Joe Lennon (5. 9. 2023)
“Where can we get some good Czech food?”
You would think that after living in Brno for many years, and hearing this question from countless visitors, I would have an easy answer. But somehow the question always triggers the philosopher in me, and I think to myself:
“But wait – what IS Czech food, exactly??”
It’s a good question! But luckily for my hungry visitors, who are more in the mood for edible pleasures than ethnographic musings, Brno offers many simple (and delicious) answers.
So here are some places I usually start walking toward while my guests and I debate the different possible definitions of Czech food. So that by the time our order arrives, the only words left to say are “dobrou chuť” (Czech for “chow down”).
Lokál u Caipla, photo: Lokál u Caipla
Meat, in a sauce, with dumplings
This is the primeval landscape of a Czech plate: In the center, a tender isle of stewed sirloin or pork, rising above a rich sea of sauce (perhaps to make up for the Czechs’ oft-lamented lack of a real sea). And fanning out at the edge of the plate, a safe harbor of steamed flour dumplings (which in Czech cuisine are bready and lightly chewy mechanisms for sopping up that sauce).
Yes, this is the most stereotypical kind of Czech food. But sometimes stereotypes hit the spot.
Joe Lennon was born in the US, but when he arrived in Brno a while back, he knew he'd found his new home. He teaches academic English and writing at the Masaryk University Language Centre, and he regularly blogs for Brno Daily and the Brno Expat Centre.
If I’m in the mood for this classic comfort food, my first stop is Lokál U Caipla (which everyone just calls Lokál), a sleek modern take on the old-fashioned beer hall. Technically, it’s a chain – there are several other Lokáls around the country – but there some genuinely local touches here, like the goofy artwork on the walls, which spells out words in Brno’s Hantec dialect.
Probably the most Czech thing you can order here is svíčková na smetaně – beef sirloin in a slightly sweet, slightly savory and creamy veggie sauce. Or if that’s not on the menu (which changes seasonally), go for the guláš, which in its Czech guise is less spicy and has a thicker sauce than traditional Hungarian goulash – but is still very yummy.
Of course you can get basic meat-sauce-dumpling dishes at any pub in the country – and certainly for a bit cheaper. But Lokál does them consistently well.
It’s always bustling and busy, so if you’re a big group, reservations are essential. But if you’re just one or two, you can squeeze in at a bigger table and make some new friends, beer hall style.
If Lokál is slammed, or if you want somewhere a bit cozier and quieter, go down Dvořákova street to U třech čertů (At the Three Devils) – which serves a fantastic guláš as well as many other classic Czech meals. It’s also a mini-chain, with a sister restaurant on Starobrněnská street near Petrov Cathedral.
“But there’s no such thing as truly Czech food – it’s just Austro-Hungarian.”
Photo of Franz Joseph at U Seminaru, photo: Joe Lennon
I’ve heard this hot take from travelers who know at least one thing about history, have done time in Prague and Vienna and Bratislava and Budapest, and have noticed that the basic entrees in Central European restaurants tend to look very same-y – you’ve got your stewed meat and your similar starches and sauces and schnitzels.
Obviously there’s some truth to this. The typical dishes you see in Czech restaurants today are the descendants of meals made to satisfy bourgeois city-folk in the Austro-Hungarian empire – so Czechs can’t lay exclusive claim to them.
But it’s just as wrong to say these dishes aren’t Czech. After all, as the food historian Martin Franc points out, Prague’s fancy restaurants were often staffed by Czech cooks, who adapted folk recipes from the Bohemian countryside into their dishes. And Vienna’s middle-class households employed many a Moravian maid, whipping up floury plum dumplings to add a sweet Czech flavor to the Middle Europe melting pot.
If you want to soak up this multicultural ambience and ambiguity along with your hearty sauces, go to Hostinec U Semináru, which is a short walk north from the city center, just beyond the newly-renovated park in Moravské náměstí.
U Semináru serves up excellent versions of all the typical Czech-and-beyond dishes – but the menu, as well as the décor, leans hard into Austro-Hungarian nostalgia – there’s even a portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph and his bushy white mutton chops hanging on the wall.
Taffelspitz at U Seminaru, photo: Joe Lennon
Last time I went, I had the tafelspitz – a “traditional Austro-Hungarian dish” according to the menu. It came on three plates: a bowl of light broth holding boiled beef tip, carrots and parsnip; a plate of hash browned potatoes, and a plate with saucers of horseradish and tartar sauce. I didn’t quite know what to do with it all, and was too embarrassed to ask – but luckily my friend wasn’t, and the waiter showed us what to dip where and what to stir into what.
I won’t spoil your fun by telling you how to eat it. I’ll just tell you it tasted superb. The meat and veggies were perfectly cooked to bring out their subtle flavors. The condiments were unnecessary, but I’m addicted to the head rush I get from a mouthful of horseradish, so I indulged.
Vietnamese food is Czech food
Pho from Go, photo: Joe Lennon
If you accept that Czech traditions have contributed greatly to Middle European cuisine, then I think you also have to accept that Vietnamese traditions have brought some (sorely needed!) spice and tanginess to the Czech restaurant scene.
There are over 80,000 people of Vietnamese origin in the republic, making them the third-largest ethnic minority – so to exclude Vietnamese food from a definition of Czech food would be pretty arbitrary. It would be like describing American cuisine without Mexican salsas and moles, or British cuisine without Indian curries. Blasphemy. And blandness.
Večerka café on Pekařská street has tried to blend the two traditions by doing some obvious Czech-Vietnamese fusion – and the results are aesthetically pleasing. They serve colorful and tasty rice bowls, and Vietnamese coffee in fancy porcelain filters.
Vietnamese coffee and cinnamon bun from Večerka, photo: Joe Lennon
But if you want something much more substantial, go to Gỗ, close to náměstí Svobody. I will happily slurp up their beef phở any day, all day, and their iced coffee is a sweet lightning bolt.
If I’m up near the Arts or the Science faculties on Veveří, I go to Pho Eden. They also do a dynamite bowl of phở, which you can top up with a dollop of red chili paste from the pot on your table, and pretend you’re dining on a street corner in Hanoi or Huế. Or Hodonín.
Fried cheese and beer
Fried hermelin from U Mamlasu, photo: Joe Lennon
This is where the petty academic disagreements come to an end. No matter your exact definition of Czech food, you must fall in line and bow down before the two mighty pillars of national cuisine: fried cheese and beer.
Smažený sýr (or smažák for short) is on every restaurant menu. It’s a safe choice if you don’t recognize anything else on offer – and if you’re vegetarian, sometimes it’s the only choice.
Of course safe isn’t always delicious, and unfortunately, the majority of Czech pub smažáks are made with a block of tasteless eidam (Edam) cheese, which turns cold and rubbery after two bites.
But when it’s made with a better cheese and a better batter, smažák can be glorious.
Before you ask, yes, Czech beer is food. No need to debate that.
I also don’t need to tell you where to get good Czech beer. After all, at the airport, the border police already handed you a foamy mug of Pilsner with their right hand as they stamped your passport with their left…
…oh, they don’t do that anymore? Ok, I guess you had to get here back when everything was still cool, before [insert year you first came to the Czech Republic].
There are a thousand awesome Czech beers and a million ways to enjoy them, but one very lovely local tradition I can recommend is the playground beer.
If you walk around town, you’ll notice that conveniently located within a few steps of every playground is a pub or kiosk or window selling beer to go. This makes it very easy for responsible Czech adults to fulfill their twin sacred duties of good parenting and outdoor beer drinking, as they sip a beer, gossip with other parents, and watch their youngsters have a good time.
U Alberta, photo: U Alberta pub
If you actually have kids, and want to join the biggest and bougiest playground beer crowd in Brno, head to Pivnice U Čápa in Obilní trh, where there’s company for all ages, every day, any time after lunch.
But you don’t need to have kids to enjoy the playground beer tradition – and if you want a quieter scene, I recommend the playground next to the U Alberta pub, in the park just underneath Špilberk Castle.
Grab a Šalina 11-degree lager (they’ll give it to you in a proper glass), and take it out to one of the park benches. Gaze out through the leafy trees at the bright facades of the century-old houses on Pellicova street, listen to the murmur of the city, and enjoy the soul food that makes questions about what Czech cuisine is or isn’t utterly irrelevant.
Phenomenon is the work of a specific author (Joe Lennon); it does not express the official views of the City of Brno or TIC BRNO.