There has been no depression to struggle through together, unless you count the "Great Recession". No world war to write poetry about, unless you’re an American. No mass demonstrations to make banners for unless you’re a summit hopper. No dawning of a new age that brings together innovations in music, fashion, morality and drugs.
For those of us lucky enough to be in Prague at the beginning of this millennium, the chance has come to witness something major. Something that will provide countless stories for awe struck grandchildren by the hearths of the future.
A revolution. A renaissance. An evolutionary land mark that will change the course of our lives forever. I refer of course, to the recent and ongoing mass development that is growing to the South of Narodni (or SoNa, if you’re up with the lingo man), where beneath the shadow of The National Theatre, a quarter is growing that will soon make the rest of town weep with uselessness.
A lot of people have spent a lot of other people’s money on turning this once quite dull area into a major city attraction. And now it’s our turn to spend a bit of cash, but fret not, because ridding yourself of your hard earned wage is rarely as much fun as it can be in these alley ways of innovation.
One of the coolest of these new establishments was (and still is) the Angel Cafe, at Opatovicka 3 (open 8am-10pm Tuesday to Friday). The owners of this joint used to run the cafe in the British Council Reading Room, where folk too tight to buy their own copy of a newspaper could buy a bun while they browsed through various UK publications.
But ambition reared its handsome head one morning, and this new venture has taken just 2 months to become a day-time haven for civilised folk with empty stomachs. They then sold it to Scott MacMillin, who revamped the concept very successfully and renamed it Orange, after which it became Tulip Café and then became indigo Coffee Shop in Prague (Opatovická 3, Praha 1). Went by there recently and that too was closed… so who says the area has no history?
The design mission was apparently to achieve the maximum in minimalism, and this is precisely what they have done. Stripped wood and unobtrusive lighting combine with fresh flora on the tables and big windows to create an airy atmosphere that is relaxing and bright with a classy soundtrack. It’s a bit like wandering into an art exhibit, but after being impressed by the aesthetic, you suddenly get the feeling that unparalleled limbs will make the place look untidy.
At the weekend, the brunch menu is worth more than one try.
For those who sway to the sweet, they’ve got you covered, even if only for a simple round of toast with butter and jams or honey. I went for the scrambled eggs on toast with smoked salmon, the eggs practically glowed with freshness, and seemed pleased just to be on my plate, proving the saying: ‘Happy chickens, happy eggs, happy customer’.
Included in the price is a small selection of baked bready type things that come served in a little wooden box, and newspapers (The Guardian and The Herald Tribune) are available for those bored with trying to work out what they have against the common plate. The service is attentive without being smothering, and before you know it, a quick bite to eat has evolved gently into a heavenly afternoon. This place has definitely earned its wings.
1. Late night drunk tram stop eats, (fast food) Spalena 41 (across from Tesco)
2. UltraMarin Bar & Restaurant , Ostrovni 32
3. Velryba, Opatovicka 24
4. Cafe 14, Opatovicka 14, 2492 00396. Universal, V Jircharich
7. Tulip Cafe, Opatovicka 3
8. The Globe, Pstrossova 6
9. Solidni nejistota, Pstrossova 21
10. Karavanseráj, Masarykovo nabrezi 22
11. Pizzeria Kmotra, V jircharich 12
12. Crazy Sun Solar Studio, Vorsilska 6
13. U Fleku, Kremencova 9/11
14. Louvre Cafe, Narodni 20
15. Rock Cafe, Narodni 20
16. La Patio, Narodni 22
17. Hostinec u Matěje Kotrb, Kremencova 17
18. U Bubenicke, Myslikova 8
19. U Novake, V Jircharich 2
20. Boat rental co.’s (where you can while away the summer days!)
The Globe Bookstore and Cafe (Pstrossova 6, open 10AM – midnight Sun-Thurs, and 10AM to 1am Friday and Saturday) after its relocation from the Vltavska area, is another place that eats up your time in a completely unregrettable fashion.
An expat favourite during its former days in Holesovice, it has moved into Praha 1 with more appeal than a 5am-tram-wait Gyros. But instead of being a pita bread filled with dead dog that squirts mayo down your favourite jacket, The Globe is a centre of self-improvement and stimulation. The selection and organisation of books (on 2 floors), both new and used, has expanded enormously, and so has the menu (also edible on 2 floors). The most expensive thing I could find to eat was a smoked salmon and caviar sandwich, and if the word “unrip-off” exists, then this is why.
All this makes me feel bad for the owners however, who have clearly spent a lot of dough on refurbishment. Mirrors, wood, plants, and a lot of space and windows have dramatically transformed what used to be a children’s cafe serving surrounding schools, before it was carefully left to rot in the 50s by the Negligence Section of The Communist Party. A hint of communism lives on here however, in the much ignored Marxist ideal of free internet access, which is, like the more popular of Karl’s theories, open to abuse. I watched one selfish b*stard ignoring the polite queue behind him as he surfed an Internet tidal wave and then went and used one of the sockets provided for lap-top users to re-charge his mobile phone.
This sort of degenerate behaviour could be avoided by installing an electric shock system connected to a timer, but for the moment I took it upon myself to punish the abuser by dropping spoons on his table from the upstairs seating area until he left. Justice was done.
Just down the road from The Globe at Pstrossova 21, was another welcome development. In what used to be a printing press now lives a large bar/restaurant/music venue/discotheque called Solidni nejistota.
The layout is fantastic, with a massive horse-shoe bar, unstealable bar stools, and a regularly changing gallery exhibiting the work of local young artists, but there are a few odd things about this place, and the fact that it’s always so busy makes you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t get it.
For a start, the decor is similar to a mild S&M den (that was once described to me by a friend), with fiery red walls and plenty of black metal, and a stage area for Madam Crunch. The stage here is for regular live music, however, the genre of which varies from night to night.
Then there’s the bright yellow motor-trike parked by the entrance for absolutely no reason, and for even less reason, a half liter of Pilsner Urquell used to costs 29Kc and 30 hellers (before Hellers were discontinued). What the Heller is that about? The English translation of the name, Solid Uncertainty, implies that maybe they don’t know either.
It doesn’t really matter though I guess. What is important is that there’s plenty of space, plenty of atmosphere, and a cheap menu serving large portions of good food (a huge steak with trimmings, and you won’t be charged for bread). The place is often open until six in the morning, and nobody has told the boss that he really ought to be charging a cover. Another example of generosity open to abuse I guess, but if it is an S&M club, then maybe that’s what he wants.
Another joint Hostinec u Matěje Kotrby at Kremencova 17, whose decor looks like the result clearing out the contents of a career junk scavenger. With its massive windows and soft lighting, many passers by have thought it to be an antique store…
But not quite. The only thing really old here is the spirits they serve. With 160 seats in the restaurant, bar and a garden out back, (30 in non-smoking seats and 30 seats in a separate room). Drinks-wise, there’s an impressive spirits and wine list (Czech, Chilean, Spanish, with prices from a couple of hundred to more than double that), and most of the cocktails hover on the right side of 100Kc.
For eats, there’s “typical Czech food” which is almost as attractive as the people serving it. This traditional, but modern in the best meaning of traditional, Czech food recipes. One of the main courses is roasted fish with potatoes and Rosemary, but I didn’t try it because my girlfriend said she just wanted it to be the two of us. They also do a rather fine steak, but inexplicably serve it in a weird sauce, which is a bit of a disillusionment and shock to a steak purist like me. The meat must prevail.
In the summer months, they open their garden area, with seating for 30 people, and which is bound to be a more sophisticated alternative to the street cafes of Old Town Square. This sophistication is a large part of SoNa’s raison d’être, so take time to go stroll-about.
Traffic is rare, and you’ll never have to compete for foot space with hoards of people trampling the sidewalk. What with this, the sunset casting a hazy atmosphere from behind Fred and Ginger’s fox-trotting heads, and the Vltava oozing tranquillity into the neighbourhood, the charm is clearly in the calm, so relax and enjoy.
And all this right next to the cess-pit we call Narodni trida, where every surface has been pissed on or puked on at regular intervals since the beginning of time. Juxta-positioned with a city jungle where only the strongest and the drunkest survive, SoNa is a veritable oasis.
This can be seen in the slowly but surely rising accommodation prices. Still significantly cheaper than a comparable apartment in other parts of Prague 1, the increase in business interest is forcing up rents substantially. As a place to live to experience the heart of the capital, it has everything that you could need and nothing that you don’t.
Some of the architecture could do with some restoration, but this is being seen to, and it will soon be top of the list of any property developer or estate agent worth their clip-board. If a resident’s fondue-set broke down, and a serious substitute culinary experience was required, then next to Hostinec u Matěje Kotrb is a fellow establishment, a dining spot, Universal (V Jirchářích, Prague 2, Metro Národní třída, Tram 6, 9, 18, 22, 23, Tel: +420 224 934 416, Open 11:30am to midnight Mon-Sat; 11am to 11:30pm Sun), which has been feeding discerning types for many a year in cool Euro style. Very well received and well reviewed by everything with a palette, so I was keen to find at least a dozen disappointments, but my only one was that I couldn’t find eleven others.
Regular customers, and even those who just stare in from outside with their noses against the window, rave about the Chef’s choice menu, but nobody mentions the somewhat simpler pleasure of the bread they serve. Fresh, white and crusty, it is served in a big silver bowl, with an accompanying saucer of herbified olive oil that will make you vow never to eat peanut butter again. If you’re a cheapskate, or the notes in your pocket won’t quite stretch to the demands, a big feed here won’t cost you much at all, and this is surely one of the things that keeps their numerous customers in a vibrant mood as they chat over bowls of potato au gratin and large slabs of meat.
Even the salads are generous affairs, causing concern for the myth that they only exist as a course in themselves for women and gay men. Service at Universal strangely varies in inverse proportion to how busy the restaurant is. On a busy Saturday night, when I had to wait for a free table, my order was taken and delivered more promptly than I thought humanly possible, but returning one quiet Sunday lunchtime, it was as if the waiter decided to fetch my coffee direct from Columbia.
If you only have a short amount of time, I suggest you head straight for the dessert menu, and point at the Bavarois in a fruit coulis. This is a remarkable culinary achievement, that will halt even the most fascinating conversation, with its light creamy texture and its slightly tart accompaniment. I would describe it as an orgasm on a plate, but for the more literal minded reader, this may conjure up an image that is not in the least appetising.
Talking of shops, which we weren’t, but are now, I don’t think I would be sued for saying that this is generally not an area for which SoNa scores highly.
There’s a book shop that mostly sells material on English grammar, which doesn’t excite me much personally, there are portravinies, which are unexciting by definition, and there’s a small shop selling baby toys for the youngsters, which is exciting if you’ve just given birth, but of no great concern to the rest of us.
There’s also an interesting and modern looking hair salon which seems friendly enough, and an antique shop or two lurking inconspicuously in the shadows. But SoNa is overwhelmingly a place for the hungry and thirsty, and for quality per square cobble, it cannot be bettered in Praha.
The only problem with describing it is that you start to run out of superlatives, and everything starts to sound a bit advertorial. But don’t take my word for it. Treat yourself to a few hours exploring, and you’ll be refreshed and entertained as much as I was. And as a final note of gratitude to the proprietors of these businesses, let me just add that in these days of fear, injustice and violence, it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to report on something that doesn’t remind me of ‘Nam.
Old School Prague
Cool bars in the SONA area (South Of NArodni)
U Fleku – Kremencova 9
U Fleku, at no. 9 Kremencova (with a beer garden at no. 11) is worth a visit, but make it during the day, and make it brief. It’s been brewing it’s own dark beer since the 15th Century, so they’ve had time to get it right, and you’ll pay extra for their ancient expertise.
The court-yard is pleasant on a sunny day, but the long benches are usually covered in arses that have just been sitting on a tour coach, and will be replaced by many more as soon as they leave. Definitely worth a pint, but there are cheaper and nicer places to go where you won’t be asked to take holiday snaps of fat Germans.
U Bubenicke – Myslikova
SoNa is full of places with a heavy international influence, so it’s reassuring to find this little Czech gem. Prices are Czech style cheap, the beer is Czech style wet, and the writing on the wall is also Czech. The only thing that appears un-Czech is the amiable service, which in most similar hospodas, varies only in its degree of scariness.
Kmotra Pizzeria – V Jircharich 12
Booking is recommended at this popular pizzeria, which by all accounts was the first of its kind in Prague. The pizzas are large, and made with fresh ingredients, so no complaints about a lot of value for not a lot of money. The name means The Godmother, and as if this wasn’t film buffy enough, the restaurant was also featured in a recent Czech movie called Septej which nobody English speaking I know has seen.
U Novaka – V Jircharich 2
This an easy way of experiencing the heart of Czech popular culture without even realising it. U Novaka is at first glance a large pub serving good food and plenty of Gambrinus, at quite good prices. Then someone will tell you that the pub is owned by the Czech TV station TV Nova, and supposed to be a replica of the pub in one of their more popular series. Then it feels like Cheers mixed with The Truman Show. Sad.