A Tale of Two Canteens

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I know it might seem like I’m obsessed with food, what with the rohlik buying, the Czech Come Dine with Me (Prostřeno!) watching and the long list of provisions received from the grandmas on the trips to the village, but the way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach. 

The picture above is a of a Czech canteen or jídelna. They are something of a dying breed but it’s still possible to find them if you hunt around. This one is on Stčpanská, around a five minute walk from Karlovo Námčstí.

First culture shock: don’t expect a seat.  Do expect to stand elbow to elbow with a beer-bellied man in overalls as you chomp on your meat and dumplings.

There’s no table service here of course, and no English menu either. Czechman tells me (given the prices and his guts of iron he’s something of a regular) that he has heard the staff translating the options for the odd foreigner who has bravely strayed off the tourist trail of nearby Wenceslas Square in search of bargain grub.  In fact, perhaps the only place in Prague where no-one speaks English is the Foreign Police, the government department responsible for processing the visas and residence permits and therefore come into daily contact with and are required to communicate with as part of their job – guess who?  Foreigners.

That rant almost gave me indigestion. Forgive me. Anyway, here’s a taster (if you’ll pardon the pun) of those menu options: 

On my visit I opted for beef, spinach and potato dumplings. I’ll leave the detailed dining reviewing to those with more of a taste for it (and the bad puns just keep coming) but  as the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a visual image I’m sure some of you will never forget.

For those of you not accustomed to Czech food, this is pretty typical fare. Once having been used to mop up the thick gravy, the dumplings sink into your stomach like lead weights. They then sit there for the rest of the afternoon while your digestive system struggles to carry out the complex chemical reactions required to break them down.  Washing them down with a beer or two aids this process. 

They are comforting though, especially in winter. The quality I thought was no worse than you’d find in the average Czech pub although I’d rather pay that extra 20kc for the luxury of sitting down while eating.

This is a canteen (or should that be acanteen?) in Chelmsford, Essex. Like its Czech equivalent, there is a choice of soups on offer every lunchtime. Unlike its Czech counterpart, it also has salads along with a range of locally sourced organic fruit juices. And seats.  In case you find yourself missing the draft Gambrinus or men in overalls you can console yourself with a large mochachinolattinos and a huge piece of cake while leafing through a copy of the Guardian. 

Here’s a picture I took of the interior on my last visit:

The menu options are still written up on a board behind the counter and you still need to queue up but there the similarity with the typical canteen ends.  You see, this is a po-mo, retro dining experience.  Just check out those authentically rustic tables and chairs. That’s why you pay the same price for a coffee here as I did for my meat and dumplings on Stěpanská. 

Both places have their unique charms and before I get verbally assaulted in the comments sections, I certainly wouldn’t dare to suggest that one were ‘better’ than the other.  Just like England and Czechland.

45 Comments

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45 Responses to A Tale of Two Canteens

  1. One of the most common visitors there are garbage men and ambulance drivers after a night shift. Apart from quite understanding that such food will best serve their taste and hunger at that moment, I have a hard time imagining those guys in a canteen with rustic chairs and mochachinos served.

    Another jídelna, though a bit more expensive, is just down Štěpánská in Lucerna. It’s called Apetit and I’ve had a pretty good lunch there a few times.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Vojtech
      I also have a tough time imagining the garbage men and ambulance drivers with moccachinos, but it’s a comic image 🙂 I’ll check out the canteen you mention sometime too – once I’ve finished digesting the dumplings from this place…
      GIC

  2. I really do understand your disgust – fortunately, as you said, this type of canteens is becoming extinct. But looking at the photo of your dish, it pretty much reminds me of my plate of lasagna I got in a small restaurant near Windsor… it looked exactly the same, except there were no dumplings 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Old Rich,
      I’m not disgusted, honestly (before I get attacked by someone else!): the quality of the food wasn’t any worse than in an average pub and was edible – just. And I don’t doubt that there are some dodgy so-called lasagnes being served back in England and I’m sure it was three or four times the price too. Still, hopefully you at least got to see the castle – no invitation to afternoon tea with her Majesty though?
      GIC

  3. Paul

    Ha I am czech and I don’t remember ever being in a Jídelna like that : )
    Standing while eating normal lunch like dumplings+spinach+meat ? Never!

  4. Hi GIC,
    Lovely observational post as usual. However, as both you and ‘Old Rich Vintage’ above say, these sort of jídelna are becoming increasingly rare.

    I thoroughly endorse your rant about the Czech Foreign Police. How absurd that there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can speak anything but Czech working there!

    However, do be careful – you are a teacher of English and are quick, as I am too, to point out the misuse of our language by Czech people. However, in your post you have ‘Wencelasus’ which should be ‘Wenceslas’ or possibly ‘Wenceslaus’. And your penultimate sentence has “I certainly wouldn’t dare to suggest that one were ‘better’ than the other” which surely should be “one was better”.

    • #13

      No. As GIC will probably tell you, both “was” and “were” are used by native speakers but “were” should be the correct form in if-clauses.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Ricky,
      Thank my lucky stars that I have such an able team of crack copy editors to point out my errors – honestly! I think I was so excited about getting this one up (it’s been brewing in my head for months although I only plucked up the courage to visit the jidelna in question last week) that I really didn’t proofread the post properly at all. Wenceslas has been duly corrected. As for the were/was, I *think* that ‘were’ is acceptable here as an admittedly rare example of the subjunctive in English, but would definitely have to look it up in my big grammar reference book to be sure.
      On the subject of the use and abuse of grammar by native speakers, were you ever taught grammar explicitly at school? I certainly wasn’t (but did cover it during teacher training, fear not!): I think I was a victim of the hippified liberal educational practices which took hold in the sixties and then never left…
      GIC

      • Hi again GIC,

        Yes – despite leaving the publishing industry over 20 years ago, the proof-reader in me lives on! As for the were/was conundrum, it is the subjunctive and I bow to both you and #13 in believing that ‘were’ is acceptable in this context. It just didn’t sound right as I first read what you had written.

        I had to laugh at your declaration that you ‘were a victim of the hippified liberal educational practices which took hold in the sixties and then never left…’. My secondary school education spanned most of the sixties (1963-1970) and, to answer your question, I certainly was explicitly taught grammar. I am very proud to possess a GCE O’ Level Certificate in English Language!

      • bibax

        My grammar book “Anglická mluvnice” (K. Hais, 1975) suggests that the subjunctive be used after the verb “to suggest”.

        The book also says that the English lost the feeling for the subjunctive mood as it is formally identical to the indicative mood in most cases.

      • girlinczechland

        Hi Bibax,
        I think it’s a bit more complicated than you suggest (ho, ho): see the link posted by #13 below. It is still common in certain circumstances (e.g ‘If I were you…’ sounds more natural to me than ‘If I was you’).
        Anyway, enough grammar talk: I get my fair share of that at work…
        GIC

  5. Oy! You are stealing my job ;-))

    (Just joking – love it!)

  6. #13

    Dear GIC, you must be crazy to eat this kind of stuff in this kind of place! 😀 I didn’t even know these places still existed! And I can tell you with confidence I would never dare to swallow one of those things. 🙂 It’s 2010 for goodness sake…

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Mmister 13,
      ‘I would never dare to swallow one of those things…’ Perhaps I’m just English and sexually repressed but that does sound rather coyly provocative 😉 It’s funny to hear quite a few of the Czechs here (see Martin’s comment above) saying this jidelna looks like a real blast from the past. Czechman is always encouraging me to check out more of these places to save the pennies – or should I say crowns…
      GIC

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  8. To be fair – this is what I got the first day in Britain when asking a friend for ‘some typical but reasonable tasteful’: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=144266946499&set=a.144265441499.126630.560651499
    It was typical and tasteful but the picture seems remarkable similar. 🙂

    If you wanted to visit a nicer Prague canteen try http://www.nelso.cz/cz/place/4838/

    • girlinczechland

      I’m sorry David, but your (pub?) sausage and mash looks so darn tasty I’m tempted to get the first Easyjet flight back to Britain 🙂 Thanks for the canteen recommendation though.
      GIC

  9. Martin

    Where is it? It looks like musem of communism. You can find better jídelna in Prague too. Try this: http://www.apetitpraha.cz/gastrokomplex/jidelna.html
    But that England canteen looks better. Trees outside, good logo typography, great design. Socialistic realism killed good looking shops. Anyone with cutting plotter established his own DTP studio and the results are horrific.

  10. Sarka

    A co teprve mléčné bary 🙂 Chodila jsem tam s babičkou na pařížský salát se dvěma rohlíky, následovaný zákuskem. Hezké dětství 🙂 Mléčných barů už taky moc není…

  11. zee

    Hey GIC, just a brief note from a newbie. These places are no real eateries. Honest! Hasn’t Czechman told you? You don’t go to these places to eat! You observe! Also you may have notices there is a box office for entrance fee 🙂 (Nothing wrong with a lovely homemade potato dumpling witch spinach and parsley bits in it, though.)

    On another note. These two examples are parallel universe types of jidelna. No matter where they’re located, there is something honest about the ‘blast from the past’ ones. Or the classic chippy down the road, for that matter. As much as I love good food and old jidelnas don’t always represent that, some of the new organic rustic etc. places make me scream with shock and horror.

  12. Koty

    Hi,
    a very nice post, but i believe that these canteens will not extict. Or do you think that the giant garbagemen and bricklayers will ever prefer a salad and capuccino to meat and dumplings? 😉

    The Czechs have different eating habits and they are going to change it just very slowly… It’s a bare fact. There is also a social level: For many Czechs, the main dish of the day is served at noon. That is why they are not satisfied with a salad or toast.

    However, these canteens mainly “serve” traditional czech cuisine, old-fashioned and fat yet still cheap and favoured. Without trying a good dršťková soup or sauerkraut (kyselé zelí) with black pudding (jelito) after 4 hours of manual labour you cannot understand it properly.

  13. Zita

    The Czech jídelna makes me feel like writing poems, the English canteen makes me feel like drinking moccachino;-)
    I hope, that they will never die out…

  14. Zita

    And btw. Havelská koruna is a classic place. I used to eat there a lot (when I was in Václavské náměstí, hungry and did not have much money;-)). Just don´t expect them to speak english…:-(

  15. Gormie

    Ah, the good old jídelna … 🙂

    There is one episode of the show “Chalupáři”, where they make a trip to Prague and they eat at that kind of place. You can watch it to see what the golden age jidelnas looked like.

    Oh, the whole scene is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USsEDBiZrno

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Gormie,

      Thanks a lot for posting this link: it made me laugh and gave Czechman and I something to chat about over dinner. I’ll have to make sure I get around to watching the whole film soon: does anyone know if you can get it for 50kc in one of those cardboard sleeve editions?
      GIC

      • Gormie

        The whole show (11 episodes / 6 DVDs) was issued in cardboard sleeve edition during the summer, so there are probably some shops where you can still get it.

  16. Girl, you have kept from your readers the true equivalents of jidelna: the fried-chicken shops and greasy spoon cafs. I am sure there’s fair few of these in Essex!

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Jana,
      It’s true that ‘acanteen’ isn’t exactly the true cultural equivalent of a Czech jidelna, but therein lies the humour in my view… and at least you get a seat in a greasy spoon although there’s no handy hook under the table to hang your coat or draft Gambrinus either.

      GIC

  17. Zita

    Girl and others,
    I showed these pictures to my boyfriend and he laught how many long-haired men are on the picture… He has a theory, that the Czech Republic is some kind of hippy country:-) Do you also have a feeling, that there are more men with long hair than in other “western” countries?

    • Karolina

      Ahoj Zito,

      v jednom komentáři v předchozích příspěvcích jsem si všimla, že žiješ v Kodani. Taky tu teď na pár let jsem, tak mě napadlo, jestli by ses mi neozvala na mail a neprobrala se mnou Dánsko v očích českých holek 🙂

      kar071na@seznam.cz

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Zita,
      Glad you brought up the men with long hair issue. I have discussed this with Czechman before: it certainly is noticeable that there are more men here with long hair in my view, especially of a certain generation (i.e those who grew up under Communism). Instead of being a sign of rebellion against a repressive regime (as it may have been in the past?) could it be a celebration of post-Velvet revolution freedoms? Just a theory – I’m sure my readers will correct me if I’m wrong 🙂
      GIC

  18. bibax

    I know the jídelna in Stephen’s Str. very well. I ate there many times when I worked in an office near I. P. Pavlov Sqr. Another similar jídelna is in Belgrade Str. (also near Pavlov Sqr.). The cheapest jídelna I know is in Moscow Str. (Vršovice, near Baťa).

    I think these jídelnas will always exist as they are economically justified. You could notice that the jídelnas are always a part of butcher’s shops and they usually exploit unsold or unsaleable meat and tripe (like pig heads, tongues, lung, heart, stomach, pork blood, etc.).

    You cannot expect vegetable salads as the butchers usually do not sell fresh vegetable, so they use only frozen spinach, sterilized sauerkraut and gherkins (nakládané okurky). Also the dumplings (knedlíky) are mostly from similar source like the ones in Tesco.

    I think this selling model is quite effective and the result is very low prices of dishes and many satisfied boarders. But I understand that it must be a culture shock for fastidious vegetarians (esp. soup made from chopped beef stomach “dršťková” or pork blood “zabijačková” aka “prdelačka”).

    Dobrou chuť. Bon appétit. Jó étvágyat!

    • girlinczechland

      Hi again Bibax,
      I would never suggest that jidelnas should start serving salads – as I say in the post, both the Czech canteen and ‘acanteen’ have their attractions, depending on what you’re looking for. The main problem for me with the jidelna was having to eat standing up: not very good for the digestion, as any Czech grandma will tell you! 🙂
      GIC

  19. 3Boys

    There used to be a very big one on Karlovo Nam. but it’s closed. It had the same stand-up stainless tables and a large assortment of items available at different counters. I worked next door but only went there once for pivo.

    I think the point is that the food is better than samobsluha food and faster than sit-down food.

    I go to a great place next to the post office on Na Petrinach street. Tram 1 or 18 to station Vetrnik. Nobody ever uses the stand-up tables, they have lots of sit down seating. They start serving lunch at 9:00 AM so people can bring a container and take the food to eat later.

    This place is exactly like the places from 20 years ago with the chalkboard menu, grim employees and mostly silent diners.

    I wanted to start a blog featuring these types of places because I almost exclusively eat inexpensive Czech food during the two months a year I’m in Prague. I rarely eat at the kind of expensive places featured in the Prague food blogs. Unfortunately two months a year is not enough time to do a blog.

  20. Ada

    Good old “jídelna”, or “automat” or “bufáč”… where you eat “na stojáka” (=standing) 🙂 The near bottom of eating facilities. (The true bottom are the “čtvrtá cenová” pubs with the cigarette fog, yellowed net curtains and the worse toilets in the universe. Don’t even try those.)
    That spinach doesn’t look very good, or did the camera make it look like a brownish cowpat? I hated spinach when I was a kid, because this is what the kindergarten and primary school lunchroom cooks called spinach. Ew. I love it now, though, because I make it myself and it’s green, non-cowpattish and very tasty!

  21. Here’s a great place in Brno that I go to when Im in the center. It’s called Oaza and its one of these canteens but for vegetarians (I KNOW! Surprising, especially for Brno since it can be somewhat backwards sometimes)

    http://www.info-brno.cz/oaza/index.html

    If you Pragueians(?) are ever in town, check it out

  22. aeiou

    What’s the point of comparing an ultra-cheap, back-street greasy spoon catering to menial workers with a bistro/café catering to students and office workers? You can find such establishments in both the Czech Republic and England. There are dozens of canteens/bistros/cafes in Prague similar to the Chelmsford one. I don’t get it. I don’t get much of your blogging. Seems to me you are unhappy.

    • girlinczechland

      (sighs deeply once again at having to explain what is seemingly obvious…)
      ‘The Point’ is that no, in England we don’t have canteens where they serve beer and meat with dumplings and you stand up to eat your lunch, certainly not as far as I’m aware. The cultural equivalent (as you suggest and another commenter pointed out here) is the greasy spoon but they are *not* the same. *I* thought that it is rather amusing that ‘acanteen’ in Chelmsford, by choosing that particular name for their eaterie, have rather chosen to pretend that what they’re offering is good standard down-to-earth grub, rather than ridiculously overpriced sandwiches and fancy coffees. If you don’t find it funny, that’s fine: it’s all a matter of taste (if you’ll excuse the pun).
      As for your psychological analysis, I’m sorry to inform you that you are incorrect. Am I happy right now? Yes. Do I like my life better here in Czechland than the one I had in England? Again, overall, the answer is a big yes. If you don’t ‘get’ my blog, then why bother reading it?
      GIC

  23. Jana

    These canteens are slowly getting extincted which is a shame. Its just a part of our history and certainly a special experience to visit them. Even though you cannot expect much of a dining culture there, they are cheap, fast and usually quite tasty. Of course, they are by no means high end restaurants:-)
    But I hope some of them will manage to survive deep into 21 st century. For those who do not fancy this style of dining there are plenty of other options

  24. katherina

    what about the school menzas? They seem pretty the same to me. Have you tried any menza from Univerzita Karlová yet? They are anywhere near a Karlova faculty. Many students and working people go there, but they usually have just 4 options, soup, salats, and tea. Starting at 11 am , isn’t that weird to anyone? Who has lunch at 11 am?!! For me, at least, its extravagant and undigestible. But well, again… is just that in my country we have lunch at 2 pm 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Katherina,

      Who has lunch around 11am? Why the Village People of course — and Czechman’s mum is up at 7am, even on a Sunday, bashing things in the kitchen as part of the preparation process, which can make having an extended sleep challenging.

      And menzas — you’ve obviously been talking to Czechman! He’s always pestering me about trying them but so far I haven’t done much exploring down this culinary avenue. Do you have any recommendations?

      GIC

  25. katherina

    hmmmm… they are all pretty much the same I guess :P.. well, in Albertov it´s always full of people. But I guess now, before the class period starts (I mean before 1 oct. ) it´s not so crowded. The food is the same I would say, doesn´t really matter which menza. I think is worth the experience ! 😀

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