Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Honing The Art of Picking Good Cafes

View from the Castle in Prague

When you're in a new or strange city, finding a place to eat, drink, and relax can be really difficult and daunting.  Tourist traps abound, particularly in the popular and interesting parts of a city that visitors or people new on the scene are likely to want to check out.  It's really difficult to know where you can go to get good value for your money, or a little character even.  As such, the ability to choose good cafes and restaurants in a new city is a valuable skill, and worthy of sharpening.  

Picking a good cafe in a new city is about 25% luck, 25% skill, and %50 patience.  You and the people you happen to be travelling with really need to be willing to pass up many places (no matter how hungry, tired, or in need of a bathroom you are) in order to find a good spot.  This should definitely be within reason - putting a time limit or number of blocks that you'll walk to find a good place can be a good idea.  Generally speaking, however, finding a great cafe is worth some extra discomfort in advance.

I decided to write about finding good cafes because Drew and I had very good experiences in the cities we visited, but very particularly in Prague.  Prague is a confusing city to walk in, and in the three days that we spent there we never failed to come across new streets in the Old Town that we had never found before.  We rarely passed the same cafe twice, and never came across those we chose to eat in a second time (making us feel very glad that we had chosen to stop when we did).  Here are some of the excellent places which we stumbled upon, very much recommended to someone visiting, or returning to, Prague in the future.

Charles bridge, Castle, and the area of Prague called Kampa, from the Old town

The very first night we arrived, we decided to leave the hotel (we stayed in a hotel for 2 nights to get a break from couch surfing and because it is so very cheap) and venture forth in the *freezing cold* night in search of dinner.  Our hotel was conveniently located in the old city, just to the south of the main walking, shopping, and tourist areas.  We struck out, with no particular plans and no direction in mind.  We walked down many dark streets, passed at least a hundred restaurants - there really is no lack in Prague - and read many menus posted outside restaurant doors.  We decided we wanted to try some traditional Czech food, which is largely pork and potatoes, and settled (after reading the menu, walking away, walking around a bit, coming back, reading again, reading the menu next door, looking in windows) on the Golden Serpent cafe.

At first we thought this was just a cozy-looking place with a decent menu, and we were very cold and hungry.  It turns out that we made an unexpectedly excellent choice.  The Golden Serpent claims to be - and, by all accounts I've managed to find, is - the first cafe established in Prague.  Opened by an Armenian merchant in 1714, the cafe introduced coffee to the Czech people, and has survived in the original building (with a few remodelings) since that time.  It is now a restaurant as well as a cafe, and the purveyors served up an incredibly delicious platter of food for Drew and I to share.  We ordered the platter in order to try as much Czech food as possible, and did not expect the serving size would be enough to feed four people.  We had soups to start, excellent Czech beers, and then a huge mass of potatoes, sauerkraut, sweet-kraut, and sundry pig meat.  There was pork knuckle, braised ham, pork sausages of three varieties, a leg of duck (for a change!), and dumplings of ham and bread.  All was sitting in delicious juices on a heating pad, and a huge terrine of gravy was placed beside us on the table - just in case.  We had more than enough to eat that night, and the next day for lunch.  We had a coffee after dinner, even though we could barely stand for being so full, simply out of respect for the coffee history of the Golden Serpent.

The Gothic cathedral in Old Town Square in Prague

The next night we made an equally fortuitous choice in dining establishment.  We had a very difficult time finding a place to eat that night.  In part, this was because we had spent the day walking around the old town again, and so many restaurants were geared toward tourists and were overpriced or just lacking the character that we were looking for.  It was freezing cold and snowing this day, and so the urge to just jump into whichever restaurant looked alright was strong.   We somehow managed to steel our nerves, and wandered into a strange and dark neighbourhood where it didn't look like anyone would be selling anything to anyone.  Tucked away in a strange corner of a road, with a large courtyard in front, we found a restaurant that was advertised only as "Live Jazz".  We went in.  

This restaurant had a very medieval wine-cellar feel to it, but the live jazz they promised did in fact exist, and was awesome.  The first song the two-piece band played was called "Gingie" (actually Dindi, but pronounced as I've spelled it, originally by Antonio Carlos Jobim), and after they were finished we snapped our fingers appreciatively to which the band responded with a laugh that they had played it for us, upon noticing that Drew has ginger hair.  I loved that.  The woman singing had a fantastic voice, and the restaurant quickly filled up with people, conversation, and jazz.  I wish that I knew the name of this restaurant, but all I know is the dot on our map that the waiter drew so that we could navigate our way back to the hotel.

The gate on the west side of the Charles Bridge in Prague (with Castle in background)

Next awesome place to talk about: le Galerie cafe, just at the outskirts of the old city by the river, and far less touristy than most areas, though it's not a far walk at all.  This place fooled me because I actually thought it was an art gallery, and it was very cold again and I wanted to go in to check out the art and to warm up a bit.  We entered the courtyard and noticed that in small archways built into the side of the building there were tables and chairs, like little booths, but so beautiful and romantic.  When we walked in, we found a long cafe in a wine-cellar like room with tables of all different kinds and chairs of all sizes - including a couple of formidable looking pews at the back - with paintings stacked on the floor, easels, and in some cases actually hung on the walls.  It was charming, and we decided to stay to warm up.  Drew had another excellent Czech beer, and I had a house-specialty ginger lemon tea.  It was actually a huge mug of sliced ginger, lemon wedges, and hot water.  Delicious.

Stained glass windows inside the cathedral in the Castle

There were other places we ate at, but I will spare the details of these (also excellent) establishments.  The last place I'll describe is a place that Drew and I ate lunch at on our last day in Prague.  It was a sunny day, though cold with snow clouds in the distance, and we had decided to spend this day touring the castle and its grounds.  We were in the habit of getting up and out fairly late in the morning, and were having late lunches, so after wandering the castle and seeing the huge cathedral housed inside its walls, we wandered out one of the castle gates to try to find some place to get lunch.  The castle is full of restaurants, cafes, shops, and museums, but we managed to pass up even the most enticing of them in our quest for "somewhere else".  We happened to exit the castle right outside of the small vineyard that perches on the side of the hill below the cathedral - Villa Richter.  After perusing the predominantly-duck-dish menu, we decided a little game was in order, so we went in, and found this: 

The view from the garden room

A glass-walled room with tables covered in white linen, and an incredible view over Prague.  It was so warm, and so sunny, and the food was incredible and very cheap.  We each had a glass of the villa's red wine, and it was quite good.  The restaurant was romantic and lovely, and exquisitely beautiful.  We both had duck dishes, i had a salad with dijon dressing and drew had confit of duck with spaetzle (can't describe that, it's a strange starch made with potatoes but feeling like pasta in the mouth), and we had Czech potato soup in bread bowls to start.  After basking in the warm sun and eating the delicious food, we felt really damn good.  How good?  This good:

Drew enjoying the sun at Villa Richter

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