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.