A tale of two restaurants
Hrabal’s book "I served the King of England" makes working in a restaurant sound very dramatic, and very glamorous. But the novel also suggests that such drama and glamour belong to a time now long gone. To find out whether this was true, I visited two of Prague’s most famous restaurants, to talk to their owners about their work from day-to-day.
When I started work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, ‘You’re a busboy here, so remember, you don’t see anything, and you don’t hear anything’… Then the boss pulled me up by my right ear and said ‘But remember too, that you’ve got to see everything and hear everything'...
…The words of perhaps the most famous Czech waiter in the world – Ditie from Bohumil Hrabal’s book “I Served the King of England”, which has now been made into a film. Ditie starts life as a lowly busboy selling frankfurters, before working his way up the ranks and acquiring his own hotel.
“This pub is over 100 years old. This main dining room was enlarged and decorated after the Second World War, sometime around 1950. The pub is really very well known because of the book ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ by Jaroslav Hašek. In the novel, Švejk visits this pub each evening at 6. This building originally belonged to our grandmother, but in 1948, the communists stripped her of it. After the revolution, in 1989, my brother and I were handed back the building, to which this pub belonged.”
The Töpfers’ pub ‘U Kalicha’ has grown into a bit of an institution since they took it back over. Pavel Töpfer explains the secret:
“A traditional Czech pub is all about good beer. You’re from England and so this is something that you won’t know from back home. They don’t bother to leave any head on the beer there. The beer has to be good, it has to be cold. Then you need some good music, a good atmosphere. So these are the things that we aim for in order to pull in visitors from all over the world.”
And what about the clientele? Has Mr Töpfer served the king of England?
“I’ve had maybe around 11 presidents here. And famous actors, and famous sportspeople. One very rich Russian came here to dine – Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club.
“I have my photo taken with each one of these people and ask them to sign my wall. But the photos of me sitting down to a beer with them, and the signatures, are just for my office. Often these people come here on private trips, so I don’t want to broadcast it all over the place to all of our guests. The photos are just for my own personal album. I don’t need to boast about these visitors, I can just remember fondly by myself the time they came to visit.”
‘U Kalicha’ is a family-run enterprise, as Pavel Töpfer explains:
“My youngest son works in the kitchen, so he, alongside the other ten chefs, takes care of the catering. And my oldest son works here despite being a doctor of philosophy, because his father pays better than any hospital ever would.”
Meanwhile, across town, is ‘U Lípy’, a somewhat smaller, family-restaurant run by Miroslav Růžička. Like Mr Töpfer, Mr Růžička serves plates of hearty Czech fare to his customers, though this is more frequently accompanied by fine French wines than beer.
Mr Růžička earned his catering stripes at some of the Czech capital’s biggest hotels, and in 1988, became the first private restaurant owner in what was then Czechoslovakia:
“We started up in 1988, when I handed in my notice at the Intercontinental Hotel. I had been working there for around ten years when I heard about the possibility of setting up my own, private restaurant. Around January 1 or 2 1988, I read in the communist newspaper Rudé Právo that the government had legalized private enterprise. And so I found this out and said to my colleagues ‘this is what I want to do’. And they laughed and said, ‘good luck, we’d like to see you try’. So in May of that year, I handed in my notice and started looking for a premises. But I didn’t find anything.”
Eventually, though, he succeeded - the grand opening came in April 1989:
“We had lots of customers. We opened on April 21, at 7 in the evening. It was late spring by then, so it was still light at that time. In the afternoon, we had put out a sign saying ‘opening today’, and already at 5.30pm there were around 100 people standing in a queue and waiting for us to open. We were pretty stowed out that night. We have seating for 50, and here were 100 people. So we brought in all the garden furniture and just did whatever we could to accommodate them all.”
After the fall of Communism, Mr Růžička had a bit of a head start as the only private restaurateur in the country. It took several years for any competition to appear. But despite the abundance of all sorts of different restaurants in the Czech capital today, Mr Růžička is still doing well, and recently came top of a list of the country’s best restaurants.
‘U Lípy’ is located quite far out of Prague’s city centre, and stands out from the housing estate that surrounds it:
“The house is ours, and so I have been able to decorate it in the way that I like. If it were someone else’s, then I wouldn’t hang these expensive pictures on the wall, I wouldn’t put up all of these decorations. The entire place would be a little bit barer, because the whole set-up would be less permanent, and I might have to move it all.
“The pictures on the wall are of the family. There’s my grandmother, mother, wife, daughter, father and grandfather. My sons aren’t there because there wasn’t enough space on the wall. They are looking down on us here in the dining room.
“The whole place is done up a bit like a castle. The ceiling is 20 years old and very much in that style. Then there’s the carpet, and the piano.”
So, a man’s restaurant is his castle – and maybe Hrabal was right - it’s also his stage. Here’s Pavel Töpfer again:
“Put it this way, my brother’s an actor – he works in the theatre. And I say to him ‘it’s alright for some – you act for three hours each evening, and here I am acting in front of our customers for 18 hours a day’. But I have one clear advantage over my brother, at the end of his performance people applaud him, they clap him, but they pay me.”