Au Delft, Liège

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There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown café. Liège’s careworn and ramshackle districts provide plenty of rough – this is not a city that has enjoyed the most tasteful town planning, nor preservation of its heritage. There are quirky features and surprising beauty spots if you are determined to find them. Impasses, a giant staircase, quiet side streets, timber framed buildings sprinkled across the city, and upon arrival a dramatically different (if annoyingly distant) ultra-modern railway station.

This city is certainly not one to write-off, but on a grey weekend, the place seems overburdened with regret about its numerous ill-maintained architectural mistakes, not to mention the inevitable results that come from relatively pauce economic circumstances.

Wallonia is not the well-to-do side of Belgium these days, and hasn’t been for a long time. While it is breathtakingly beautiful in its rural areas and some small towns, a visit to its cities (the likes of Charleroi or Liège) is more than a tad reminiscent of the atmosphere you’ll find visiting dour towns in Northern France, especially in comparison to the well-financed Flemish cities of Ghent and Antwerp.

However, a reliable general rule is: the more hard-nosed a city, the worse its climate, the more likely it will be crammed full of drinking holes. Liège proves this quite adequately, as a cursory search will reveal, you can barely turn a corner in the centre without bumping into some bar or other, while certain streets have a local notoriety.

Some bars, such as Taverne St. Paul, Café Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, Liégeois institutions, the bright lights that draw everyone in (those with good taste, anyway). However, today we are going to focus on a more understated city centre venue, Au Delft.

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Au Delft is a corner bar situated in an art deco influenced grey-brown brick city building with a quarter-circle frontage and circular windows running down each storey. The structure is non-committal and the materials used are unattractive in colour, so the impression lands in an uncanny valley between noticeably funky and downright ugly.

It doesn’t seem as though this would contain anything preserved except perhaps the embryonic ego of a reckless architect, but one look at the Jupiler signage, and the ground floor bar indicates that something interesting may be inside – or at the absolute very least, somewhere to buy a beer.

Step inside under a large dark green awning to discover a well-preserved bar blending stylish décor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafés, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown café or bruine kroege.

That Au Delft now feels frozen in time is no accident – they knew they were onto a winner with this place and haven’t altered the format. Unlike the thousands of idiots who have vandalised amazing pubs and bars over the years, the owners have chosen to retain what made it special and ignored the nearly irrepressible human instinct to follow trends.

The bar area itself is magnificent. Faded with age but handsomely redeemed by its character. This scene is juxtaposed with a chess board tiled floor, which wouldn’t be my preferred choice usually, but works brilliantly for this place.

Some small details set this place apart, without adding clutter. The newspaper clips, the beautiful painted lettering on the mirrors which are installed in the partitions above crimson leather-backed seats. Indications of present tradition and ritual mixed with a melancholy legacy of days that are long gone, never to return.

Some of this reminded me of Au Daringman, in Brussels, another out-of-time venue,  that exudes confidence and contentment in what it is.

If you are used to paying 4 euros 50 for a quarter litre of beer in Brussels bars then you will scarcely believe your eyes when you discover the prices. Yes, pleasingly these are pitched to attract the custom locals rather than fleece tourists, but when allowing for Au Delft’s city centre location it comfortably beats some of the local competition too.

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Au Delft are not competing with those bars that are trying to start their own seed bank of beer for when the human race faces extinction, but they carefully tick off most of the main traditional Belgian beer styles and none of these could be said to be poor value: far from it.

There is actually something relieving about being spared the task of rifling through a Bible to choose between hundreds of beers and dozens of styles each time you desire a drink.

With my limited French I struggled a little to get my point across (there’s nothing more confidence-sapping than delivering a sentence which you are fairly confident is grammatically correct and well-pronounced only to receive a reaction of complete opacity and confusion) but thankfully the service was more than kind enough to offer patience in that regard. Any beer you select will be served to your table along with a small tray of nuts, which is a little token of mutual back-scratching I always like. After all, once the salt gets to work, further liquid is required.

The crowd in Au Delft is a mixture of loyal older regulars who have instant recognition and are well cared for by the staff. You will also find couples wanting a quiet drink and the occasional group of young friends.

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Au Delft has a nice convivial atmosphere whether quiet or busy, partly down to the carefully preserved décor and sense of refuge. It is both an excellent place for quiet contemplation or jovial conversation.

I was on limited time and so could only stay for a couple of beers, but I could have easily remained in Au Delft all evening. The impossible prospect of turning a place into my local, to get to know the other staff and become part of the fixtures of the bar are often one of the melancholy aspects of travelling. Often I am happy just to have found the venue and spent a night there, but Au Delft is one of those places I suspect you can only truly ‘find’ when you have visited for many years.

While Au Delft may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when it comes to nightlife in Liège, their quietly confident style, preserved features, genuine local life, friendly service and great value mean that it can’t be missed out and it comfortably earns a place on our guide as being one of the best pubs in Europe.

Our Rating:  8/10

Quality and/or choice of drinks8/10

Style and Decor8/10

Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life8/10

Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10

Value for Money8/10

The Pub-Going Factor8/10

Location
https://goo.gl/maps/vYzrgmhtpQ8cixuw7
Address
Place Cockerill 22, 4000 Liège, Belgium
Website
N/A
Telephone
+32 4 221 45 70

…back to Belgium

 

 

 

Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10
Hof 1, 52062 Aachen, Germany

Although it shouldn’t, it comes as a surprise to me, as much as a relief to have located a cosy, non-corporate pub slap-bang in the middle of a European city centre.

However, Belgium and Netherlands make a habit of it, and these nations just so happen to be Aachen’s closest neighbours.

This German border city and the Low Countries (either of which can be reached in an hour walk from Aachen centre) share a host of cultural cues, with the city itself having initial importance as a Roman spa town before the cult of Imperial Rome spawned Charlemagne and the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors in the subsequent centuries. Aachen also enjoyed a position as a major trading point between nations, goods and wares shipped from the North Sea ports, which may help explain the cultural overlap.

Don’t be under the impression Aachen is any less German for it – believe me, Aachen is a firm fixture of Nord-Rhein Westphalia, and this mixture today results in interesting blends of buildings as you walk around town. Its town hall and surrounding Gothic buildings in the Altstadt could as easily appear as far away as Ghent or Nijmegen without raising any suspicion, but similarly, the remnants of the city wall and the post-war reconstruction are as German as it comes. The cultural centre of Aachen isn’t a large ensemble of buildings when compared to some places, but they are nonetheless impressive and occupy a bigger portion of the city than Cologne or Dusseldorf’s old towns, for example. Aachen is easy to get to from virtually anywhere nearby, and its attractions justify you spending a night here.

Domkeller is situated in the heart of town in an attractive brick townhouse on the small Hof square (you know you’re somewhere central when Hof appears). The scene is made all the more picturesque by a ruined arch halfway along and the distinctive houses that line the square, all fitted with huge grid windows of the kind you normally expect to see on Burgher houses.

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The risk is that Domkeller could so easily be one of those common tourist traps and a let-down given its advantageous situation. Instead, you will find the opposite is true.

Domkeller is neither based at the cathedral, or in fact a cellar venue (that ceased to be true in the 1980s, apparently, due to safety regulations), however its proximity and age, dating back at least until the 1950s justifies a name of such significance.

This pub enjoys a handsome trade of local people both young and old who are happy to sit and socialise among the odd tourist (such as myself) or group of businessmen that are passing through.

It’s a place that invites interactions with other people; that magic chemistry where strangers who would otherwise be ignoring each other feel they can cross the divide. That alone would be a good reason to include Domkeller on our guide. Aside of that – the antifascist sign near the entrance is proof that many of these elements go hand-in-hand.

Be assured, the appeal doesn’t stop there. As you walk in through a corner door you will find a cosy room with bar area to your right and communal bench seating with fixed small tables. To your left is some chunkier furniture and further benches. Beyond the bar area is the second part of the room, which again is based around bench seating by the walls and has the effect that most of the time you are spent in an enclosed space where you are looking at and interacting with what’s inside rather than what’s outside.

Domkeller accepts orders at the bar but keeps table service operating and prefers that – it is quick, attentive and polite without being too formal. You’ll be needing a drink of course, and here is where Domkeller comes into its own.

The choices of beer are certainly quality over quantity, but even this selection is encyclopaedic when compared to most German venues. Here at Domkeller, several bases are covered. They have various styles of German beer on tap covering Kolsch, Altbier, Landbier, Pils and Hefeweissbier – most of which are from medium-sized, not corporate breweries – and a suite of Belgian bottles which are mostly the familiar Trappist and Abbey ales, but nonetheless hugely welcome in a nation that is not fond of selling beer brewed by anyone except themselves. Believe me, travel east from Domkeller, stop in each pub you find and it will be a long time before you see as many Belgium beers again.

The atmosphere is also quite fitting for drinking whisky, something which the management appear to have recognised a long time ago – take a look at the drinks menu for a few interesting options.

Prices are along the typical level for this part of the world – perhaps cheaper than Maastricht up the road, a little cheaper than Cologne too, though perhaps a little more expensive than Liege and the rest of Wallonia, which is after all a poorer region of Belgium than Flanders. For a city centre venue, it’s fair value.

Domkeller’s website claims their Weinstube (the upper floor, accessed via a central staircase by the end of the bar) is converted into a small concert hall every Monday night, which I can imagine drumming up even more atmosphere in this place. These start at 8PM, and the pub won’t accept new entrants after 7.30PM.

The upper floor is a lighter shade than the downstairs with a surprisingly high ceiling, though still decorated in a simple, traditional style. There is a gently sloping roof at one side of the room which adds a bit of character. I would rather be downstairs, but would certainly accept a seat upstairs if that was what remained.

Domkeller have a relaxed attitude towards bringing food into eat, which is a refreshing change and shows the sort of pragmatism that people who know pubs recognise but accountants do not. Clearly any food is going to make a person thirsty for more of their fine beers – who loses?

Have I mentioned the opening hours yet? Bloody brilliant! How many cities have I been to that practically shut up shop by midnight? A lot. Too many. Expect Domkeller to serve your needs well into the early hours of the morning, in fair weather or foul, throughout the week.  This, along with the friendly company and Belgian ales explained why I found it very difficult to leave and go to bed!

Speaking of weather, the place throws itself open as the weather improves, with outside seating on the square. This is of course a pleasant place to sit back and enjoy the sun, but the true character of the place is indoors in my opinion, a wonderful refuge from the bitter winter weather – the core creation should be at the core of the appeal.

Across Europe, places like Domkeller, based so close to the centre of the city, have ceased to be cult venues long ago and sold out to middle aged tourists to become a generic café.

It’s great to see that the real character of Aachen endures and therefore we say, ‘long live Domkeller’ – and hopefully see you again very soon!

 

B.O Baras, Kaunas

back to Lithuania

Muitinės g. 9, Kaunas 44280, Lithuania

Website: www.blueorange.lt

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities & Events – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Blue Orange, or B.O for short (…lol!) is undoubtedly Kaunas’ foremost long-standing social drinking institution for students and young folk, taking on an unofficial Student Union bar feel, with a few bells and whistles that entice a post-Uni crowd  as well.

The name was inspired by the poem The World Is Blue As An Orange by the French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, yet this little pretentious flourish couldn’t be further apart from the uncomplicated down-to-earth and friendly bar you’re about to visit.

Unusually for a student bar, Blue Orange is a family operation, opened by the current manager’s father and uncle, now run by mother and son. This is a nice fact in an increasingly corporate world.

Enter off a quiet side street in Kaunas’ pretty, though low-key old town and you’ll see a long room tunneling off to your left, and the bar straight in front of you. Décor is down to a earth, a little offbeat but generally plain, going on ramshackle, but in that cosy lived-in way that gives places like these some charm.

B.O (yep, this is still funny) offers a range of the usual pub amenities in addition to the beer: board games, beer pong, foosball, rudimentary pub food, events nights etc, and is without doubt focused on gathering and maintaining a community around it as best as it can. It succeeds. Football championships, “Guitar Hero” nights etc., you name it.

At the minute the second floor is being renovated so don’t count on any DJing or dancing up there for now. We shall keep a close watch on what they do with the space.

Everyone likes a late bar (What, you don’t? See me after class!) and Blue Orange provides a stalwart service in that regard, opening way past midnight into the early hours, all nights of the week. Be aware though that the place doesn’t actually open until 5pm, so don’t rely on it for an afternoon pint.

The furnishings and the bar concept may be growing a little dog-eared, but among a friendly crowd, that doesn’t seem to matter. And it’s an easy place to make friends, with space being at a premium you may find a group or individuals offer you a friendly – if drunken – introduction.

As far as the beers go, you can fill your glass for a very decent price, and there are 6-7 decent taps with Lithuanian beer on offer, along with a correspondingly well stocked fridge full of bottles. It is, after reflection, a pretty good range for the type of bar it is, and reasonable quality. Unfortunately you might find as with a lot of small time operations in mainland Europe that the beer comes out of the taps far too lively and it takes three pint glasses of foam before finally enough beer is produced to fill your glass. This can cause holdups but thankfully the drink at the end is worth it.

Staff are surly in the usual Baltic manner (perhaps they are fed up by the bar taps) but at least it’s service at the bar and not having to wait for table service – a dreaded custom across many venues in Eastern Europe.

BO has a central location near a number of good transport connections, but isn’t situated on a main thoroughfare that gets passing trade. This means it is visited by a loyal crowd of those in the know. It remains a really good option if you want to sample what the young but not so preening Kaunasii are up to with their free time or make it your local.

Going from some comments, Blue Orange  isn’t quite as zeitgeisty as it’s heyday, though you can’t help wonder whether these critics are just resentful thirty somethings trying and failing to relive their glory days. It must have been some heyday if they’re correct, as during my visit the bar was rammed full of young people who all looked like they were having a great time, also with the feel that it was their regular hangout spot. I’ll be back next time I’m in Kaunas, that’s for sure.

If Blue Orange doesn’t suit your mature post-grad mentality, then check out their new bar B20 on Gedminas gatve 30, which is similarly well reviewed but has a more modern and generic décor to my eyes. All the same, it breaks up the long, long walk between the train station and the old town quite nicely.

Have you been to Blue Orange? Agree or disagree with this review? Join in the discussion on Facebook or leave a review below!

Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

back to Romania

Strada Universității 2, Cluj-Napoca 400091, Romania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Insomnia in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca claims the title of the longest continuing pub in town.

22 years (23 in May this year) doesn’t seem to me a long time in the life of a pub, so perhaps this has something to do with the turbulence of the revolution at the turn of the ‘90s, and/or a change in cultural trends? I am from a country where so many pubs have remained open over a hundred years or more, so this strikes me as peculiar.

Cluj-Napoca is a university town and so the nightlife reflects the demands of young people. You’ll struggle to find anywhere (deserving of the label ‘pub’ at least) where young and old people mix as they would in England, or indeed many other countries in Mainland Europe. In fact it was difficult to find the sort of old-man’s drinking hole you’d expect to see everywhere. Another surprise.

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic décor, paint thrown up the wall Jackson Pollock style and giant lampshades covered in stretched Insomnia-logo t-shirts. About that logo – a not particularly discreet drawing of two animals humping. That aside, the place is funky and seems to have survived 15 years without looking overly dated.

You will notice from their website a rather esoteric mission statement (some of which might be lost in translation) which is reflected in the bar itself. It is the perigee between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all. This must come from its early days as an art gallery. While the venue is now predominantly a bar, they still host events of varying flavours – book launches, poetry readings, the odd festival here and there.

 

The bar, as with most you’ll find in Cluj, is set up for sitting rather than standing, which means dealing with table service – not my favourite thing in the world. In Romania I noticed some people become rather upset when they have to order at the bar. Not sure why – getting drinks that way is quicker, direct and you can settle the bill there and then, saving everyone time and effort.

Insomnia also has a slightly different format in that they expect you to settle the bill upon the drinks being served, which took a little getting used to when most table service involves you settling the bill at the end of the evening. I can only imagine they have had some trouble with people leaving without paying – which again could be solved by switching to bar service!

The other gripe is that, quite alike other central European countries, it is possible to reserve tables in advance. Is this a good thing? In practice this hardly ever works well in a pub, as it deters people who haven’t got a reservation sitting in that spot until the reservation starts, costing the bar money and making the arrangement feel off-putting. Also, when the bar is really busy, save for two or three empty tables, simply because of a couple of reservations that may last for only one round of drinks, where is the logic there?

In Cluj, all beers seem to have arrived on the same lorry, so you can expect the local brew Ursus and its variants (which are okay at best), and other SABMiller-owned brands including some English beers. The choice here is neither great nor terrible – they have covered several bases, but after a couple of days in the city, seeing the identical drinks everywhere becomes a little dull.

Draft beer is also served in 400ml glasses, a cynical way of gaining 20% on every drink, and quite pointless given the bottle sizes are 500ml and often cheaper. It’s difficult to criticise Insomnia over any other Cluj pub for this, as it is unfortunately commonplace. The upshot is that most people order bottles, not draft beer as they are better value for money – given the expense involved in setting up a bar, this seems hideously counter-productive.

Insomnia also offer what they call “long draft”, 2.5l of beer arriving in an enormous trophy-like stand with its own tap which I saw a few people taking ‘advantage’ of.  You know you are in student land when gimmicks like this pop up.

Anyway, moving back to the positives, Insomnia’s atmosphere inside is lively and well-paced, while the surrounding décor certainly helps keep things upbeat.

Insomnia is also based on the first floor of a historic building, which I often like as bars of that sort always feel quite bohemian. Outside the bar you will step out onto the balcony walkway of an inner courtyard, the typical sort of atrium you get in ex-Hapsburg cities (especially those with Hungarian history). This situation is appealling and adds to the experience.

Insomnia can be found just a few seconds walk from the main square, which is also handy as the main squares of European cities are generally host to far more corporate venues than this. Insomnia, more than others, underlines the all-encompassing young feel of the city, not to mention a European city centre that yet hasn’t been ruined by corporatising everything.

Maybe Insomnia will continue for another 23 years to come – and onwards – or perhaps the economic tides will sweep it away. I certainly hope to find it is going strong when I return, and hope it doesn’t take me 23 years to do so!

I strongly recommend Insomnia for your visit to Cluj, primarily as a fun alternative venue, and a strong all-rounder that does a lot of what it takes to be a good bar well, or really well.

Lastly, be aware Insomnia closes at 1AM, so if you are having trouble sleeping, you’ll need to move elsewhere!

Keimling, Fürth

back to Germany

Obere Fischerstraße 5, 90762 Fürth, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

In clarty weather there’s nothing more enjoyable than diving into a warm cozy pub. Franconia is no stranger to such climatic conditions and the pub offerings are generally designed with that in mind.

It is January after all, so when we emerged from the U-Bahn station at Rathaus (from our weekend stay in Nuremberg) we were faced with a deluge arriving from above. Fürth old town is a pretty one, with a classic Bavarian/Franconian appearance, clock tower, steep tiled roofs and timber-houses, enough for an hour or two pleasant wandering, but it took us only ten minutes stroll around getting soaked through before resolving that we needed to get to a pub – and quick.

After researching in advance I had one pub in mind as an outstanding potential venue – Keimling.

It’s a short walk from the stop and a pleasant one, along one of the main streets and then down a steep lane. A charming and enticing little lane spurs up to your left but carry on down until you see a small beer garden – you have arrived.

Keimling (translated as Seedling) is so named after a seed-trade facility which formerly existed on the premises. Evidence of this remains apparent as you walk in, with the drawers and cupboards re-purposed into the new pub structure, most notably to the left of the bar as a corner-bar top. The bar’s logo and mascot is a seedling emerging from a wooden house, which can be seen in wood carving in the corner to the left of the bar.

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I really like the use of space in Keimling. You’ll enter to find a small bar directly facing the entrance and inviting partitioned benches to your right. The alley leading to the toilets also manages to find space for a dartboard (N.B – careful not to leave the gents toilet without checking if a dart is headed towards your face!) There is a small standing area to the left of the bar with ledges and corner area with stools, which has been constructed from the cupboards and drawers I mentioned above.

Carrying on past behind the bar leads you to a subterranean cellar ‘snug’, a very characterful little quirk of the pub which I can imagine being handy for gambling and plotting – among other things. The rest of the pub space is a large, more communal back-room area akin to a quaint pub restaurant, with windows looking out over the street.

The style is rustic, a quintessential traditional pub of a kind you’d hope to see everywhere in Northern Europe, especially on a rainy day. Apparently the owner Wenzel has not altered this appearance since the 1980s; hopefully it will remain intact for another 40 years to come.

The rock soundtrack is a clever touch as it brings in a younger crowd and prevents the risk of the pub becoming too genteel and middle-aged. Staff also vary between young and middle aged so there is a nice communal mix, and it feels like the community are coming together, in that great way a pub should do. The music is also a throwback to the pubs long-standing connection with live acts.

It’s a typically Germanic thing to combine the quaint with the visceral – in this case the almost twee decoration that you’d expect to find in your Grandma’s living room with hard rock music.

Adding further to an impressive list of positives is the selection of beer. Not only do they offer the Franconian speciality Rotbier (red beer) on tap, but they offer their own label beer, Keimling Dunkel, a rich, thick and dark beer that was at once flavourful as it was easy to drink. You’ll note a host of other local ales, which are about quality over quantity.

Don’t sweat about the prices either. As with most places in Franconia a half-litre of beer rarely exceeds 3 euros 5 cents, considerably lower than in the West.

Service is assured and courteous, and despite being English ausländers they were kind to us – it’s a friendly place.

Keimling also offers food, a handy thing for any pub, though I cannot comment on that so much as my real interest is in the pub and the experience.

The optimum time to arrive in my opinion is between 7pm-9pm where you can watch the pub transform from sleepy (albeit with a rock soundtrack) to a bustling neighbourhood venue, with every bit of seating space occupied.

It’s always a great sign of a pub when it makes you feel like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

If there was any room for improvement I would suggest keeping the volume of music down in quieter times. Many pubs believe loud music compensates when it is quiet, but I believe the opposite, it simply emphasises the absence of people while making it more difficult to speak. This is not a big problem with Keimling, but a little recommendation nonetheless.

Fortunately Keimling is very easy to reach, even if you are staying in Nuremberg, because the U-Bahn links to Fürth in a simple 10 minute journey, and Keimling is only 5 minutes up the road from there. There are pubs in the city I live in, sitting at work right now, that would take me longer to get to.

For my money it’s worth doing. Perhaps only WeissbierHex in Nuremberg old-town directly competes to a similar standard, so I’d say Keimling is the best pub in the Nuremberg/Fürth area.

As their website states, quoting Terry Pratchett:

If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.

Now there’s a romantic philosophy to justify pubgoing, if ever there was one.

Have you visited Keimling? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you!

U Zlatého Tygra, Prague

back to Czechia

Husova 228/17, Staré Město, 110 00 Praha 1, Czechia

Nearest Square: Staroměstské náměstí

Nearest Metro Stop: Staroměstská

Hours: 15:00 – 23:00, Monday-Sunday

Reservations: +420 222 221 111

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Décor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Anyone with a mild interest in the European bar scene or the city of Prague will no doubt have heard of U Zlatého Tygra (At The Golden Tiger), the historic Czech pub and city institution based slap-bang in the tourist hub of Prague’s old town.

Reading about the pub’s stories, its literary connections and seeing the photos of Bill Clinton and his ilk tucking into schnitzel and beer sat among locals may generate a degree of excitement alone, but I will be up front with you about the good – and not so good – aspects of U Zlatého Tygra.

 Let’s begin with the good stuff first, of which there is plenty!

The pub signage with its bas-relief tiger and gold lettering is striking and one of Prague’s true icons. The sign indicates not only the business but also the historical identity of the building, which pre-dates its current use. The interior has hosted various previous operations such as a patriotic café and reading room before the second world war, and undergone rebrands such as U černého tygra (The Black Tiger), U kopáčů (The Dice), and U Kraftů (The Craft) in the past. Its literary leanings continued through the 20th Century, not least due to the patronage of writer Bohumil Hrabal, (now made permanent life President) who had a favourite area of the pub in which he would hold forth on the topics of the day, and just as often sit there quietly absorbing the atmosphere and consumed in his own thoughts. Hrabal passed away shortly before the turn of the century, but the pub keeps his memory alive in the best way possible, with tributes that are lovingly well-pitched but don’t turn the place into a shrine.

The entrance is based down an alleyway rather than on the street-front which I generally quite like as this increases a sense of cosiness and clandestine activity, vital for building the atmosphere in traditional venues like this. Heading inside, the design and layout is an archetypal Czech pub with communal tables, bench-seats installed along the walls, wooden panels, cream (going on yellow) walls and those curved arches so typical of the pivnice style. The stained glass windows (with tiger insignia) allow light in but effectively block out activity from the busy street, creating that cocoon-like feel that most of the best Czech pubs offer.

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Look around and note many framed photographs which present the three key themes of the pub – tigers (of course), famous patrons from sport, art and politics and, as could be predicted: Pilsner Urquell. This lager, while brewed by Plzeňský Prazdroj in Pilsen, not in Prague, is nevertheless synonymous with Prague and  Czechia due to its ubiquity. The Golden Tiger was only the second pub in the city of Prague to secure a contract to service it so there is a long-standing connection not likely to be severed or altered any time soon.

When you consider the old town mean average price for a half-litre of Pilsner Urquell, the prices here are fair-to-middling given the central location, and the first pint of it arrives without your say so (as does a second and a third unless you make a point of putting the mat over your drink). Beware, if you turn up thirsty you could easily find yourself processing several glasses in short order. This is one of those pubs where it’s virtually impossible to leave without at least two.

A slight quirk is an insistence on using 0.45l glasses meaning they gain 10% on each beer. Annoying and cynical, but not worth fussing over too much.

The place sells very little else to drink (see their menu here), and even has a policy of not serving spirits! Highly unusual as nearly every other pub in the country will offer you at least Slivovitz, Becherovka or Fernet Stock.

U Zlateho Tygra was for decades and up until the war a bit of an all-boy’s club, refusing women service and directing them to find the nearest cinema while the menfolk held forth in the pub. However, this culture was broken in fittingly macho fashion by a woman called Lady Helenka, as the tale goes:

“She came here with her fiance Vaclav Prymek, who was an officer and an army pilot. When Lady Helenka was stopped at the door, she promised to keep track. And when the waiter counted the lines on the bill, there were 44 of them. Lady Helenka managed 22 beers that evening, as did her future husband. The waiter laid a white napkin in front of Helenka on the floor, kneeled down and said: Madam, this seat by the counter will always be yours, even if the Egyptian king Faruk comes in.”

22 pints? Sounds crazy but you wouldn’t rule it out.

Now some bad stuff. A famous pub is, as you’d expect, a popular one, with the problem that it cannot accommodate locals and tourists at the same time without losing its appeal pretty quickly. Therefore they have struck some form of compromise.

You may or may not be aware that Czech pubs permit reservations even for the right to perch on a bar stool. This system, so unlike the first-come-first served approach in English pubs can result in disappointment. At U Zlatého Tygra you may as well forget even trying to turn up in the evening unless you have reserved your spot well in advance, though it may be worth enlisting a Czech friend to help secure that.

In the evenings, as there are reservations it feels almost like a private member’s club where you need to stay all evening to get full value for the exclusivity.

Here comes the compromise: there is a way in but it relies on your being prepared to begin drinking mid-afternoon, not always everyone’s favourite starting point. Turn up at 2.50pm, 10 minutes before opening time, join the queue (which at this point may be snaking around the front of the building), and if you’re in the front 30 or so you should be assured of a seat unless you’re in a large group. If you see people pushing in at the front then choose whatever retribution you see fit.

This may not be a concern of yours, but I feel a certain duty, given that I am waxing lyrical about the place, to point out that U Zlatého Tygra is not a museum, and the enduring appeal is because it is not spectacular but authentic and traditional. Even though there is some nice stained glass and a sturdy preserved atmosphere, it’s hardly La Sagrada Familia. Therefore, treat it as the pub it is meant to be – eat, drink and be merry. If you show the staff the respect you would show a host who invited you in, you will not be badly treated.

Inevitably, the authenticity can be occasionally vandalised by some tourists who believe it to be a fairground ride instead of a pub. Their behaviour is offset in amusingly curt fashion by the servers who adopt an uncompromisingly stony-faced approach to anyone who isn’t their mates and anything they regard as bullshit (quite a long list).

This is – depending on your point of view – chauvinistic, deeply cynical in order to maintain their asset, or their absolute right as publicans.

While this can be intimidating, consider it a pushback against the place being overrun with tourists and gentrified, as it surely would be without a little resistance.

While it is easy to have a pop at tourists, in one sense their custom helps keep the philosophy of the place alive –  people from all walks of life sitting around together and enjoying themselves. The pub website explains further through this anecdote:

“There is the story, in which the pre-war French Prime Minister Herriot visited U Zlatého Tygra. He was accompanied by the section chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a permanent guest U Zlatého Tygra. They bought pork neck with bread and mustard and fitted incognito in the beer hall . While Herriot was drinking, showed to the opposite side and said : “There is sitting the chair of the Chamber of the Deputies of the Parliament Malypetr, but the gentleman sitting next to him I do not know . ” – The section chief said: ” There is sitting a master of painting from Melantriška. ” Herriot greeted again and then whispered : “But there is sitting the president of the Administrative Court , but the gentleman next to him I do not know. ” Also the guide did not know. Then their neighbour to the right said:” This is a manufacturer of funeral lamps from Karlovka. ” – Surprised Herriot turned to that neighbour and asked : ” And who are you ? “That gentleman raised up his glass and answered” I am a caretaker from Skořepka, please . ” – Then the Prime Minister declared : ” Gentlemen, fault! Democracy is not in France but here ! “

Once the crowds are seated, and after their first beers have been extinguished the atmosphere inside quickly gets going. Among them, comfortable and surrounded by the excitable friendly crowd, with dishes of hot food emerging from the kitchen, it really feels like the place to be.

Whilst seated you will note a stout tapster working flat out to replenish glasses, pausing the flow only to greet and converse with the stamgasty whose presence ensures this most Czech of pubs stays that way.

Due to the tourist trade it’s not somewhere I would choose to go every week – there are other places to go in Prague for an authentic traditional pub experience, without the hype and tourist hordes (Hostomicka Nalevarna, for example, which you can read about by following the link), but there’s no doubt the Golden Tiger has a certain sprinkling of magic borne from its history and ultimately its significance. Try it on different dates and times of day in order to work out when to absorb the most local flavour. As hackneyed as it is to say, you can’t really miss out on a pint in U Zlatého Tygra while in Prague. Which, as discussed above, means two.  This really is a pub to be reckoned with.

 

U Kuděje, Olomouc

back to Czechia

Krapkova 236/20, Nová Ulice, 779 00 Olomouc, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Décor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Evenings in Olomouc are a tough time to get seated. Wherever you turn, each hostinec, hospoda, pajzl, minipivovar or  výčep seems to be full. It is no exception when it comes to U Kuděje. Yet, frustrating though that is, there is all justification to persevere as you are searching for a drink in one of the best pubs in the city, if not in the whole country.

At first appearances Hospůdka U Kuděje may seem unremarkable. A Czech pub in a half-step basement of a very Czech city building? – seen plenty of those before. Wooden furniture from the Austria-Hungary era, with traditional ruralist décor? A well-trodden choice, too but the true quality of U Kuděje is the combination of a number of smaller things contributing to a greater whole, known as genius loci, or spirit of a place. Which we will now come to.

U Kuděje is not based slap bang in the centre (it could potentially lose a fraction of its charm if it were) but a short walk west on the fringes between Olomouc’s old town and a residential neighbourhood west of Čechovy sady.

U Kuděje is named after the writer Zdenek Kuděj, the closest and perhaps long-suffering friend of Jaroslav Hašek, who were both part of an anarchist/bohemian literary scene in the early 20th century, so is a fitting tribute to someone who spent huge amounts of time in pubs. You will find theirs and others’ works available to read (in Czech, of course) within the pub. Here is a short explanation of the pub and connection to the writer: http://www.memorialmatejekudeje.cz/?cat=14

Drop down a short set of stairs outside to the basement level and enter, where the bar area greets you immediately, with a list of beers attached above the bar. The place feels warm and bunker-like and you will almost certainly find people sat at stools around the bar, and a cast of regulars sat on tables to your right. To your left is a small lounge area with people deep in conversation and set into the ritual of the place itself.

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The pub has the atmosphere you’d expect from a neighbourhood dive and you’ll quickly notice from the interactions there are folk sat around who know each other well. This in my opinion is the core of the pub’s appeal, the warmth and simplicity of a social scene that people invariably seek out when given the choice.

A busy pub full of locals can be intimidating at first, and if you can’t see anywhere to sit you may be forced to hang at the bar (also awkward if there is no leaning room). Take a full look into the pub and if there is a spare seat ask “je tu volny”, and hopefully someone will yield. If you arrive as a group in the evening without a reservation, then all I can say is: Good luck. Yep, unfortunately Czechia does not do first-come-first served in pubs and will reserve tables for loyal locals at the expense of fly-by-night tourists and turf you out of your seat when the time comes.

U Kuděje’s big thing – atmosphere aside – is a focus on regional Czech beer, which is very good news for any fans of unfiltered and/or unpasteurised lagers (me). Offering 5 or so on tap at any one time, this is a sensible number that helps ensure freshness, and a little rotation for new and recurring brands. The beers are also served on porcelain plates built with recesses to collect spillage – this is very old fashioned but seems to be making a comeback of late.

They may try to suggest that these beers are good for your health but quite frankly, who cares? If it makes you feel better then yes, yeast can in theory help repopulate your stomach with good bacteria. However if you need it repopulating because of an excess of beer the previous night then that rather negates the point, doesn’t it? Prices are reasonable, perhaps on the high side for Olomouc, which isn’t a problem given Olomouc is an extremely affordable city.

The pub snacks at U Kuděje are typical for Czech pubs – expect the usual cheese, ham, pickles but keep a look out for Moravian cheese if that’s your thing, as that’s quite the regional speciality.

Lastly, take a look at the opening hours – few places open later on a Saturday than they do during the week, but U Kuděje is one of them This place is does a short 5 hours service on weekends, and opens at 3 during the week. This makes it doubly difficult to try and get into.

Although U Kuděje may be a tough nut to crack as an outsider, I personally couldn’t think of too many pubs on my travels I’d prefer to make the effort to ingratiate myself in. You’ll find the true atmosphere and camaraderie of a mixed crowd partaking in a time-honoured tradition, rate authenticity, not to mention enjoying some of the freshest, well-kept and well-poured lager available.

Have you been? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch, particularly if any of the above requires amending.

The Seven Stars, London

back to England

53 Carey St, London WC2A 2JB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Claiming to originate in 1602, the building itself containing The Seven Stars has survived The Great Fire of London, and – just as impressively in my view – the next 400 years of change unscathed, all the while serving as a public house. It’s a remarkable feat that places  it as  one of London’s core heritage pubs.

Many pubs trade on their history, (and that of The Seven Stars is an interesting read) , without backing that up by being an enjoyable place to drink in the here and now. Thankfully, The Seven Stars is not one of those places: it’s a little cracker.

Carey Street has a row of townhouses that are overshadowed by the enormous London County Court, Royal Courts of Justice and LSE library, so it is quite easy to wander halfway past The Seven Stars before realising. It’s a very quiet street and doesn’t seem the most likely place for a pub to be situated these days, though that makes it a perfect venue for those in-the-know. The frontage of The Seven Stars is squat and compact with the predictable (but entirely appropriate) gothic signage. It looks like a small place and it is – there’s no TARDIS effect once you walk inside.

 

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Although micro-pubs may now be reversing the trend for enormous, open plan pubs, none of them are made quite like this old thing. You’ll walk through the entrance to find a low-beamed venerable establishment with a bar directly opposite the entrance, and a narrow space set over two rooms. There are stools to sit at the bar and drink, and tables decorated with checked tablecloths and candles (a little dressy for my tastes, but it did make me think fondly of Den Turk in Ghent, which is not dissimilar).

For the last decade or so, The Seven Stars has been the domain of a ruff-sporting and locally famous pub cat who sadly passed away not so long back. Nevertheless, I have been informed a new cat has entered the premises! If you venture into conversation at the bar with the owner Roxy, she may expand on the and possibly get into the tale of one punter who mistook the cat bowl for bar snacks. Don’t be shocked – anything can happen in London.

The décor and ‘lived-in’ nature of the pub is where most of its character comes from, a pleasingly ungentrified and carefully preserved sense of welcome that tends to strike an immediately positive impression with people regardless of any preconceived ideas. This impression is important to cling onto for when you order a beer (or food), because those London prices hit hard and hit deep. This isn’t worth singling The Seven Stars out for, however, that’s just how things are. It is worth bearing in mind a lot of lawyers drink here.

Nevertheless, you’ll find a set of well kept cask ales from regional breweries served via hand pump – it’s a decent if unspectacular range which will keep you satisfied for at least a few.

In a similar way to Whitelock’s in Leeds, the toilets are located above the pub itself via a satisfyingly creaky staircase, where you will also pass by the kitchens and a room crammed full of odds and ends. By any standards these days (particularly London’s), this is a characterful and individual place that isn’t interesting in the Farrow & Ball school of interior design or repainting itself to remain ‘on-trend’ every ten years.

As mentioned above, the pub is popular with local lawyers and court staff, and due to the small size you may find yourself unable to grab a seat. However, trade is brisk in the evenings so be patient and things will move along – grab your chance when you see it. There’s nothing like being seated to enjoy the atmosphere of a tangle at the bar in a traditional pub such as this.

As the lights from the outside dim, and those from the inside take over, there can be no question of whether this is a pub of outstanding merit.

Although The Seven Stars may have lasted 400 years, the obnoxious pace of gentrification in the last 30 years means that pubs like these perpetually under threat from people who simply want to run poor facsimiles of bars they’ve seen elsewhere. This is a pub that demonstrates the importance of being your own thing. That’s worth something.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from their website:

While enjoying a few Friday afternoon wind-down drinks, a group of 15 or so lawyers (young ones) entered the Seven Stars awkwardly and decamped nearby. There then began a cacophonous symphony of table and chair scraping, until they had blocked all passage in or out of the bar. Regaling of a most competitive flavour followed, ever louder, underwritten by a desperate, pleading “notice me” subtext. Its volume only matched by the ethereal transparency of its content. We drank up and moved on – our seats snatched hungrily into their possession before we got to the door. Congratulations, you’ve emptied the pub! Not all lawyers are like this, true, but this was selfish and shameful behaviour. Hopefully, few noticed.

Have you visited The Seven Stars? Any comments, feedback or suggestions for our write-up? Please get in touch!

Proletaryat, Poznań

back to Poland

Wrocławska 9, 61-838 Poznań, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Soviet-themed bars have quickly become a staple part of the Eastern European bar scene. It must be due to the tonnes of old communist bric-a-brac that has been purloined from flea markets over the years. It’s remarkable how quickly this ephemera has been regurgitated, often in an apolitical way. Now, shorn of the memory of state repression, paranoia and hardship much of the era’s junk has been re-purposed and exhibited, capturing people’s nostalgic fondness for the idealism, optimism as well as the iconography of the era. Ideal for adorning a moody Polish bar such as this one in Poznań.

Proletaryat isn’t exactly lined with volumes of Das Kapital; instead you’ll note a large bust of Lenin staring at you out on the street. Enter to find a display of fairly impressive social realist paintings, disproportionately large portraits of Lenin and Marx, hung in front of rich crimson paint, with emblems and military insignia thrown in. The central bar area also expands further into an interesting looking  terrace-style back room where the cool kids hang out, that seems a little separated from the central premise.

There may be a vague leftist feel to the crowd here (perhaps its just the students) but in the main it does seem to be led by decoration rather than a hotbed of any political grouping.

 

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That said, the decoration is impressive nonetheless, it’s a very stylish place to go for a drink, without being particularly pretentious. The crimson and lamplight works well for a shady atmospheric slow sup, while at night it gets more raucous and one of those truly buzzing city centre bars where the lack of space and abundance of booze creates its own head of steam. This is a great example of decoration that allows a venue to work well in different ways at different times.

The location down one of the main city centre streets means it feels in the middle of the action – which in Poznan is pretty bloody active. You can expect to witness the type of revelry usually preserved for English city centres on an evening. It was quite an eye-opener, but I had previously been warned about it by some Poznanites (Poznanians?) during a separate trip to Wroclaw (another excellent city). The levity  doesn’t emerge from English stag parties or boys-on-tour either – in Poznan it’s mainly locals doing their homespun thing. Wodka i piwo can be a dangerous combo.

Aside of the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, Proletaryat offers its ‘own’ beer as well (from what I can gathered, this is brewed elsewhere at Browar Czarnków and labelled accordingly), which is cheap even by Polish standards nowadays. The jasne (light) and ciemne (dark) beers are both fresh and well balanced. Not the finest ever brewed but tasty certainly and designed to knock back in volume. Apparently the vodka is served with a pickle here if you are interested in going native.

Any pub crawl around Poznań would be improved by a stop off at Proletaryat, as despite the increasingly familiar concept of the Soviet-themed bar, a good concept doesn’t stop being good just on account of its familiarity. Besides, they do a decent job of and it feels like its own thing rather than a cookie-cutter version or a clone-bar. If you haven’t been to one of these type of places before, then go at least once for the novelty value. If you already have and enjoyed it, then this bar is not to be missed!

Here I am:

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Hostomická Nalévárna, Prague

back to Czechia

Soukenická 1192/17, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

‘Vycep Soukenicka’ in a previous life, it seems this spot has served as an in-the-know local’s pub for quite a while before this recent rebrand.

The new name springs from a village south west of Prague, Hostomice, which isn’t much further along than Karlstejn and its enormous castle. You could decide on a trip out if the weather’s nice, but when they’ve set up what is ostensibly their Prague tap house in one of the nicest old pubs in the city centre, there’s a convenient excuse to stay put.

I urge you to mark this pub on your map of Prague as this area of the city between Josefov district and Florenc metro is a little short on pubs worth a damn. I often find myself having to head through it, and invariably choose this place as the pub of choice.

The difficulty is, once you move east from the old town (let’s say, from U Parlamentu/U Pivnrce) area and through Josefov, the traditional Czech pubs disappear and are replaced by cocktail bars and glamorous-looking (but probably seedy) ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs. Josefov is a fascinating district for many reasons but purely on pub terms, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. This malaise extends past the Powder Tower and the Štefánikův bridge to be honest, all the way into Karlin. With one notable exception.

For traditional Czech drinking (the kind where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with normal Prague folk while chugging pivo) the newly christened Hostomická Nalévárna is the best option in that half-mile radius. If you’re planning a pub crawl, particularly if you’re staying near Náměstí Republiky this place will be a godsend to help join the dots together. In fairness, it isn’t a long walk from the old town anyway.

Pivovar Hostomice has a great reputation for their beer, which is handy given there aren’t any  beers from other breweries available at this pub. From the several visits I made they offered an unfiltered 10°  světlé výčepní (light lager), 12° světlý ležák (premium lager) and a 13° tmavy, (or dark) lager on tap as a general rule. They may have specials on rotation but if they do, they weren’t exactly advertising the fact. I’m just glad when I visited in March, no-one was drinking green beer, (brewed every Easter and bafflingly popular, even among locals).

 

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Their prices are a steal considering it’s Prague city centre, with their 10 degrees light lager as good as being £1 for a half litre, and the others barely a few crowns more. This good value extends to the other options available, such as the wine (which my partner found almost as cheap as beer elsewhere around the city).

One of the more intimidating things for a tourist, leaving the traditionally large pivnices in Prague city centre behind and heading to a local drop-in pub is the more direct interaction with locals, and this is something you’ll need to factor in during your visit. Knowing your p’s and q’s goes a fair way in Czechia. The tapster here is a polite enough young man who will speak in Czech  if he thinks he can get away with it but is hospitable to outlanders who play by the house rules. He serves as both tapster and server given the small size of the place. At the very bare minimum, muttering ‘dvyeh piva prosim’ will procure two of their light beers. Fresh, unfiltered and delicious, I may say. The unfussy branding and lack of a corporate feel reminded me of the often brandless, but out of this world fresh Kellerbier and Vollbier you can find in Franconia and Bavaria.

Moving onto the pub itself, it’s a small cosy sort of place with a small bar on your left as you walk in, and a compact seating area in behind. Click here for a quick slideshow from the brewery’s facebook account. I managed to be seated on each occasion I visited which seemed unlikely given the place seats perhaps 25 people at most, and is never empty. The amount of wood you’re surrounded with is typical of these kind of places, and a look I enjoy very much, even if I do wish they offered cushioned, upholstered seats like most English pubs.

The folk around you vary from quiet couples in their 30s, jovial groups of youngsters and old folk playing cards and setting the world to rights. A classic cross section of people who appreciate the virtues of a traditional pub. There’s a big TV hanging at the back of the room for if the going gets dull, which will be playing whatever sport is going. There are those desperate moments in life where Japanese basketball or youth curling competitions suddenly become diverting.

I enjoyed the fact that they hadn’t been bothered to remove or paint over the old sign, which is entirely appropriate as they haven’t done anything to the interior either. That may have changed (and some evidence suggests it has) but the interior remains pleasingly old school. All the Hostomice stuff seems merely transient, which gives me the hope that even if for whatever reason they cease as an ongoing concern, another group will come along to keep the fires burning.

You can see from the scores at the top that the place is a decent all-rounder, the only shortcoming being a relative lack of amenities, but this comes with the territory. Each pub deserves a license to be what it wants to be. Not all pubs need or desire to serve cooked food, or host events. Sometimes a cosy seat, a good cheap pint and a load of old wood is all that’s required. Hostomická Nalévárna is there for you when those times arrive.

This place typifies that often impossible urge to drop in to one more pub on the way home, that is so beautifully brought to life in Czech literature.

Pub goers everywhere, rejoice in the fact places such as this exist! Use it or lose it….

Have you visited? Any comments or corrections? Please get in touch via the comments or our Facebook page!