Karoliny Světlé 1035/17, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia
- Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
- Style and Decor – 7/10
- Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
- Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
- Value for Money – 10/10
- The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10
If you read travel blogs or even mainstream travel journalism, then you may have read about why the time of paying ‘a pound a pint’ abroad is dead, this referring to an era from the mid-90’s to around 2009 when the enormous disparity in earnings and currencies between West and East meant that Western Tourists could turn up in Prague and Budapest and feel like they were taking the piss even when, by the standards of the local economy, they were actually being ripped off.
The travel writers are true in identifying that the general trend over this last decade has been a paring back of those obscene financial advantages due to a steady increase in wealth, prosperity, earning power and the touristification (if that is a word) of Eastern European capitals, which has had a considerably restricting effect on the bargains to be had abroad, albeit in very specific conditions. Spend a day in Dubrovnik or Riga old town and tell me if you feel like you’re surfing on a wave of great value!
Prague too, has its tourist traps, and while there is far too much competition across what is a large and well-connected city for a rot to have set in like those honeypots I’ve listed above (as is also the case in large cities like Kraków and Budapest), it is certainly true that a normal beer, Kozel 11, for example, is sold in Prague old town and across the river Mala Strana for a price 40-50% more expensive than the going rate in most of the rest of the country. At the start of 2018, with Pound Sterling (£) in a slump, that puts you well over £1 for a half litre. For a Czech person visiting Prague from a small town, this would be a mild concern, but not, I doubt, much of a concern for you. Drinking great lager for so little, even if it is above the average for the nation isn’t exactly the kind of issue a British tourist spends much time worrying about. However, I am quite determined to demonstrate there are still breathtaking bargains to be found in Europe for beer.
Of course, I could drag you to a revolting dive bar in the middle of nowhere to prove my point (and in the process, kind of disprove it at the same time and make me seem like a petty idiot). However, the real satisfaction is finding the cheap beer in a good pub. I think the best approach to the old ‘pound a pint’ question is to find out: can you visit a good pub in the old town of Prague (Prague 1, Stare Mesto, whatever you want to call it) and get a half litre of beer outside of happy-hour for less than a pound?
Yes, of course you can!
During the socialist era, businesses such as cafés, diners and pubs were graded, the cheapest generally being ‘Fourth Grade’ or čtvrtý, the grading allowing goods and services to be distributed and tailored according to their central planning. This term has survived in Czech parlance to this day, as serves partly a useful metric if you are interested in finding some of the best value places for a drink (though be aware it can be used disparagingly about some rough and ready places too).
These ‘Fours’ have nearly died out in Prague old town, partly because there is little need for them in an affluent touristic, commercial district, but also due to capitalism’s inevitable march of progress in claiming the land from underneath people and its hostility towards partly-socialised enterprise (just witness the lamentable decline of the Milk Bar in Poland since their government stopped subsidizing virtually any seasoning that would help their food taste of something. What private enterprise is so pathetic and helpless that they need to winnow the offerings in a Milk Bar?).
Hostinec U Rotundy is not the last place standing in the old town where you can get a pint for considerably less than the usual going rate, but it is the most venerable, best quality, and I must confess, slightly alien and fascinating. It is by all reputable accounts, a ‘Four’ in form and function, and as I’ve been multiple times and had fun time and on one occasion surprisingly good food, it deserves a spot on European Bar Guide.
U Rotundy gets its name from the rotunda a 100 metres up the road (which is an interesting little oddity that kind of blends into the background among the jawdropping other sights) and is so close to some of the main streets and sights in Prague old town that you can tack it on to any of the usual pub crawls without it feeling like a special detour. Yes, U Rotundy is on a less quiet street but it’s a spit from the river, Charles Bridge and an idle wander from the tourist crush on Karlova to remarkably peaceful old streets like Betlemska and Konviktska.
In some of the classic Pilsner Urquell pubs, such as U Pinkasu or Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice you can experience what Prague was, or may have been like before the war, but U Rotundy is where to go if you want to experience an unvarnished socialist-era drinking hole, something which now, I think, is becoming a curiosity.
One ardent Czech pub tradition which has bitten the dust for good, whatever your personal view on it, is smoking, so although U Rotundy looks like the kind of place where after 11pm you’d be lucky if you could make out the people from the other side of the room, that particular atmosphere (I was always dubious about as to whether smoke added as much atmosphere as people though) is gone, and won’t be returning, and that goes for the country as a whole.
One threat to banning smoking indoors, as happened in the UK, is that old men will simply retire from pub-going and fill their apartments with stale fog instead. However, unlike the UK, Czechia benefits from ludicrously cheap beer which isn’t going up by the same rate beer prices were in the mid-00s. For now at least, the cast of regulars at U Rotundy remains firmly in place, which is all for the good, as they are the ones keeping the place in business.
As with all cheap pubs, you find a coalition of old men and students enjoying the good value and occasionally having a ‘forthright exchange of cultural values’. One of the more pleasant aspects to Czechia is a healthy down-to-earth attitude and understanding of a communal pub-going mentality where people are less reserved than England. I wouldn’t say U Rotundy was full of women, exactly, as it’s not but neither is it so much of a man-pit that Czech women are afraid to venture in.
U Rotundy typifies the simplicity of those olden days. Don’t worry about deciding what beer you’re going to have. It’s Staropramen and you’re having it. Right? That’s settled then.
I posted a good article from Beer Advocate about this on our Facebook page (which I recommend you join for extra goodies and comments) where an American so used to multi-tap places got choice fatigue between his DIPA’s, barrel-aged sours and hibiscus goses and loved the culture in Prague where the stress of each decision was alleviated by the glasses being continually refreshed with the same beer, freeing your mind to concentrate on the important things about going out, like being with your mates and having a good time!
I must admit privately smirking at the thought of a few people I know or have met on my travels venturing into U Rotundy and being prescribed their drink. It’s not what I would want life to always be like but I have some serious admiration for the mentality behind it, in a world where choice must always equal better. Surely the fact stuff like this even exists is evidence of diversity in itself, right?
Anyway, the Staropramen 10 is as good as it’s ever going to get (ie. alright) and you can switch between light or dark if you really want to go crazy. At the time of writing 27czk weighs in snugly under a pound a pint, even at the lowest rate for sterling in years. Back in 2015 when it was 38czk to £1, this pint of beer would have been just over 80 pence a pint.
Even in Prague, these prices turn heads, and U Rotundy is busy most evenings as a result. The pub itself is relatively spacious, with a communal main room, and some dining tables up the corridor and anteroom to the back. One enjoyable aspect is that the tap faces you as you walk through the entrance, leaving you with a beer virtually before you’ve had a chance to wipe your feet!
There isn’t much going on musically other than the sound of geriatric grumbling and twenty-something conviviality, but they have a new TV (beginning of the end for this place, mate) and tend to throw on ice hockey and football. I wouldn’t call it a sport pub, but it’s got a casual interest, and that’s an amenity you won’t find in many of the more traditional pubs in the city.
Food-wise, U Rotundy does something of a surprising turn. If I was visiting a pub that looked like this in England I’d go hungry rather than attempt to eat anything emerging from the kitchen, and yet, after reading the largely positive reviews I gave it a go, and what do you know? Big portions of no-nonsense, fresh Czech cuisine at fair prices – not quite as fair as the beer price but at a corresponding standard to match what you’re paying for, and food you would pay over double for down the road without that home-cooked feel. That aspect of the place really counts in its favour, and although I wouldn’t usually bang on about food too much, it’s a nice feather in its cap.
Lastly, for flavour, I refer you to Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof-fame, who said of U Rotundy in his funny and ever-useful book Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide, “It’s dingy, dirt cheap and I doubt much has changed in the last 25 years, if not more. It’s like a bulldog, so ugly it’s beautiful. Proof that what really makes a pub special is not the stuff that comes out of the taps”.
Amen to that.