Czech cuisine is rarely found outside of its home country, so it’s best to make the most of it while exploring this Central European nation. Most dishes are meat and starch-based, but restaurants have begun embracing new cuisine styles and dietary needs in recent years. Most meals pair well with a fresh beer or cold Kofola (a Czech soda). Make sure to save room for dessert, as Czech sweets are in a league all their own (and sometimes, even eaten for dinner).
Pork with Sauerkraut & Bread Dumplings (Vepřo Knedlo Zelo)
The most quintessential Czech dish, vepřo knedlo zelo is found on almost every menu visitors will come across. Slices of roasted pork are accompanied by sauerkraut (sometimes sprinkled with caraway seeds), and bread dumplings (called knedlíky). The dumplings are especially good for sopping up gravy made from the pork drippings. Occasionally this meal is made with pork knuckle, instead of pork loin. It’s usually part of the menu at Kuchyň, which is a good place to try it in Prague, but if you’re out in the country, you’ll find it in many pubs and restaurants as well.
Fried Cheese (Smažený Sýr)
Food shortages and government regulations under Communism truly affected Czech cuisine in the 20th century, and because of that, it’s common to find items on your menu that are ... different. Take smažený sýr, for example: where else would a block of fried cheese (usually Edam), french fries, and a side of tartar sauce, exist as a completely acceptable dinner? While Prague especially has expanded its dietary options, smažený sýr is still considered a vegetarian option and may be served to vegetarian diners. You can find it at all of the Lokál restaurants in Prague, or for more atmosphere with your meal, hit up the Rock and Roll Garage in Ostrava.
Svíčková na Smetaně (Beef With Cream Sauce)
Root vegetables, like carrots, celery, and parsnips, are essential to the Czech diet. They truly shine in svíčková, a heavy but satisfying dish that combines a multitude of flavors. These vegetables are roasted and pureed into a sauce that is thickened with cream, then poured over tender beef sirloin stuffed with bacon. The dish is usually garnished with a dollop of cream and cranberry sauce. Vidličky a Nože is where many locals go to get their fix in Prague, but you can also find a good version at U Tomáše in Karlovy Vary.
Being a landlocked country, seafood isn’t exactly a Czech speciality, but there is one exception: carp. Kapr is a freshwater fish that is most famously served at Christmastime, when families go to the market and bring home live fish, and keep them in barrels or even their bathtubs, before served them on Christmas Eve. The Třeboň region of the Czech Republic is the best place to try it outside of the holiday season; it’s here that most of the carp are fished or farmed (you can even go fishing yourself during the fall, when carp season is officially open). Šupina a Šupinka is known for its carp dishes, especially its carp chips, and for more casual eats, hit up Penzion U Kapra.
Brave foodies should definitely try this Moravian speciality, which is not for those averse to stinky scents. This cheese, named after the city it was first created in, is a ripened, soft cheese with a distinct yellow color, waxy texture, and an unexpectedly strong, earthy flavor. Interestingly enough, it’s low in fat due to its aging process, making it one of the better dairy alternatives (if you can stomach the taste, that is). You can find it at most Czech delis and markets, but for a truly unique experience, visit the tvarůžky pastry shop in nearby Loštice, where Olomouc cheese is used in doughnuts, danishes, and other sweet treats.
Chilly Czech weather lends itself nicely to a heaping portion of guláš, a dish Czechs adapted from Hungarians. It’s typically made with beef and the consistency is somewhere between a stew and a soup, depending on where you get it. Other ingredients include crushed tomatoes, onions, peppers, and paprika for taste. It’s best served with bread dumplings for dipping. After vepřo knedlo zelo, it’s probably the second most commonly found dish on menus. The version at Mincovna, in Prague’s Old Town Square, is especially good, as is the beer-infused goulash at Svatováclavský Pivovar in Olomouc.
Fruit Dumplings (Ovocné Knedlíky)
If fried cheese and french fries didn’t satisfy your weird food cravings, ovocné knedlíky definitely will. These are sweet fruit dumplings which are eaten as a main course. Czechs make this dish based on what fruit is available seasonally; typically it’s made with strawberries, apricots, cherries, or plums, which are encased in a fluffy dough, and boiled or steamed. Once plated, the fruit dumplings are topped with powdered sugar, melted butter, and sometimes a sweet cheese. Prague 2’s Café Savoy has one of the best in the city, where they grate fresh gingerbread over the dumplings at your table.
Open-Faced Sandwiches (Obložené Chlebíčky)
Another product of Communist times, Czechs have made open-faced sandwiches into its own art form. These small, snack-sized sandwiches are usually served as an appetizer or party food, and can be topped with almost anything—roast beef, pickles and horseradish cream; cucumber, red pepper and butter; and ham, edam and sliced, hard boiled eggs, are all common combinations. If you aren’t invited to a Czech party, you can sometimes find these in cafes for lunch. Sisters specializes in obložené chlebíčky in Prague, and if you’re in Pilsen, hit up Café Beruška to try them.
Similar to a danish, the Czech koláč is a sweet pastry found in most bakeries across the country. It typically has some kind of fruit compote in the center, like strawberry, raspberry, or plum, but some also include sweet cheeses, or sugared poppyseed fillings. It’s not uncommon to pick one up for breakfast or a snack, but many Czechs also prepare these for special occasions, and in Moravia, you can even find them as large as pies (called frgál). Many farmers markets in Prague sell them or, if you’re in the countryside, try the versions made at U Lasíků in Únětice.
Buchtičky se Šodó
Many Czechs will tell you that this dessert-like dish reminds them of their childhood. Lucky for them, it’s beginning to make a comeback. Small yeast buns, similar in consistency to brioche or dinner rolls, are covered in a warm, sweet vanilla custard. Café Malostranská Beseda and Cukrárna Myšák in Prague offer it, as well as Restaurace u Dvořáčků in Ostrava.