The Czech food scene has become increasingly colourful in recent years with small ethic eateries popping up around Prague. Foodies now have their pick of Indian, Arab, Vietnamese, Turkish or Armenian restaurants and increasingly Czechs heading out for a quick lunch are opting for a taste of foreign cuisine. One such eatery in Prague’s Vinohrady district offers Georgian specialties. It is a family enterprise revolving around mum and businesswoman Manana Toidze known to everyone as Pani Mančo or Mrs. Mančo.
The Pani Mančo soup restaurant is a small, cosy and friendly place packed with young people all day long. Officially it is a soup joint but it offers a wide variety of Georgian and East European specialties that make a perfect light lunch. I tucked into a delicious borsch and chacapuri as Mrs. Manco filled me in on her success story.
“I came here in 2005 when ethnic catering was just getting started. They were looking for someone who could cook Georgian cuisine and so I and my friend Lena volunteered to do that. We prepared chachapuri and other specialties and it was an incredible success. It was all the rage and there was great interest from foreign companies and people organizing parties who wanted something special. So that’s how I got into the business and once I got permanent residence I could open a place of my own.”
Today the Manco soup joint is a family business. Mrs. Mančo rules the kitchen, creating new recipes and overlooking every tiny detail both in the kitchen and in the small restaurant where she comes out to talk to customers, ask them how they are enjoying the food and explaining the origin of various dishes. Her grown children work here full time and her husband’s paintings hang on the walls. It feels very much like this family is not doing business but cooking for a wide circle of family and friends. Mrs. Mančo says this is the secret of her success.
“When you do something from the heart, when you give the best you can people appreciate it.”
“That was my concept right from the start and the Czech friends I worked with trusted me. In this business – in any business -you need to smile and communicate with people. When we started people were not familiar with soup eateries, much less foreign food. So we did everything, we would dance around the place, explain what every dish was and where it came from, we would laugh and joke with them. And it worked. First we had mostly foreigners coming in and then the Czechs started coming too. I would talk to them about Georgia, about the food and the people and they would open up. When you do something from the heart, when you give the best you can people appreciate it. Now we have lots of regulars and many of the people who come here are like family.”
In addition to the Czechs who are charmed by the homey atmosphere the place attracts many young people from Georgia, Russia, Ukraine or the Balkans who are familiar with this cuisine. Alex and Dali kindly spared a few minutes of their lunch hour to talk to me.
Alex: “I have been here a couple of times and I like it a lot.”
What makes you come?
Alex: “It is mainly the soup that I’m eating right now. It is called borsch and it is like a national dish in Russia and that’s where I’m from. It makes me feel like home when I eat here.”
Dali: “Maybe I am a little bit biased because it is my home cuisine. I am from Georgia and I love Georgian food. But I think that in general people love Georgian food, it is diverse and has a special taste. I especially love the soups they make here and of course Georgian chacapuri …it is not far away from my university so I can come here more often….”
And it makes you feel like home?
“It does, yes. And sometimes I hear them speaking Georgian and that’s nice.”
How often do you come?
“Two or three times a week…it depends.”
Is it authentic? Is it real Georgian food or is it specially tailored to Central European tastes?
“I think it is tailored…yes..for example chacapuri in Georgia tastes a little bit different, but I still like this one and as for the soups – I was talking to the owner of this restaurant and she said Czechs have slightly different tastes so they make soups a little bit more sweet, so yes, it is tailored to local tastes.”
Do your friends come here?
“I think they do. I tempted some of them to come. Some live further away, but they do. And I know that many Georgians come although I do not necessarily know them all personally.”
And the atmosphere is good…
“I do not fear the competition, because none of this stuff was googled, all of it is my own and whenever I need to I can experiment and come up with new things.”
“Yes, I think so. And I also like that you come and you immediately get what you want, you don’t have to wait –that is good. In other Georgian places you might get more sophisticated cuisine but this one is special and great for a quick lunch.”
The attitude is very friendly I noticed…
“It is, it is, yes.”
This is delicious. I have never eaten anything like it. What is it? What do you eat it with in Georgia?
“Oh, there are many types of chacapuri, there is even one from my region –it is called Adjarian chacapuri – it is like a little boat with cheese and butter floating in it, it is a little bit greasy but I love it.”
So you eat it with soup?
“Yes, you can. I eat it with soup sometimes. But mostly I love it with just tea or juice.”
Absolutely delicious. And everything is fresh. This is freshly baked, obviously.
“Oh, yes, chacapuri is so popular it is gone immediately. I remember the last time they cooked it it was gone in five minutes.”
Fresh is the operative word in the Mančo soup place. Mrs. Mančo says the best thing about being her own boss is that she can cook from whatever ingredients she chooses and make whatever she likes.
“Many of the recipes are my own. I studied chemistry you know and I instinctively know what will go well with what, what will complement zucchinis or aubergines, I see what people like and so I get creative. That’s why I do not fear the competition, because none of this stuff was googled, all of it is my own and whenever I need to I can experiment and come up with new things. I cook as I do for my family and friends – we do not eat anything better at home and I think people know that. So I do not even need to advertise because my clients spread the word and do that for me.”
As I leave the place I buy a few more chacapuris for my family and I definitely know I’ll be back soon for another plate of home-made borsch.