For someone who doesn’t much like to eat, I do love to go to restaurants. There’s something about the combination of eating food I actually like – which is a pretty limited list to begin with – while not having to prepare it that holds great appeal. In fact, eating out is one of my favourite parts about travelling. Knowing that I have days, or even weeks, ahead of me without having to set foot in the kitchen is very freeing, even with my one rule.
Well, maybe not a rule as such. More like a guideline.
It’s this: Don’t eat at the touristy places.
It’s not that the popular tourist spots are necessarily bad, although there’s a higher chance that the restaurant will be relying on heavy location traffic to bring in customers, as opposed to good food and service. But even at the good touristy spots, your experience is likely to be very different than if you go further afield. And it often doesn’t even have to be very far afield.
Sometimes, all it takes is going around the corner.
There are two meals in particular that I remember from my visit to Prague. One of them was in the Old Town Square, which is one of the most touristy of all tourist places that has ever touristed.
I’d normally avoid restaurants in this kind of area, but as I’ve detailed before, Ron and I had been on the go for hours and we were ready for a break, no matter where we were. We did a lap of the square, scoping out the restaurants lining its edge, and chose one that looked a bit nicer – essentially it came down to more space between tables and food that looked like it wasn’t from frozen.
We lucked out. It was a good meal. And the environment was enjoyable, as well, as we’re both people-watchers, and the ever shifting crowd gave us lots to look at. But, because of its location, it was very much a mill. The service, while pleasant, was geared towards getting us in and out and putting another set of bums in our seats.
The other memorable meal in Prague came a couple of days later. We’d gone on a tour of a cold war bunker, and the tour guide had dropped the group off at Wenceslas Square. With no plans for the rest of the day, we set off in a random direction, eventually coming across another square.
Like the Old Town Square, it was also lined with restaurants. But it was much, much quieter. As before, we did a lap, checking out the restaurants as we went. Because there were so few people about, it actually made our decision more challenging, as there wasn’t much food for us to look at or service to watch. In the long run, we chose a place based on the look of the patio, and ended up with a meal that in retrospect seems rather similar to our lunch from a couple of days before.
The real difference wasn’t in the food. No, the real difference was in the atmosphere.
I couldn’t tell you what beer I drank at the first restaurant, but at the second, the server had time to chat, relating the history of the brewery and finding out the name it’s sold under in Canada (Czechvar) so we could have it when we got home. Instead of the sound of thousands of voices, many of them shouty, we were serenaded by the sounds of an orchestra warming up, wafting to us from a nearby theatre. And while there weren’t nearly as many people to watch, instead of there being a crowd of gawking tourists shuffling by, there was real life and human drama instead.
After the meal, we continued on our wander, and were surprised to stumble across the Old Town Square only a few minutes later. (I, with my sense of direction of a dead homing pigeon, rarely have the faintest idea where I am, so it’s pretty easy to surprise me. And while Ron’s generally aware of his position at any given time, he hadn’t realized we were quite so close.) After the serene quiet of the past few hours, where we were welcome to sit and sip at our beers for as long as we liked, the noise and sheer volume of people seemed more oppressive than it previously had.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for going where the crowds are. They do, after all, tend to be there for a reason – oftentimes because that’s where the really interesting and iconic things to see are.
But when it comes to mealtime, I’ll take the quiet, off-the-beaten-path place every single time.