Prague, Czech Republic – The adage that one eats with the eyes first is perhaps what has driven millions to post pictures of their food on social media. Though many use the endless scroll on Instagram to scope out new dining experiences, most often social media users consume content even when they lack the appetite to follow through in real life.
Scrolling on Instagram is how I discovered Taste of Prague, a Prague-based food tour company. The social media account has over 67,000 followers to date and chronicles the dining experiences of Jan Valenta and Zuzana Daňková, the founders of the company, and their son. Those envious of the family’s seemingly glamorous lifestyle should not be fooled by their feed, as they insist they do their fair share of home-cooking.
“Instagram is like the ‘best of’ album. It’s not the whole picture”, said Valenta when I met him at La Forme café in the northwest Prague neighbourhood of Bubeneč. It was raining and windy, a day decidedly not conducive to a city tour of any kind. Valenta arrived wearing the fatigue of a sleep-deprived parent. Zuzana remained at home to look after their two-year-old son, who was in the later stages of teething.
While Instagram has been a powerful marketing tool in promoting their company to Prague residents and tourists alike, ‘Taste of Prague’ aims to offer a service grounded in human interaction. Valenta and Daňková got their inspiration on a trip in San Sebastián where they happened upon a local food tour. Though they did not end up on the tour, they decided to try the concept in Prague. Since launching in 2011, the company has grown to include five other guides that lead the tours. Neither Valenta, a former lawyer who became disenchanted with the field, nor Daňková were previously guides or involved in the culinary scene.
Valenta describes his tours as a “culture tour dressed as a food tour”. The work is seasonal: in the winter the company may give five tours a week, whereas in the high tourist season they may host three per day. Eighty percent of their tours are frequented by Americans, who “tend to have less vacation time than Europeans, so they want to maximize their time abroad”, explained Valenta. The company offers two tours: the Prague foodie tour and the traditional Czech food tour, as advertised on their website. Both tours include approximately one mile of walking, take four hours to complete and start at 2,500 Kc (100€) per participant.
On what restaurants to expect on the itinerary, Taste of Prague’s criteria is simply that the food be good. “It has to be someplace we would go to. There are many restaurants that would be great for a food tour, but are simply not places we frequent ourselves. Secondly, it has to tell a story. It has to be a place where you can tell something about your childhood, or something about living here”, said Valenta. “It helps if it’s visual. You go to Lokál and it’s a distillation of every pub you’ve ever been to”.
Valenta is referring to Lokál, a chain of pubs that are part of Tomáš Karpíšek’s restaurant group Ambiente. Lokál is one of many restaurants in Ambiente’s repertoire that serves what the group calls “heritage” cuisine. While Lokál’s menu features Czech staples, it is distinctly a pub from this era. The old-world pubs steeped in smoke, under-poured Staropramens, and famously rude wait-staff are increasingly disappearing in Prague. They are being replaced by brightly lit places offering IPAs to international crowds. Though some lament this loss, Valenta asks, is it worth saving something just for the sake of tradition?
Heritage cuisine primarily serves up a plate of nostalgia. (I am reminded of the often-referenced Ratatouille scene in which the bitter food critic is transported to a memory of mother’s ratatouille in a single bite). If a restaurant is successful, it will draw upon the diner’s familiarity with a classic dish, while introducing an element of newness, or surprise, a term we often hear on cooking shows. If a restaurant is unsuccessful, its menu will be bound by the stodgy confines of old recipes for the sake of perceived authenticity.
Coming up with parameters that define “authentically” Czech cuisine is an exercise in futility. Take the Czech ‘řízek’. Across the border in Germany it’s called ‘schnitzel’ and in America it’s a chicken Milanese, introduced by Italian immigrants. In Europe, where country lines have been redrawn throughout history due to wars, occupations, and migration, pinning down regionally authentic cuisine is especially difficult. “This idea of authenticity is the biggest lie in tourism. Most people see as authentic the thing that reinforces the stereotype they had about the destination before they even visited”, said Valenta. “We often get emails from people who want to eat somewhere ‘authentic’ and it’s often preposterous. You know, like, a meal at a medieval tavern under candlelight. It’s as if I went to Los Angeles and said I wanted to eat in a diner”.
Today, due to ongoing globalization, restaurant owners have to think about their menus in the global context. As a former communist country, where travelling to the West was largely prohibited and imported foreign goods were hard to come by, the Czech Republic has perhaps experienced this shift more profoundly than elsewhere. “People have better benchmarks now because they can travel. For example, people know what it means to have a good croissant because they’ve been to Paris”, elaborated Valenta. I can relate. My own mother, who grew up in Prague under communism, often recounts her first trip to Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Besides the ocean, what she remembers vividly is the abundance of different pasta sauce brands in the supermarket.
Czechs are certainly travelling, and foreigners are increasingly visiting, and even moving to, the Czech Republic. According to the Czech Statistical Office, in 2017, income generated by inbound tourism made up of foreign visitors to the Czech Republic amounted to roughly 165 billion Kc, approximately €6,3 billion. The figure accounts for 2.9% of the Czech Republic’s gross domestic product. Foreigners also make up 13% of the country’s labour force, with 64% of the foreign labour force coming from the European Union. This foreign influence, and the ability to travel widely, has changed the restaurant landscape dramatically, as well as the eating habits of the population.
Valenta observed that ten years ago, if you opened a pub it had to be, primarily, cheap. Czech eateries after the Velvet Revolution in the early 1990s focused on meat-centric, inexpensive dishes, such as goulash or pork knuckle. The late Anthony Bourdain famously quipped that the Czech Republic was “the land vegetables forgot”. Now Valenta says there is more attention to nutritional balance. When Czech Radio interviewed Dr. Vojtech Hainer from the Czech Endocrinological Institute in Prague in 2006 on how the Czech diet has changed since the Velvet Revolution, he stated that the changes in Czech eating habits could be observed “especially among young generations”, which preferred “low fat items” and more vegetables and fruits. Evidence of this shift can be seen in restaurants, such as Etnosvět and Estrella, which have entirely meatless menus.
Globalization has affected not just the food in the Czech Republic, but also the aesthetic of eateries themselves. One has the sense that many restaurants and cafés in the city could be anywhere in Europe. It is a minimalist, sterile aesthetic – natural wood countertops, exposed brick, and an abundance of hanging plants – that is popular on Instagram and YouTube videos. Writer Kyle Chayka, whose recent book The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism delves into the minimalist movement, coined the term AirSpace to describe these spaces. Chayka defines AirSpace as a “realm of coffee shops, bars, start-up offices, and co-living/working spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go”. Valenta thinks this convergence isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it is a natural function of survival in a competitive industry. “My sense is that you can’t get away with mediocrity anymore”, said Valenta.
The ever-changing landscape is ultimately something that people can navigate better than algorithms, though restaurant recommendation engines are already trying to edge humans out. It’s people and their stories that make places come to life. Bourdain understood this better than most. His show No Reservations did not aim to rank food establishments or rule on what was or was not authentic cuisine. Instead it showcased the chefs, restaurateurs, and artisans behind the food. By 2013, when he launched Parts Unknown on CNN, the series became entirely about Bourdain having conversations over food, not about it.
Like Bourdain’s show, food tours bridge the gap between cultures by focusing on the human experience. In the information age, Instagram or blogs can offer recommendations, but a tour may be the only time that a tourist has a meaningful conversation with a local. For Valenta, Taste of Prague’s food tours are ultimately an opportunity to connect with people. “Many people like to define themselves by how different they are from each other. But, in reality, the human experience is similar no matter where you are from”, said Valenta. “You don’t have to be a guide to do this job. You just have to like people. And it helps if you like food too”.
Written by Anna West
Originally from Los Angeles, Anna is a Czech-American freelance writer and communications specialist based in Prague. She speaks Czech fluently and writes about food, travel, and culture for English-language publications. You can check her articles right here!