Prague restaurants improved but standards need to match prices, says food critic Laura Baranik


Laura Baranik is one of the Czech Republic’s best known restaurant reviewers, writing a regular column in the Saturday edition of the newspaper Lidové noviny, as well as running her own blog, The Prague Spoon. During her short career, the 25-year-old has developed a reputation for demanding high standards, and earned the enmity of some restaurateurs, who are perhaps unused to such exacting criticism.

When we met at Prague's Cafe Slavia, I first asked Laura Baranik to fill me in on her own background.

“I was born in Canada but my parents are Slovak, and they emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1980. Then they moved here after the revolution, in ’92, for my father’s work.”

Tell us how you got into restaurant reviewing.

“It kind of happened by chance. I was writing for and they were looking for someone to do restaurant reviews. I was writing articles about how to get around Prague and how to move to Prague. So I tried it and I guess people liked it and I kept going.”

You have a blog The Prague Spoon. There are no ads on it so I presume you’re making no money – why do you do it?

“[laughs] Well, because I actually write my articles in English and they translate them into Czech for Lidové noviny. It just seemed kind of a shame to me not to have the English version available to people – it’s nice to be able to read the original I think. And I already had an English speaking following, so it just seemed natural to keep it up.”

What is it about food writing that attracts you?

“Well, I love food, I love to eat [laughs]. Also it’s nice to be able to help people out with their restaurant choices. It gives me a lot of satisfaction when people say, thank you for keeping me from going to that restaurant, because I would have spent a lot of money and it would have been terrible. Or the other way around, if they say, thank you for the recommendation, I had a great dinner. That makes me happy.”

How do you go about reviewing a restaurant…for instance, do you go more than once?

“I like to go at least twice. I don’t always have a big enough budget to go as many times as I would like, so sometimes…I have to admit the more expensive restaurants I can only do once, or maybe once and then a lunch, or something like that. I try to do some research before I go on the history of the restaurant, then I visit once or twice, make some notes…”

I saw one review you wrote of a restaurant, Radost FX, in which you said one of their dishes had made a friend of yours feel like throwing up – wasn’t that a bit strong, don’t you think?

“No…I like to just tell the story as I experience it.”

It’s really strong to say that somebody felt like throwing up – also it wasn’t your experience.

“She said it, I believed her [laughs]. I hope and I expect that people will take all my reviews with a grain of salt, and understand that my taste is obviously different from theirs.”

Is there any comeback from the people you give bad reviews?

“Yes. Quite often I get letters, I get comments, I get emails [laughs]. I think the newspaper has to field a lot of letters and emails and phone calls that I don’t even know about [laughs]. They try to not bother me too much with it.”

I know some restaurant reviewers are very well known. Does being recognisable influence how restaurants treat you when you turn up?

“Yes, I try to be pretty low key. Because I have seen that if I get recognised things tend to change a little bit. I start getting freebies coming to the table and better service. Then it’s not only going to be an unobjective review, it’s also going to be a harder review for me to write. So I really try not to call too much attention to myself.”

Generally speaking, what would you say is the standard of restaurants in Prague?

“How high is the standard? It’s pretty high. It’s a lot better than it used to be, that’s for sure. At the same time, though, Prague is getting a lot more expensive – it’s along the lines now of any major European city. And I don’t think the standards are up to where they need to be, considering the price level.”

Have you had any particular bad – or great – experiences at Prague restaurants?

“[laughs] Yes, I’ve had a number of both…Bad experiences generally tend to be with service that is exceptionally rude. Once I sent something back because it was clearly rotten. It was just an old sauce – I actually don’t send things back very often – and they brought it back to me, half an hour later with no apology, and they just kind of mixed some herbs and other stuff into the sauce. It was obvious that they hadn’t done anything to it, they hadn’t changed it. I couldn’t believe it – that to me is just crazy.”

In general what would you say the standard of service is here in the Czech Republic?

“It’s pretty low, if you’re going to compare it to some other European countries. At the same time, I think it’s got exponentially better since I first got here, 17 years ago. It’s like night and day. People are much more willing, people are happier, they have smiles on their faces. It’s a lot better.”

Is being a food critic something you want to do for a long time? Or is it possible that you’ll run out of places to review?

“I did get the feeling a little while ago that I might be running out of places [laughs]. But it seems to have picked up, there are always new restaurants opening, there’s always something else to try. But there is a certain level of burnout, I think among, restaurant critics. It’s a hard job to do for a long time, so maybe eventually I’ll take a little break and get back to it. But I love doing it.”