How to Stuff Yourself in Prague for the Price of a Soda
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The jídelna is a haven for cheap eats and a slice of Czech history.
At its heart, Czech cuisine — especially lunch — is stick-to-your-ribs fare. While Michelin-starred tasting menus and vegan eateries have become commonplace on Prague’s gastro scene, the tradition of old-school canteens known as jídelny that serve up affordable, hearty and fast plates of meat-and-dumplings classics are still going strong, with lunchtime queues around the block.
But there’s more to a jídelna than getting a full meal for just 100 korunas ($4.50) in the city center. Its egalitarian appeal — it draws clientele from all walks of life — is an integral part of Czech cultural history. Thirty years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, there are still spots where the decor and staff look like they haven’t changed in decades. In recent years, some buzzworthy places are taking the canteen tradition in a new direction — a nod to the past with modern sensibilities.
But first a look at the jídelna’s beginnings. Under communism in then Czechoslovakia, self-service canteens — also known as automats — were an efficient way to feed the working masses. Most were standing-room only and offered just a handful of daily specials to keep costs down. “It was a cheap, simple and fast way to have a quick lunch and a beer,” says Klára Kvitová of Ambiente Group. The company operates several Prague restaurants, including the popular Kantýna, which is modeled on the jídelna tradition.
The most famous jídelna was Automat Koruna, opened in 1931 in the Koruna Palace, on Wenceslas Square — it was even frequented by President Antonín Zápotocký. The spot served a whopping 5,000 chlebíčky (open-faced sandwiches) and 1,800 liters of beer daily. Eating Prague tour guide Eva Brejlová remembers how busy jídelny would get in the 1980s. “If you left your sausage for even just a moment, someone would be there asking if it was free,” she says. Automat Koruna shut down in the 1990s in the shadow of fast-food franchises like McDonald’s, but there has been talk of reopening it.
Indeed, it’s a model still popular to this day. It’s the “egality” of the jídelna that “speaks so powerfully” to Czechs, according to Honza Valenta of food tours company the Taste of Prague. “It doesn’t matter who you are outside of the jídelna, you get the same food, same drinks and same treatment as everybody else. And we, just like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, kinda like that.”
It doesn’t matter who you are outside of the jídelna, you get the same food, same drinks and same treatment as everybody else.
Honza Valenta, Taste of Prague Tours
It’s no surprise, then, that Prague restaurants are bringing the jídelna ethos — modest menus, affordable food, open to all — into the Instagram era.
Kantýna is a boutique butcher shop with art deco style that serves a large selection of meats, including pork rolls filled with bacon, egg and pickle, wine-braised ribs and beef neck cooked in paprika (prices range from 98 to 155 korunas, or $3.50 to $6.70). Dinner reservations are possible, but true to jídelna fashion it’s all counter service — the staff do replenish beers tableside, however, which is a bonus.
Just a few steps from Prague’s Old Town Square, Masna Kozí is another meat lover’s paradise serving up quick, filling and locally sourced meals to an eclectic crowd. Self-described as a “Czech classic that doesn’t go out of fashion,” the stand-and-eat spot changes its menu daily, but you’re likely to find traditional dishes such as spicy goulash and pork with dumplings and sauerkraut.
Another option is Lidová jídelna Těšnov in New Town. This 1990s canteen has become so popular with businesspeople, students and tourists for its humble, hearty fare and throwback vibe that it recently extended opening hours to 7 pm and has a dinner menu to go along with its 20 korunas (yes, less than $1) pints of Krušovice beer. Go also for the unabashedly ’80s wood-paneled walls and checkered tablecloths.
Because the lunch spots are so popular with locals, bear in mind that daily specials often run out early. So if you have your heart set on goulash, it’s best to take a leaf out of the Czechs’ book and head to lunch well before noon. (Note: Many jídelny are only open on weekdays.)
If you’d rather experience all the the jídelna tradition has to offer you can take a tour. Eating Prague takes guests on behind-the-scenes tastings at popular eateries, including several that continue the jídelna tradition. The bustling Bistro Sisters, for example, has elevated the humble chlebíček from traditional ham-and-potato-salad hors d’oeuvre to Instagram-ready sandwich with the use of fresh, colorful ingredients.
Once you’ve got your loaded-up tray and change to spare, settle back and enjoy the vibe. The jídelna is the best place to get a true glimpse — and a taste — of Czech culture.
Go There: Cheap Eats in Prague
Jídelny are dotted around the city, and many unassuming-looking butcher shops have menus of cheap daily specials. Most places list the day’s menu online.