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!

 

Café Mulder, Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

Weteringschans 163, 1017 XD Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Picture the scene: Amsterdam in winter, one of those dire evenings when gales blow in off the North Sea all the way up De Pijp, whipping sleet in your face. Meanwhile, the going underfoot lurches from ice rink to quagmire with each step. Checking to your right for the cyclist that probably isn’t there (but inevitably will break your arm the one time you don’t bother checking) – and then left to see if any motorists fancy testing how well their airbags work. Each movement of your leg invites a splash of freezing sludge and fresh test of your balance.

Across the roundabout we spot a window glowing like a beacon, heat from the room condensing on the glass, the silhouette of drinkers and the sound of good cheer – it’s a pub – rarely has there been a more fine or  welcome sight.

Shuffling precariously across the ice I spot the sign above the bar confirming the establishment and nothing can stop us now. While there isn’t video evidence to prove otherwise, you may take my word for it, I’ve never homed in on an Amstel sign with such vigour and enthusiasm.

Amsterdam is well-used to this appallingly unpleasant weather and therefore well-prepared in its provision of shelter and booze. In late spring and summer Café Mulder flings open its doors and spreads out into the street front, but on a night like tonight this traditional brasserie turns into a refuge.

Being hugged, wrapped in a fresh towel and ushered inside would be the ideal welcome, but the blast of warmth and prospect of a stiff drink ably substitutes.

The pub was as busy as it looked from the outside, full of folk relieved indeed to be anywhere except outside. Now, ensconced among a mixture of regulars and tourists, a drink and a chat will do the trick very nicely.

Seeing an Amstel sign would normally be a bad omen, but their sickly dross is ubiquitous in the city and it’s genuinely more difficult to find such a place that doesn’t also serve other, better beer. So, here you can choose between a pint of that insipid liquid or a smaller portion of something far nicer for the same price.

Outside of craft beer enthusiasts perhaps, it’s difficult to think that beer drinkers could be too upset by the selections here, especially as the place isn’t wholly beer-focused. The likes of Brugse Zot and De Koninck on tap, and at least 7 or 8 genuinely good bottles provide a stock that, while it could be better in variation and sizes, covers several bases well and isn’t going to let too many people down.

It’s nice to see that the place provides a small selection of food rather than turning itself into a dining room, so if you fancy wolfing down some soup, toasties or bitterballen (I wouldn’t blame you in weather like this) get involved. You can even get a hot boiled egg – very old fashioned and it doesn’t take away from the pub feel.

There’s a bit of extra character too with a pub cat and you’ll note it claims to be the most authentic pub in Amsterdam“. A bold claim (not one it backs up in any way) but this is really for you to explore and see for yourself.

Ronald Pattinson of European Beer Guide fame – a man worth listening to about Dutch brown cafés – commented:

“I’m still regularly pleasantly surprised by Amsterdam’s pub scene. While simple, unpretentious cafés like this survive in such numbers, I’ll pass on the razor blades.”

Mulder fits into the brown café aesthetic beloved of the Low Countries but has a hint of the French brasserie to my eyes, with enormous windows and a more classically corner bar layout.  The pub-like elements come from an impressively ornate bar area and shelf unit, the stylish old décor, rustic furniture and the type of socialising going on within, which certainly on a bitter night swings towards the communal. The sense of history helps too, with a lot of features looking turn of the 20th century.

London is blessed to have a huge number of pubs in the same way Amsterdam does, of a variety as-good-as-duplicated many times over. However, with a few exceptions, many of these London pubs have been made more generic by unimaginative owners or pub-companies, the scourge of character and identity. In London, I suspect this place would have gone the way of Nicholsons or Taylor Walker in the last decade and had its soul expunged, but pleasingly, one of the nicest things to say about Café Mulder is that it is not unique, it is not an oasis surrounded by a desert, but it’s common, frequent to find and that’s what makes Amsterdam still so thoroughly enjoyable. We should celebrate the fact that a place this good is only a notch above the mean average for a brown café in Amsterdam. Is this the inverse of damning with faint praise? I hope so.

Anyway, to boil it down, Mulder is a great place to go for a drink, and you know what? I managed to write all that without a single X-Files joke. Cheers!

For further reading – right hit and click Translate to enjoy this superb article by Josh Wolf, which goes into the rich history of Café Mulder: https://josh-wolf.blogspot.com/2013/11/cafe-mulder-te-amsterdam-weteringschans.html

 

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!

Roncsbár, Debrecen

back to Hungary

Csapó u. 27, 4024 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –5/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

While ruin bars may be synonymous with Budapest, other cities in Hungary quickly taken inspiration from the design and ethos – it was inevitable they would create their own version. Gázfröccs in Sopron and Csillag EzPresszó in Győr both prove that the bar has been raised. Roncsbár in Hungary’s 2nd city Debrecen, is the most convincing example yet that it’s worth leaving Hungary’s megacity to explore the nightlife in the provinces.

While I love an old boozer, such as Wichmann’s in Budapest, it must be said the standards of décor, atmosphere and amenities in Hungarian pubs have shot up dramatically since Szimpla et al arrived on the scene. Roncsbár (Roncs, meaning Wreck) immediately showed that its up to the task.

Established 2013, Roncs is both a cosy pub, a concert hall, a garden terrace and a arty streetfood courtyard, delivering the alluring appeal we love about ruin bars – a combination of rooms to explore as well as cosy areas to congregate. Unlike unsuccessful attempts to export these to the West, it doesn’t feel the least bit corporate, even when you add bouncers and plastic cups (we’ll get to that in a minute).

There is no shortage of ways to spend your evening here, whether that be for a quiet drink, for food, for music and partying, or games. What’s better, the bar is designed in such a way that it never feels like those people are clashing with each other.

While not as enormous as the likes of the Fogas Ház ‘party complex’ or the ruined mansion of Szimpla, there is a fair expanse of space, and just like those it’s exciting to walk through it all for the first time.

Entering via the front door of the pub, you could be fooled for thinking that’s all there is. It is very pleasant – nothing negative to report – the area is focused on drinks and socialising rather than food – fine by me. You’ll find exposed brick and slightly ramshackle wooden tables. The ceiling appears to be studded with cymbals from drum kits (or was I wrong?). There’s a lively atmosphere and if that was it, then Roncsbár would probably warrant inclusion on our website as an 8/10 pub.

But after you’ve taken in the indoors, have a wander around and look for a side door – this will take you into the entrance way for the ruin-pub aspect proper. The design suddenly explodes into an eclectic whirlwind of bric-a-brac and, if you pay attention, some finely-crafted artwork. The cherry on top of the cake is, in this case, a wrecked (get it?!) aeroplane which looks like it has been hung, interior contents an all, to the inside of the roof.

What’s better, is this is heated in the icy winter and well-ventilated, keeping the place comfortable at all times.

Carry on past the stalls to find a courtyard seating area which will appeal to anyone wanting to watch some sport (big screen, of course) and a terrace garden area – closed on my visit due to the snowy weather – but definitely a further area to spread out in spring and summer. Barbecue? Yes please.

Drinks are about on standard with most Hungarian bars, however their website boasts they have their own-label beer from Rendelkezik (Reindeer?) which I must admit I didn’t see. It’s still possible to get a standard lager for a fair price and nothing here, be it beer, wine or spirits will offend most local or foreign wallets. If you’re outside you will be made to drink it in a plastic cup – on the upside no-one has to worry about broken glass.

Service can be a bit rushed and impersonal in that way all popular places end up being, but that isn’t a reason to mark this place down.

Unlike Budapest, there really is only one place like this in Debrecen, certainly making it stand out. There will always be one or two people of a contrary or conservative nature who take a dislike to these bars. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Roncsbár comes pretty damn close.

I love being able to dip in and out of events that are happening, be able to get some fresh air, or have a sit down, and still be in the same place, and still have something interesting to look at.

Please note that Debrecen has a very lively, albeit dispersed nightlife and there are several pubs of a very different style that are also worth visiting. Please see HERE.

There are only a few bars that have earned our 10/10 score, and so congratulations goes to Roncsbár. Long live the Wreck!

 

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.

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:

pro7

Briody’s, Dublin

back to Republic of Ireland

 97 Marlborough St, North City, Dublin 1, Ireland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

For all the blabbering on we could indulge in about such things as décor, history, live events,  and so on, it is occasionally easy to lose sight of the more humble qualities of a good pub, those of simplicity and authenticity.

A bar’s interesting décor can sometimes divert from the expense or low quality of the drinks, occasionally the unpleasant atmosphere as well. All too often a pub’s history is used as a fig leaf to disguise the fact the interior has since been vandalised and transformed into a chain-operated place devoid of character. A lot of pubs run a pub quiz, food nights, karaoke, live music but are thoroughly unappealing nonetheless. That’s no magic bullet.

It takes a degree of resolve these days to run a pub that doesn’t bother with half of that, isn’t trying to be anything it’s not, doesn’t care about mythologising, widening demographics, or trying to get each customer to pay the absolute limit of what they’re prepared to.

It would be tempting to call such a place ‘quaint’ but there is a patronising element to that word, bordering on ignorant, which I dislike, and which Briody’s doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think Briody’s the least bit ‘quaint’ on my visit. It is however a simple honest boozer that has thought about what to improve,what to keep and what to maintain very carefully.

 

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I like the small size – you have a small lounge area on your left, in front of a bar stretching along the room, with comfortable upholstered bench seats lining the wall. It is as big as it ever needs to be, and has a degree of cosiness without ladling it on too thick. It’s a nice lounge, your living room with a bar and a few other folk in it, essentially. Perfect for quiet contemplation, reading, good conversation and so on. There’s an upstairs which I understand is for hire for students cramming for exams, meetings and so forth.

One thing you can never tell from the outside of an Irish pub is how good it’s going to be once you walk in. Nearly all of their exteriors have a rather studied look, with the ubiquitous Gaelic script, or at least a typeface aged enough to suggest a traditional interior. However, this often has little to do with what you’re presented with when you walk in, and it takes a keen eye to distinguish your plastic paddy pub from the genuine places frequented by locals.

One commonality in Dublin, is the sight of a ruddy-cheeked, broad-chested man of borderline retirement age doing the serving, usually dressed very smartly in a plain Daz-white shirt, black trousers and shiny shoes and belt. There’s a certain formality to this which conveys command. Maybe not wholly consciously, but I believe that’s intentional.

These fellows are usually quick-witted and not short of a few comments to make, especially if they haven’t seen your face around their pub before. It’s usually jovial jesting at most, and you’ll notice the standard of welcome in Dublin a notch higher than most European cities, apart from perhaps the most tourist-ridden places where the demand on the service and the churn of staff makes that difficult.

No such worries at Briody’s – taking a seat there feels like you are being added to a painting. Here’s where you find your more raw Dubliner accent, blue language aimed at the Gaelic footy on TV, and most thankfully, an excellent pint of Guinness. You know you’re in for a good pint of the stuff when the cream on top forms an almost-film like layer when it settles. It’s not cheap in Ireland these days, but a pint is cheaper in Briody’s than many places elsewhere in the city centre. Anything like that is welcome on the wallet.

This explains why  locals head down here (many of whom the bar staff know by name) but there are other factors. Despite being 5 minutes walk from the Spire on O’Connell Street, most locals don’t venture down Marlborough Street running parallel, instead sticking to and clogging up the main arteries of the city. Given other areas of the city are studded with pubs – mediocre ones – all of which are crammed full, it’s a strange feeling that somewhere like Briody’s could plough its own calm furrow, almost hiding in plain sight.

https://www.dublinbypub.ie/pubs/briodys-marlborough-st/

“Setting foot in the pub, you immediately feel like you are on familiar territory. Just like wandering into your grannies, you know you’re in good hands. The interior is typical of a good local boozer; tiled flooring greets feet upon entrance before a pristine carpet overtakes the rest of the floor space. Lighter wooden tones are well complimented with beige embossed wallpaper. The seating proved to be tremendously cosy in its simplicity while classic drink brands and sport are the themes exhibited in frames upon the wall. We took a particular shine to a bittersweet portrait of Paul McGrath seen in his heyday sitting at an unidentified bar holding a creamy pint aloft.”

It is one of those pubs that you wouldn’t see what the fuss was about until you’d spent a good while visiting the so great many mediocre ones first.

Comfortable, authentic, friendly, and simple. That’s the way it is, and the way it wants to stay. Perhaps deep down they may not welcome me saying this, as this is their refuge rather than a tourist hub, but here we are. I can’t ignore you.

Have you been to Briody’s? Any views, or corrections? Please get in touch on the comments below or via our Facebook page!

Bierwerk, Nuremberg

back to Germany

9, Unschlittpl., 90403 Nürnberg, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Whatever you think of beer marketed as “craft” whether good or bad, you can’t deny the popularity.

However, in Germany, the reinheitsgebot or Purity Law limits the brewing ingredients for anything marketed as beer to malted grains, hops, water and yeast alone, with the knock-on effect of limiting the range of flavours and experimental culture now associated with the umbrella term ‘craft’.

Germany has some terrific traditional beer styles along with a parochial and proud attitude, so this has contributed to a slower and more gradual acceptance of auslander beer made from different hops and yeast strains, of a different tradition and with a wholly different character and nation of origin.

Bierwerk, in Nuremberg attempts to straddle both the old and the new, with fresh, almost brand-free Franconian kellerbier on tap, while offering more modern brands, even a few Belgian, Czech, English and US beers. This is refreshingly open-minded for a city which has suffered a few notorious periods of extreme intolerance and superstition.

Bierwerk has an envious situation, looking out over a beautiful city square gently slanting towards the south bank of the Pegnitz river. Unschlittplatz is pretty with timber-framed houses surrounding a small fountain. You may forget this is the centre of a very large city as it genuinely feels as though you could be in a small town.

It isn’t the traditional bierhalle venue you may be used to, but neither is it a wholly corporate or alternative one. Clearly some care has gone into making it appealing to a wider audience, which is partly successful, but I have to include some criticism –  the branding and the décor errs a little towards the generic for my tastes.

Bierwerk is thronged in the evenings where the volume is raised, and while you’ll find a generally post-uni crowd, some middle-aged folk enjoy visiting too which gives a nicer sense of welcome.

Once things get going it’s a fun venue, with a large tree trunk where you can play the ancient game of hammerschlagen, the objective being to drive a nail fully into the log with a wedge end of a hammer before the other players can. There’s also a hook-swing at the far end of the room where you have to try and get the hook over the horns of a bull on the other side. Both of these become fiendishly difficult after a few drinks.

Bierwerk is a smaller venue than you might think from the outside, so be prepared to employ a little patience if you want a set – meanwhile, the bar area is decent enough if its not too crowded, and there is some leaning space around and about.

People are here for the social scene primarily, which goes on until 2AM on Fridays and Saturdays, which is as it should be. Bierwerk brings undeniably some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted. I enjoy the fact that there is an effort to market the original ‘craft’, the local, independent, unbranded, un-Punk variety. While you may prefer a 11% smoked peach sour, or one of their 150 bottles behind the bar, I’ll be ordering a half litre of Franconian kellerbier, which will redefine your notion of freshness. Bierwerk also have a partnership with a local brewery so you will find some of their own branded beer available to try, which should please some tick-box checkers as well.

Prices, as with Franconia generally much fairer in comparison to the North and West, so their regular beers won’t set you back much more than 3 euros 50 as of 2018. There is a small but reasonable offering if you don’t like beer (including beer cocktails) so as to ensure no-one is feeling left out.

If you absolutely have to, they will put together some food to wash the beer down. I’m sure you know what’s coming – choices are cheese, sausage, or wait for it…cheese AND sausage!

Franconia and Nuremberg itself are slowly marketing itself to a wider audience who will give it a try over the big cities and Bavaria and are extremely cheap to get to from the UK via Ryanair. From my experience it is well worth it, with beautiful unspoilt countryside and picturesque traditional towns which survived the war without too much damage. Nuremberg itself has a large old town, not all of which is old, but is a fun and yet laid-back place to be.

I wouldn’t recommend Bierwerk on account of its décor, and there are some issues with the level of comfort and design which could be improved, but I strongly recommend visiting for terrific beer and lively atmosphere. It’s a great way to meet people and at quieter times the bar staff will dispense some of their local knowledge. This elevates the place above the day-to-day craft venue which is content to be cold and industrial in style and cliquey in feel.

Bierwerk is an interesting meeting point of old and new and therefore an enjoyable and strongly recommended venue. Prost!