My Prague – Dean Selby and Lori Wyant Selby
Lori Wyant Selby and Dean Selby are a US couple who run two popular spots in Prague: burger restaurant The Tavern; and U Kurelů, an old-school pub they have refashioned with great success. Prior to opening their own places, Dean and Lori made a splash with their mobile Lokal burger business, which was involved in the early days of the city’s farmers’ markets.
Our tour of “Their Prague” begins at the busy wine bar Le Caveau. It’s on the corner of Jiřího z Poděbrad square, home to a thriving farmers’ market, and Laubová St., which Lori once called home.
Lori: “I used to live right across the street. If you look out the window, you can see my apartment. I was third balcony up.
“I was there from 2001 to 2007, and it was like my first grown-up apartment.
“It was so exciting to move to this street where I thought there was a lot of activity, back then. But it was nothing compared to what it is now.
“It was one of the best experiences, living right off the Jiřího z Poděbrad square, with the wine festivals and all the things going on.
“So it was a very special place for me, there on Laubová.”
Dean, I know you used to sell burgers here at the farmers’ market – tell us about that.
Dean: “I guess that’s also the reason we’re here [in Le Caveau] – the farmers’ market. We had a little hand in starting the farmers’ market, or at least helping the guys who did it.
“Daniel Mourek and Jiří Sedláček started the first farmers’ market here in Prague down on Náplavka [the Rašínovo nábřeží embankment].
“Daniel Mourek had approached us because he knew of us and he knew maybe we could do something a little bit different.
“So we came up with this burger idea, Lokal Burger, and we started right here. We did different events through Daniel Mourek and different organisations, including here on Jiřího z Poděbrad.
“We were able to do farmers’ markets and do some of the first pop-ups, which were popular in London at the time. This was like 2010.
“It’s called an incubator, for a small business. You can just invest a little bit of money and then after some tests after a year or six months you can prove your project, your product and get some investment.
“Then we ended up opening The Tavern, the first burger restaurant in Prague, shortly thereafter.
“But what’s so neat about the café we’re in right now is that it probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the farmers’ market.
“Because the farmers’ market draws so many people – hundreds and hundreds of people a day.
“It rejuvenates part of the neighbourhood and people then up side businesses that straddle this farmers’ market thing.
“We started pushing this a long time ago. A lot of people were doing it at the same time. And it’s so wonderful now – it’s such a community around here.”
How did you find actually serving at the farmers’ market? I guess people were very excited at the beginning.
Lori: “Well, it was a little weird, because our prices weren’t quite as compatible as the pricing now.
“Now everything is pretty much priced accordingly, but back then people were only used to food stands on Václavák [Wenceslas Square] or at the train station, or wherever.”
Like a 20-crown párek v rohlíku [small hot dog]?
Lori: “Exactly. We were, I think, charging 89 crowns for a burger back then.
“We had this older Czech man come up – I was communicating with people and taking the money and Dean was cooking – and he started screaming at me, in English, Go back to America with your stupid hamburgers and your crazy prices!
“He said, This is a hambáč [Czech term for a basic hamburger], it should be 40 crowns!
“And we were, like, oh…ok [laughs]. It was pretty extreme back then to charge anything over 40 or 50 crowns from a stand. But now it’s pretty common place.”
Do you think people have maybe learned to pay for quality?
Dean: “I think that’s exactly what’s happened. Because you cannot expect anybody to even run a business and have something quality and not charge accordingly.
“The 59-crown hambáč or whatever you want is sekana [Czech meatloaf] with a cheap roll.
“You can get away with that, but if you have fresh ground beef and all fresh ingredients, it just costs that much more.
“Now you go out [to the market] and the cheapest thing is 99 crowns or 79 crowns for the crepes, or something like that.
“There are some guys that do the sekana in the houska [bread roll] for quite cheap, but burgers that people do are 100 crowns.
“Everything’s fine now. People understand. The people that are coming to these markets have travelled a little bit, I think. They’re educated.
“That’s why they’re coming to buy these vegetables. They know they’re locally farmed and they have their own reasons for shopping there versus Albert or some international store where the stuff’s being shipped in from all over the world.”
What do you think the farmers’ markets have brought to Prague, Lori? And to this area?
Lori: “I think for this area it’s added to the sense of community. There’s always been a strong community in Vinohrady-Žižkov. It’s a very community orientated neighbourhood.
“We know the shopkeepers. We pass people on the streets that we know all the time. But it’s magnified that.
“As Dean said, it’s stimulated local businesses, because of all the people it brings in, the interest it brings. I’ve seen the whole quality of the neighbourhood go up.
“My father is involved in farmers’ markets development in Kentucky, so I know a lot of this from what he’s done.
“It revives a neighbourhood, it revives a community, because people are in contact with each other. And there’s also the support of the local farms and the local vendors.
“I think it just makes people feel more connected to each other and that is a great thing, for any neighbourhood or any community.”
For the next stop on our tour of the couple’s Prague, Lori and Dean suggest a short walk to Palác Akropolis, a complex that includes offices, studios and flats, one of the city’s top music venues – and a pub that has been a local fixture for over two decades. My guides and Akropolis go way back.
Dean: “I came here in 1994, in November. I was just going to visit a friend from college who used to live on Orlická, which is where [cocktail bar] Hapu used to be and which is now where the new Vinohradský Pivovar is.
“He picked me up at the airport and we took a bus to Dejvická, then we got on the Metro and he brought me to this bar… And it was just so, I don’t know, awesome. It was a rock bar, so different. I was young!
“This place has stayed with me the whole time. I’ve lived in three or four apartments in this area for 16 years and I’ve been coming here the whole time, upstairs, downstairs.”
What about you Lori?
Lori: “I remember when Akropolis opened. I came here in 1991 and I think it was 1993 when it opened. We came to the opening and it was my first time in this part of Žižkov, really.
“I’d lived at Flora back in 1991 when it just a weird ghost town. But I came here for the opening and just felt this incredible energy. I’d never been in a bar like it before and I just loved it.
“I always wanted to be around this area but it was 1995 before I moved here. I moved to Kubelíkova 35 and lived at Kubelíkova 35 for about six years.”
Which is, what, two minutes’ walk from here?
Lori: “Two minutes’ crawl, basically [laughs]. Yeah, I spent a lot of time here in the mid to late ‘90s. It was great.
“Sometimes my friends and I would come here and maybe have a few too many drinks and forget to pay. But the bartenders would just give me my tab when I came back in and be, like, Hey, you forgot this [laughs].”
How would you say Akropolis has changed over the years, Dean? Or has it changed?
Dean: “The only thing I could really point out is it seems like the music’s at a lower volume. I remember it being pretty rock’n’roll.
“And then it’s got one of those feels – you know, every three or four years the personnel changes and then the vibe changes a little bit. Kind of like Saturday Night Live.
“Now it’s really back in its groove again. The new management and ownership has really done a lot to make it kind of a community.
“It’s got that Cheers feel. You come in and everybody knows you, they remember you, they say hi when you’re walking by, they wave at you.
“That’s how it was back in the day. So I guess it changed but now it’s back to being pretty awesome.”
Just one block away from Akropolis on Kubelíkova is U Kurelů. It used to be a typical Žižkov smoky dive and was one of the first places in Prague to have topless waitresses. Since taking over U Kurelů last year, Lori and Dean have carried out a successful overhaul of the large space, opting for a style that strikes a perfect balance between past and present. The pair already had the hit Tavern burger bar a few blocks away – so why refashion an old-school pub?
Lori: “I lived two doors down for a long time, from 1995 to 2002. I used to walk past this place but never came in that much, because it was just so raunchy.
“I like Czech pubs that are raunchy, but this one was kind of over the top.
“When Dean and I started looking for spaces to open before we got The Tavern, we sort of drew a map of the neighbourhood and went to every venue that we thought might be possible or might be appropriate.
“And this one, even though it was so decrepit, we just loved the energy and the space and the windows.
“What we didn’t know about it was the history – it’s been a pub since 1907. I think that was maybe part of the feeling that we had when we came here, because it’s got so much history.
“We finally were able to acquire it and it was really exciting for us because we felt like we had been given sort of an honourable task to bring it back to what it was before it kind of went downhill.
“We’re trying to bring in live music and have some fun beers and some good pub food, just because it’s the best place in a neighbourhood to meet – your neighbourhood pub. It’s the perfect venue for it.”
What does the name U Kurelů mean? And why did you keep it when you took over?
Dean: “It’s the family name [Kurel]. The building owner still lives in the building and his great-, great-, great-grandfather built the building and also opened this place as a pub, as a restaurant to support it.
“Apparently he worked here as the barkeep and then put all the other family members through school.
“What’s it mean? It comes to back to what Lori had said – it’s a community thing.”
Have you had people coming in who used to come here when it was a place with green tablecloths? And how have they reacted to your pretty amazing changes?
Lori: “What we wanted to do when we opened it was not exclude the former clientele. We did make it non-smoking, we turned off the sports on the TVs and we took away the automat herna [gaming] machines.
“But we kept the beer price the same for Gambrinus, because we wanted people to feel like they hadn’t had a pub taken away from them – there were just some changes.
“However there was a little animosity [laughs] from some people who demanded an ashtray. But not very much.
“We’ve been excited because a lot of people have come back and had class reunions. These are people who are 60 or 70 years old and they’ve said, We used to come here and now it’s so beautiful.
“So I would say overwhelmingly it’s been positive, the reaction.
“But of course… one guy came in screamed at us, To není Žižkov! [This isn’t Žižkov!] and stormed out when we wouldn’t give him an ashtray.
“But that’s life – life is change.”
One bugbear that I have is that many venues in Prague, cafés and bars, seem to not have any policy when it comes to music. They let the barman play, I don’t know, Manu Chao five times in a row, or the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction or whatever. You guys seem to have put some thought into the music because both here and at The Tavern you play good stuff.
Dean: “I’m going to pass this on to Lori because she does all the playlists. She works on it hours and hours a week. It takes an incredible amount of time.
“It’s so important and you can’t leave it up to personnel, because they have their own personal decisions but you know what’s best for the business.”
Lori: “Well, Ian, like you I’ve lived in Prague for a long time and I have the same issues with a lot of venues that are nice but the music kind of ruins the atmosphere.
“I love music and I love being in pubs that have good music. So I just try to put out what I would like to hear in a pub.
“I try to make it a mix of old and very new and all sorts of stuff in between.”
Also it’s very hard to leave a place where the music’s really good.
Around us here you have loads of old album covers and posters – what’s the significance of the art on the walls here?
Lori: “We picked Petr Novák over there [on a poster], because we saw a photo showing one of his old posters was hanging up here in the ‘70s.
“Also through our manager Jenda we were able to contact Bohdan Holomíček, who is an amazing, famous photographer who photographed Havel.
“He did all sorts of fantastic documentation of this area, but especially U Kurelů because he hung out here in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He’s been so generous as to give us all sorts of beautiful photos that he took of his time here.
“For us it’s very inspiring because we want to revive that spirit that he and friends experienced here at the time. Under communism it was called U pošty [At the Post Office] because it couldn’t be called U Kurelů as that was a private name.
That would signify ownership?
“Exactly. So the photographs we have hanging up are Bohdan’s photographs. And it makes it even more special for us to continue this tradition that he experienced.
“He’s come in many times and loves the new space. So we’re really especially excited to have his photos hanging and have him come in and be excited about what we’re doing.”