Pivnice U Zlateho Tygra, At the Golden Tiger, is a name that resonates with all Czech beer lovers. Located on Husova Street in Prague's Old Town, it is one of the oldest pubs in the centre of the city and was the second place in the capital to serve the renowned Pilsner Urquell. Among its famous regulars was Bohumil Hrabal, the great Czech novelist.
Karel Hulata, who has been in charge of the pub for 31 years, has many stories to tell about the Golden Tiger. For instance in 1932 it was visited by the French prime minister Edouard Herriot, who was accompanied by officials from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"As they were enjoying their Pilsners, Herriot asked, who is that sitting beside Malypetr, the chair of the Chamber of Deputies.' He was surprised to learn it was a wall painter. Then he asked, who is that beside the chairman of the supreme administrative court? That's a lamp maker from Karlova Street, he was told by someone at the next table. And who are you, asked Herriot. I'm a janitor, came the reply. The French premier said, we've been mistaken, gentlemen - democracy isn't in France, it's here! "
When you just stop by the pub nowadays, you will almost certainly drink your beer standing. The place is always packed, with all the tables occupied by various groups of regulars. But if you are lucky enough to join a certain group, you will most probably be welcomed, and you will have the chance to participate in a most interesting discussion. Karel Hulata continues.
"Each group has someone famous, usually two or three well-known people, who have attracted other ordinary people. There is for example a group of television people; another is soccer players, another ice hockey players. And a lot of singers, film directors like Milos Forman and actors like Juraj Kukura come here with their friends. The table we are sitting at right now belongs every Tuesday to former emigres, for example. I've never understood why when the unwritten leader of a respective group gets sick or goes on vacation, it's as if the others would say with some relief, we have a day off, we don't have to go to the Tiger."
The Czech Na zdravi and its English counterpart Cheers were probably uttered also the night of January 11, 1994, when then US president Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel and Bohumil Hrabal sat together in the pub. The press hastily informed that Clinton enjoyed three beers and a schnitzel, and that he skipped his regular jog the following morning. Hrabal, however, was much better trained - only in drinking, of course.
The author of Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England would enjoy his beloved pivo with all sorts of people, be they friends or newcomers. However, if someone asked Hrabal to sign one of his books, he refused. Roman, one of the current regulars, comes to the Golden Tiger every Tuesday and Friday. He is 51 and remembers the famous writer very well.
"Once, I was sitting here in the pub, and some Hungarian came in. His name was Peter Kovac, and he was from Veszprem. Being a devoted reader of Hrabal, he travelled here for to get his autograph. So I went with him to Hrabal's table, and I said, this Hungarian reader of yours would love to have a book signed. Hrabal replied in Czech, but I don't know Hungarian! Kovac got the meaning and said in English, in original, please, and pulled a large bottle labelled Aqua Veszprem in Latin and Pure Water from Veszprem in Czech, and he handed it to Hrabal. Hrabal had a sip and said, shit, that's good! And I won't share it with anybody! And he corked it up and signed the book."
Even the hugely popular singer Karel Gott sings about the tavern being his second home and a full glass being his life. The drinkers, for whom the Golden Tiger is their second home, are mostly passionate beer lovers. The pub sells only a few glasses of water, coke or wine per week. And it has a policy of not selling spirits. According to Karel Hulata, beer is a tranquillizer, whereas shots make people act aggressively. The Golden Tiger's beer culture has a venerable tradition.
"Beer was pulled here for the first time in 1843, which was one year after the Burgess Brewery in Plzen was founded. We were the second Prague pub to serve Pilsner, after U Pinkasu. In those days, the waiters pulled beer into large glazed beer measures in the cellar, then they brought those upstairs and poured beer into guests' mugs. Beer tasted differently those days and was drunk at a higher temperature. They even used beer heaters sometimes. Nowadays, the usual temperature is 7 to 8 degrees Celsius."
Up to the Second World War, however, any feminists coming to the Golden Tiger must have been terribly offended. Women were simply not allowed inside. They were handed a program for the closest cinema, and even some change for a ticket, and told to pick their husbands up on their way back. But those old traditions were broken by a woman called Lady Helenka, as Karel Hulata explains.
"She came here with her fiance Vaclav Prymek, who was an officer and an army pilot. When Lady Helenka was stopped at the door, she promised to keep track with her fiance, who was a respected beer drinker. And when the waiter counted the lines on the bill, there were 44 of them. Lady Helenka managed 22 beers that evening, as did her future husband. The waiter laid a white napkin in front of Helenka on the floor, kneeled down and said, madam, this seat by the counter will always be yours, even if the Egyptian king Faruk comes in."
Helenka Prymkova is about to celebrate her 85th birthday and still comes to the Tiger every Tuesday, always drinking six beers.