Jan Valenta and Zuzka Daňková run Taste of Prague, a food tour company taking visitors to some of the city’s best cafés and restaurants. The couple also have a very impressive Prague Food Blog offering insider tips on the most happening spots in the Czech capital. Our tour of “their Prague” begins at EMA espresso bar, a cool, modern café just across the street from Masarykovo nádraží train station in the downtown area.
Jan: “I think it’s actually very hard to find a very good café, in terms of the quality of the coffee, in the centre. Many good cafés are in more residential areas, maybe in Vinohrady or Karlín. But this one is very centrally and conveniently located, next to a big office building. So it’s always busy. The only problem is that we often meet friends here and we want to work, so we don’t get anything done.”
To me this seems part of a trend of hipster cafés in Prague. When did that trend begin and which cafés would you say were the pioneers of it?
Jan: “I think specialist coffee and hipsters go hand in hand. This was the first that was visually very, very much a hipster café.”
Zuzka: “The first [specialty] cafés were Al Cafatero and Šálek [Můj šálek kávy] and Al Cafatero is not hipster at all – it’s more like visiting your grandpa or something [laughs]. It’s more like a living room.”
Jan: “That is true. But I don’t think that… [EMA] may have hipster visuals, if you want to use that word, but I don’t think it has the hipster attitude – eyebrows won’t be raised if you ask for, I don’t know, sugar.”
What other cafés would you recommend in Prague?
Jan: “I also think that Kafé Karlín were pioneers here – it’s a small espresso bar. And we like Coffee Room quite a bit.”
One thing that impresses me [at EMA] is that they have free water, which isn’t something you find everywhere in this country, by any means.
Jan: “That is true. Many of our guests are surprised by this. But culturally or traditionally water is not a thing that has been served here for free.”
Zuzka: “But more and more places are introducing it – even for a small fee. That’s perfectly fine.”
You think it’s fine? I think it’s kind of awful when I see it on a menu. I saw one place had “Tap water: 17 crowns” on the menu.
Zuzka: “Why do you think so?”
I think it’s a resource. And also I feel kind of insulted as a customer – that they’re trying to screw me for a little bit more just for a glass of water.
Jan: “I think in some cafés they give part of it to a charity or to a fund.”
Zuzka: “Yes, Místo and Můj šálek kávy give it to charity. And my view is they use their glasses, they pay for it. Also some people order one coffee and then start working on their laptop for three hours with one coffee. That’s not really cool for the café.”
A couple of years ago I was in America, in New Orleans, and I noticed in the cafés there that they had simply become unofficial co-working centres. Everybody had their computer out. Is that happening here too?
Zuzka: “More and more often. EMA is probably the only speciality café that doesn’t have wi-fi here in Prague.”
Jan: “I think also I read a statistic somewhere that we have for various reasons, including tax reasons, one of the highest proportions of the population who are self-employed, freelancers. I think that also helps.”
Do you guys work in cafés?
Jan: “All the time.”
Zuzka: “But we order all the time – like every 30 minutes we order something [laughs].”
So are you buzzing every evening by 6 o’clock and you can’t sleep till three in the morning?
Zuzka needs to duck out for a while so Jan and I stroll down to Karlín, a once rundown neighbourhood that has rapidly come up in the world in recent times. Indeed, an excellent blog post they wrote on the burgeoning district last year was my own introduction to Taste of Prague. As we stand on its main square, Karlínské náměstí, Jan tells me he has strong ties to the area.
“My father used to live here for the longest time. He lived at Křižíkova, which is one of the longer streets here, right by what is now Můj šálek kávy. He used to be a receptionist at the Olympik Hotel in [nearby] Palmovka.
“All I remember as a young boy when I went to see him was just going through these neighbourhoods. And he wouldn’t cook that much, so we used to go to the pubs.
“One of them used to be Hamburk. Hamburk used to be a pretty bad pub but now – just like the whole neighbourhood – it got gentrified and has now been resurrected as a new pub [Hamburk Lokál].
“So yeah, I spent quite a bit of time when I was a kid here.”
I read that your dad used to live opposite the pub U Zábranských.
“Yes, that’s a very loaded pub historically. I think that the Czechoslovak Communist Party was founded there, in 1924.
“Also in the 1990s it was pretty rough because it was a neo-Nazi pub. There were lots of skinheads there back then. He lived exactly opposite that pub.”
I was reading also on your blog that Karlín is the only district in Prague set out on a grid. Is that really true?
“I think so. It is so easy to map it. You know, if you walk through the centre and the Old Town, it’s a maze. You walk through a windy street and suddenly it goes into three different streets and you don’t know where to go – they’re never straight.
“But here it’s quite rectangular, with a grid layout. So our American guests feel very at ease here.”
What particular spots are popular with your guests?
“I think they like the cafés. Speciality coffee in Prague really started in Karlín with Můj šálek kávy. We walked past Kafé Karlín, which was opened by the guys from Kávový Klub, who really started the whole speciality coffee scene here, or helped start it.
“I think they like [Hamburk] Lokál, the pub. Simply Good is a very popular place – it’s a bakery with the best koláče. Which is something that our guests from Texas are very keen to try – it’s a big Texas thing because of the Bohemian community there.
“What we really like and what they really like is Tea Mountain, which is, I think, the best tearoom in Prague. And right next to it Veltlin, natural wines from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Central European wines. I think these places are notable.”
I guess many of your guests would find it hard to believe how grim it was here in Karlín, say 20 years ago.
“Absolutely. Before the  floods… they didn’t even put scaffolds up – that’s how grim it was. It was really bad.
“It was a socially, I would say, neglected area. There was not much here. People just lived here but there were not many businesses here.”
But still it seems to me that the gentrification came some time after the floods, right?
“We’re looking at the new developments here, right next to the river. And I think it just took some time to build these things.
“I think the developers were very shy to move here. There was a big discussion about the anti-flood barriers that were being put here and [the developers] wanted guarantees that the floods would never happen again.
“So after the few years when we discussed the barriers and made it happen, I think that’s when they started building. And that brought the offices and that brought the people here.”
How do rents and property prices here compare to other parts of the city, generally speaking?
“But they’re going up. I think sometimes they’re a bit higher, just because of the hype.
“And some of the buildings may look beautiful outside but you walk inside and it’s a disaster. The courtyards can be pretty rough here. But yes, [rents and prices] are going up.
“Honestly, 15 years ago if you’d asked me, Would you like to live in Karlín? I would have said, Absolutely not.
“And actually now we’ve been thinking about it. It’s very near the centre – it’s one subway stop away. It’s a very nice leafy district in the summer. So yeah, why not?”
From Karlínské náměstí it’s just a few minutes to Eska, an acclaimed new restaurant which is part of the thriving Ambiente group. Eska is located in a large complex that also reflects Karlín’s image as a district on the up – a former factory that also houses a state of the art music venue and a leading publishing group. Zuzka has now rejoined us and I ask the couple what kind of clientele the restaurant – which also includes a bakery – is going for.
Jan: “I think young urban professionals, for lunch, because we are between many offices.”
Zuzka: “Also I think people who travel a lot, who are interested in maybe lighter food – a more modern approach in food.”
What’s the typical menu here?
Jan: “Exactly. They want to serve Czech food but maybe depart from the butter-infused, meat-focused Czech cuisine that is usually served in pubs. This is something lighter, more modern. I think it has a health concern and maybe a bit of an environmental concern too.”
I read somewhere that they’re partly going for a ‘northern’ style here. What does that mean, do you know?
Zuzka: “I think it’s ‘inspired by’ northern style.”
Jan: “I think with northern cuisine there’s an environmental concern a bit – that they don’t generate too much waste. They don’t really go for very expensive produce and use produce that is very common, that we see around us all the time.”
Zuzka: “And you use it in a clever way. They basically use the whole of the plant or whatever they have.”
Also you guys were telling me that they have great breakfasts here.
Zuzka: “Definitely. We are here, like, every weekend [laughs]. They have an egg breakfast but then they also have more interesting things, like porridge with poached pears or plums. They also have granola with beetroot and yoghurt. And then they have bigger dishes – some kinds of soup, meat and so on.”
This is only my second time here but on both occasions I’ve been impressed by the sheer number of people working here – it’s kind of like a factory.
Jan: “It’s located in a former factory, so there’s that. But also it’s three things in one. It’s a bakery, so you see bakers walking around. It’s also a speciality café, so there are a few baristas here. And it’s a restaurant. I think that just the simple fact that the kitchen is open…”
Zuzka: “Yes. In many restaurants you can’t see the kitchen, so you actually don’t know how many people are working. But here you see everything, right?”
Also this place is part of the Ambiente chain. What has Ambiente done for dining in Prague and even the Czech Republic, would you say?
Zuzka: “Everyone knows that we’re big fans of Ambiente. I’m not going to hide this. Because no-one else has done what they’ve done for Czech cuisine. What’s great about them is that they themselves travel a lot. They put a lot of money into their people travelling; they have chefs constantly travelling to Scandinavia, to London, to learn from other chefs. I think you can see that. And I hope we will be seeing [Ambiente’s expansion] more and more.”
Jan: “They’re clearly a very ubiquitous restaurant group. They have 800 employees now. Also they’ve really helped with the prestige of many professions. If you look at butchers and what they’ve done with [Ambiente-owned city centre butcher’s] Naše maso – people are thinking for the first time that being a chef or being a butcher is not actually the thing you do when you don’t get into any other school. It can actually be a cool profession in its own right.”
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