Expats have their own hangouts, their so-called “secret spots” where the food is hardy and cheap, and the beer´s-a-flowin´. The story always seems the same, though: the perceivably-on-the-hush-hush, I-found-this-great-little-place café or bar or restaurant is reliably roomy and quiet before Becky tells Suzy tells Big L tells a fresh TEFLer, and boom—the place that used to be one´s private little corner is too crowded to be seated on a Tuesday evening. Then someone finds a “new” place to adopt as a stomping ground; and so the cycle begins again. Aw, nature is so beautiful.
Then someone told me…
I have to speed up the process with the Prague 1 restaurant, Pivnice U Pivrnce, perhaps a bit delayed on the foreigner scene because most people who don´t speak Czech can´t pronounce the name, or confuse it across the telephone wire. (Actually, I heard that it´s listed in Prague guidebooks, though it´s not in mine, which I´ll indeed confirm once I open it.)
This restaurant is exactly that sort of quaint local spot that´s heavy on the belly and light on the wallet. And the atmosphere gives guests a lot to, ahem, take in.
The interior is simple, and just what you might expect from a low-key Czech pub, except for one thing: the rather, shall we say, “colorful” artwork that plasters the space both upstairs and down. Women, I hope you´re not easily offended. Get ready to dine within vulgar walls, keeping in mind the busty images are intended to be humorous. Czech artist Petr Urban´s cartoon illustrations don´t exactly fade into the background. Each image—painted on the wall or framed—is pretty crude, and many are downright obscene, particularly the one you can´t help but notice on the way down the stairs, featuring a bare-assed woman and a coo-coo clock. I´ll say no more; I´m sure you get the picture.
No matter the opinion of the art, it´s bold style and in-your-face placement definitely demands a reaction and defeats indifference. Our dinner conversation was peppered with, “Oh my GOD, look at THAT one!” as we pointed around the downstairs room where we sat.
That said, this is a casual, fun place for groups of friends, and ill-suited for family/professional/first date outings (scarred children/sudden A.D.D./hello, awkward). And it´s traditional Czech cuisine, so vegetarians won´t exactly be flocking to the meat-packed menu, although the fried cheese, listed as one of the three “meatless dishes,” including spaghetti and fruit dumplings, is a hefty, stretchy pleasure.
While traditional Czech cuisine is not really synonymous with healthy cooking, it can be a heavenly satiation while the sidewalks are icy and the city is dressed in Cossack hats. It´s thick, heavy, fattening, and the fryer is burning. In other words, it´s the ultimate guilty dining pleasure. It´s the meat and potatoes of food. Literally. U Pivrnce´s menu items have little to no deviation from a dish of meat and potatoes.
The starters—“something to go with beer”—include pork, bacon and sausage variations, and a couple of outliers. The powder-pink Prague sausage (perhaps daunting for a person less adventurous with meat) looks like a bloated hotdog, and is served cold and stuffed with onions. The rendition of fried onion rings (referred to as “flatulence” on the menu—I told you this wasn´t a date place) was different in that the “rings” are fried together in groups, presenting a more cumbersome pile of beer-battered yum. Yes, it´s exactly what you want to munch on with beer.
It´s all straightforward down-home goodness, without any intricate presentation or dainty servings. The goulash is deservedly one of their signature “Old Bohemian” specialties. Everything that involved pork was hearty and pleasing. The smoked pork neck was ultra tender, and the accompanying bacon dumplings flavorful. The fried pork “Viennese style” with gherkin and lemon required a bit more muscle with the knife, but offered that glistening fried breading that I enjoyed on the fried chicken as well. Stewed cabbage and dumplings are the sidekicks, though they´re shadowed by the creamy sauces drizzled on such dishes as the Olomouc stuffed roast beef. Don´t forget to order a side of potatoes with the specialties and main courses.
There are the traditional fish options, carp and trout, although beef and pork are the main idea, so we didn´t stray. I also didn´t try the apple pie or Prague pancake with peach and whipped cream for dessert. That´s because I felt like I weighed about as much as one of the fat men in Petr Urban´s illustrations. Naturally, we drank beer with our food, hoping to try the house-brewed Pivrnec Patriot, or the Radegast, neither of which were available that evening, so we settled on the usual.
The bill came. I checked the “damage,” and couldn´t believe the low cost of my food coma. My second wind blew through the room. Beer wasn´t in the cards for the rest of the evening, but a refreshing cocktail or two certainly was.
I had wanted to try Tretter´s New York cocktail lounge for quite some time, and it struck me that it wasn´t far from the restaurant.
Dimly lit and drowning in deep crimson hues, Tretter´s is a modern day rat-packer´s dream. Black and white photos of old movie stars in all their unparalleled glamour decorate the walls, tabletops, and the cocktail menu. The smooth notes of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone dripped gently into the atmosphere. The bartender, his attire tightly buttoned and starched, removed fresh mint from an elegant jar residing in a glass garden of other herbs, and muddled the mint with stern focus. A silver haired gentleman removed his fedora and sat at the bar, which has an intricate cherry-wood face that separates guests from the vast kingdom of sparkling bottles behind it. We were mesmerized. I imagined I just spent the day at the (horse) races. I sort of wanted a cigar. Nah.
“Looks like I found my new favorite place,” I remarked.
The cocktail menu is literally a moleskin-sized book, just as thick. But not in a bad way; it´s interesting, even entertaining, I´d say. Because it was more extensive—and certainly more innovative—than any other cocktail menu I´ve ever seen in Prague, we flipped through the pages for longer than Gone With the Wind. It was difficult enough just choosing which group to start with, let alone the subcategories. From the fun and inventive names to the tantalizing descriptions, you can´t help but thirst for one drink and divert your attention to another contender all too quickly. (Unsurprisingly, they have a list of Cubans to choose from, too. Nah.)
The presentation of the cocktails is gorgeous, each in a special glass, always tastefully and appropriately garnished. The “Hemingway Special” is a vivacious mix of Havana rum, maraschino liqueur, Lime Juice, and grapefruit. For the size and strength of it alone, I was impressed that it was just 160CZK. The Bubble Mojito is a mojito with the twist of sparkling wine, and that, too, was a refreshing delight, with fresh mint and crushed ice, served in a tall sweating glass with an irresistible straw. 135CZK.
Listed under “Tretter´s Extraordinary,” my companion chose the “Japanese Way,” sake, briar marmalade, chambord liqueur, marmalade, fresh squeezed orange juice, lemon juice, and fresh rosemary. I swear there were rose petals sprinkled on top. Amazing. I sipped an “Edison Square,” which had a flavor completely unfamiliar to me, yet forced me to open up and enjoy it´s smooth, unique blend of muddled lemon grass, fresh tamarillo, and Anejo Rum. I had to end the cocktail sampling with a “Moscow Mule,” another totally different, brilliant mix, although I can´t be as specific with this one as to its ingredients, though it obviously involved vodka (give me a break, I was mixing liquors, and my cheeks were getting hot). My drinking companion ordered her grand finale, and I can´t even tell you what that was called, but I know it was the color of a frapuccino, that it had chocolate sprinkled on top, and that I thought it was good. It will take me many different nights to try everything on the menu. And I´m up for the challenge. The record-shaped menu of upscale finger food, like the cheese plate and battered crab legs, will cheer me on.
When we arrived the crowd was small, but there were no empty seats on our way out, and the standing crowd was becoming more dense, in both senses of the word. I appreciated the diversity there. From locals to tourists, even-skin tones to gray hair, denim to gold silk, it was a nice blend. Loners, dates, groups of four to six. And I appreciate places that accomplish class without pretension.
As for the prices, ranging from 135CZK to 180CZK on cocktails (this establishment also offers a plethora of top-notch champagne, wine, brandy, and you-name-it´s), fantastically made and in a superb atmosphere, I was highly pleased.
But perhaps our server—the colder, female one, as we had two—underestimated my state of mind. When she brought the bill, she over-charged us significantly on more than one cocktail. When I tried to show her the price in the menu for comparison, she waved it away and said flatly, “Fine,” as though she was really saying, “Fine, you caught it, whatever,” and then quickly scurried off to correct the mistake. When she returned, we had a brief discussion about the cocktail menu, which I wanted to borrow and was told I´d have to pay 400CZK for it (no thanks; it´s cool, but not that cool). I handed her my card and said I´d mention Tretter´s in an article. She took the card and set it down next to the empty bottle of Moet at the adjacent table, where it was then swept into the trash by a busboy. Oh well. “Blue Moon” started playing. My cheeks were on fire, and at that point, now hours after dinner, all I wanted to do was go home and reheat the fried cheese leftovers from U Pivrnce.
Pivnice U Pivrnce
Maislova 3, Prague 1
+420 222 329 404
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Disclaimer: All stars are relative to an establishment´s context.
Jessica Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org