Traditionally, Czech food has been seen as rather stodgy – a cuisine based around fatty meat and potatoes, best washed down with tankards of beer. Heavy on the sauces, bread and dumplings, it may be well-suited to a cosy pub environment, but it has also been dubbed the worst cuisine in the world by at least one reviewer.
Yet it begs the question, is this really representative of "traditional" Czech cuisine - or more importantly, the reality of Czech cuisine today?
What is traditional Czech cuisine?
Many Czech chefs nowadays argue that the rather lumpen image associated with their country's cuisine is in fact a creation built up to serve the tourist industry over the last half century or so. Traditional cookbooks from the 19th century or earlier show a style of cooking that is lighter, healthier and based around local, seasonal ingredients – and it is this version of Czech cuisine that many modern chefs are trying to recreate in their establishments.
While you can certainly still find goulash and other hearty favourites in taverns and restaurants throughout the Czech Republic today, there is definitely a move toward a more varied and cosmopolitan dining scene -particularly in a city such as Prague, a world-class tourist destination and centre for expats.
Dining in Prague today
Many Czech chefs have adopted the ever-growing trend for using high-quality local produce to craft fresh, innovative dishes that are rich in both flavour and nutrients. This ties in with an increasing awareness in the Czech Republic of the dangers of high-fat, high-calorie food – although there are still many who enjoy the old meaty favourites.
The result is nowadays diners in Prague can enjoy Michelin-starred feasts at restaurants such as La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, which specialises in updated versions of 19th-century Czech dishes with a modern, thought-provoking twist, and the Alcron at the Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel, which offers up exquisitely prepared meat and seafood dishes that capture the simple richness of the Czech larder.
There's also a growing demand for restaurants specialising in rustic, home-style cooking that won't break the bank (or your diet). Local favourites include Lokál, which prepares high-quality pub food that manages to be hearty, but not stodgy, and Café Mistral, whose light and airy interior matches the purity of its fresh ingredients and simply prepared dishes.
A new culinary diversity
In larger urban centres such as Prague you can also now find an excellent selection of restaurants serving different international cuisines interpreted with skill and creativity. For instance, you can find authentic, flavoursome Indian cuisine at Masala, or indulge in fine French dining in the Céleste Restaurant at the top of the famous Dancing House.
Traditional Italian cuisine is well represented at establishments such as Cotto Crudo and La Finestra, which have garnered rave reviews and are frequently mentioned as among the best restaurants in Prague. Meanwhile, those looking for food with an Asian twist should check out the menu at the popular Rickshaw, which incorporates elements from Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian and Philippine cuisine.
Even vegans and vegetarians will find a good selection of cafés and other eateries catering to their needs, which was formerly a major challenge in the meat and dairy-loving Czech Republic. For example, the Country Life chain of buffet-style restaurants are a good place for a quick vegan lunch while exploring Prague, while Lehká Hlava (Clear Head) and its sister restaurant Maitrea are funky, good-value destinations for a relaxed evening meal.
Have you visited the Czech Republic recently? What is your view of the current dining scene?