to skip it.
Carp became popular in Czechoslovakia as a cheap peasant meal, and during the hard times of Communist rule, carp was widely eaten for its affordability (easily fished), even as a Christmas meal. In markets leading up to the holiday, it is still common to find buckets of live carp at markets throughout the country.
Chanterelles, morels, porcini and other boletus mushrooms are big money, but more than that, they are a way of life in the Czech Republic. Most Czechs pick mushrooms as a pastime, and the family activity is passed down through generations.
While not as lucrative as truffles in Italy, varieties of boletus such as spruce, bay and shaggy boletes are still picked feverishly throughout the country and sold to restaurants and markets when not eaten breaded and fried, pickled, or dried and added to a potato soup.
A common Czech mushroom dish is ‘smaženice’; bolete varieties cut into small pieces, then stir-fried with onions and ground cumin, with an egg or two mixed in just before serving.
Try the strudel. Usually filled with sweet apples and raisins, or cherries when in-season, the flaky, layered pastry is dusted with icing sugar and served warm or cold.
If you’re on the go and fancy a sweet melt-in-your-mouth treat, you can’t beat a trdelnik. ‘Chimney cakes’, as they’re sometimes called, are cheap (around 60Kč or $3.50CAD) and can be found at just about any food stall in downtown Prague, and throughout Europe, for that matter.
The trdelnik is an ancient cake and not just Czech, as countries throughout Europe have made it for centuries under various names. The recipe predates bread ovens, when dough could only be cooked over an open fire. Made on a stick, the spinning motion used to cook but not burn the dough gives the cake its tubular appearance. Sugared to perfection, they are the ultimate saccharine street food. Enjoy in moderation.
Eating Out in Prague
Like eating out in Paris, Rome, or anywhere really, you’ll be fleeced if you choose a restaurant in the tourist centre, and the food and service will often be sub-par. Stay away from the main streets, tourist attractions, heavily trafficked areas and any restaurant with a tout out front trying to bring diners in.
For the good stuff, make your way to Zizkov or any of the districts away from the touristy downtown, usually a tram ride away. If you’d like to keep central, instead of choosing a restaurant in a main square, take a stroll down any side street, alley or laneway, and you’re sure to find something better. In Prague, beer halls and simple pubs often have the best local food.
A great Prague steakhouse is Cestr in New Town (Nove Mesto). If you’re looking for an innovative take on classic Czech dishes, this is one of your better bets. Contemporary décor, attentive, professional service and great food and wine make this place an instant favourite, and the English-speaking staff don’t hurt either.
Café Savoy in Mala Strana is another gem, widely regarded as one of the best in Prague, and thus, very popular. It doubles as a bakery and is an ideal breakfast spot but can wow for lunch and dinner too. Dating back to 1893, it is a throwback in look and feel and the food is fantastic. Try the steak tartare, baked duck or the schnitzel and potato salad.