“You’ve got to check out the food in Prague!”
From a friend, it sounds like an endorsement. From an enemy, it sounds strangely ominous. Objectively, it’s a pretty stupid thing to say. Try to go to Prague for a few days and not “check out” any food. You’ll starve. Then again, if you go to Prague for several days and try to eat specifically Czech food, starving doesn’t seem so bad.
You might, just might, like the food in the Czech Republic, but unless you really like jerks, you will not like the service. Switching from the US, where wait staff are slaves to the seductive lure of tips, to Amsterdam has been a rough transition. Amsterdam is a wasteland for attentive service. They speak English and are occasionally pleasant, but it’s a Herculean effort to be noticed. However, if you think the Dutch are standoffish, I guarantee you’ll think the Dutch wait staff is simply charming after a trip to Prague.
By way of example, Liz and I went to a highly regarded restaurant in Prague. TripAdvisor liked it, as did the guidebooks and a few locals we met. I shouldn’t hold the menu being written in Czech as a fault, but I will. So damn angry. Šťastný! See? It feels like your eyes just got punched in the face. And, šťastný means happy.
At home and in everyday life, I like bread a lot. When bread gets placed in front of my gaping maw at a restaurant, I lose what little self-control I have. I could have ordered a baguette for my appetizer and a boule of sourdough for the main course. Don’t care, give me that free bread. And that’s where those crafty Czechs get you. It’s not free. I know, right? Take a deep breath and calm down; it’s only everything you know to be right and good in this world being violently uprooted. It’s not like the bread is expensive (20 CZK ≈ 1 USD). However, if you enjoy freedom and honesty, don’t touch the bread. Furthermore, you’ll find the ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc. in small, sealed bottles. Don’t be fooled by their diminutive cuteness. It’s not uncommon to get charged to add flavor to your meals.
Before you get to enjoy your bread-less meal sans condiments, you’ll notice the Jedi mind trick the wait staff is trying to pull off. The ever so subtle up-sell of any item you order.
“You want tap water? I’d really recommend the Dom Perignon.”
“Ok, one side salad. Would you like gold croutons on that?”
“Yes, the trout is very nice, but can I interest you in a NASA space shuttle?
I managed to resist the up-sell every time. My guess is that even if I indulged in the roasted pork with a side of Rolls Royce, their implacable scowls would linger. Every time I thanked the waiter for something, his head snapped to attention, made eye contact, and silently mouthed “I will kill you.” In fairness it could have been a Czech phrase meaning the same thing.
If you need a drink other than water, remember that you speak no Czech and know nothing about Czech wine. Liz and I had three waiters at this particular restaurant. It’s an all out barrage of offers, none of which are clear. You have three foreign auctioneers listing choices in a confusing blend of Czech, English, and sign language. They’ll bring bottles out to your table and leave them there even if you didn’t order them. Since price lists are non-existent and you need a depressant to settle your nerves, just order a beer. Czech beers aren’t great, but they are really cheap, which makes
Pilsner Urquell is the crown jewel of Czech beers. Pubs and restaurants alike claim to have “the best Pilsner Urquell in Prague.” I assume the beer comes from bottles or kegs, sold to bars from the same distributor. The only way one bar’s beer can be better than another’s is through someone else’s hijinx or if that beer sat for a very long time. And since Czech annual per capita beer consumption is around 156 liters, stale beer is unlikely. I remember liking Pilsner Urquell well enough in the US. I’m also the type of guy that thinks Heineken tastes better in Amsterdam. My delusions aside, every time I had the “best Pilsner Urquell in Prague,” it was not. Still, they’re cheap and after enough beers you can forget your waiter is a dick.
You’ll promptly get your drinks 20 minutes later and your meal in another brief 30. I’m all for a leisurely dinner, but unless you have saintly patience, you will get irritated. On the whole, Czech food is unreliable. One in four meals we had were good, and those other three were very mediocre. Those iffy meals become worse when you have an ass of a waiter. That ass of a waiter becomes more of an ass when you get the bill and it looks a lot higher than the number you had in your head.
When the check arrives there are a few things you should do. First, wake up. You will have fallen asleep during the hour between your last bite and the bill coming. Second, withhold gasps if the bill is seriously inflated. The slightest outward anger may incite the waiter to move from dour to “territorial silver-back.” Third, break out your over-sized visor and olde-tyme accountant garb to scrutinize your check. There’s good chance you’ve been charged extra for something, possibly the condiments. If you have touched them, there is no use in arguing. If you haven’t, argue away. The waiter already hates you. When then bill still seems too high, think back and try to remember why you ordered two bowls of goulash. Right, you didn’t. The restaurant double charged you.
“Remember how much you enjoyed those buttery, garlicky escargot?”
“Not really. That’s weird.”
“You can’t taste them because you didn’t eat them because you didn’t order them.”
“No no no. Surely I ate them since it’s on the bill. The simplest answer is amnesia or taste bud failure. Our waiter is an angelic saint.”
Look carefully at your bill. Don’t only look at the number of items printed out. Look for the “x 2” after some items, another way of snaring tourists. And to be honest, if you confront the wait staff they’ll readily admit they made a mistake, fix the bill, and show genuine contrition. You can tip if you want to, but it’s not really expected on account of the wait staff being difficult.
I’ve read many a website claiming that Czech service is intentionally distant because they think this is more professional. That may be true; however, it may also be an excuse to treat tourists like jerks. Go out and eat food in Prague and be your own judge. This is only a cautionary tale.