DINE When in Prague, one would naturally try to eat as Praguers do, and in my experience, this means lots of pizza. The city, as a physical artifact, is a gothic dream, a fantasy of spires, castellations, and cobblestones worthy of Walt Disney. And being sealed up in the aspic of communism for 40 years actually enhanced these charms. When Milos Forman was looking for a place to film Amadeus, his 1984 movie about Mozart in Vienna, he settled on Prague as the setting because it had changed so little since the 18th century.
Except for the people, that is, who emerged from behind the ruins of the Iron Curtain in 1989 with a hunger for all things western, from Bulgari to holidays in Thailand to pizza. I ate as much pizza in Prague as I did in Rome a few years later, and that is saying something. And the wonderful Czech beer, Budvar, was so cheap in the late 1990s it might as well have been pouring from the taps. What was trickier to find was a spot that served traditional Bohemian cooking in a bohemian atmosphere — a place, in other words, like our very own Café Prague.
We never found a place like Café Prague in Prague, but here you don’t have to do much searching, and you can even take BART, since the restaurant expanded last year from its home in the Financial District (once on Pacific Avenue, now on Merchant Sreet) to new digs in the Mission District — on Mission Street itself, in fact, just two blocks from the 16th Street BART Station. The set-up offers, in addition to convenience, a more authentically bohemian setting, or at least one farther removed from soaring glass towers full of bankers counting their taxpayer-funded bonuses. Inside it’s homey; the only bohemian touch that seems to be lacking is a pall of blue smoke from cigarettes being nervously puffed by sallow, Kafkaesque young men.
Today’s Kafka aspirants, from the look of it, are strapping lads (and lasses) who make quick work of huge mugs of Czechvar (Budvar’s North American label) before tucking into immense and satisfying platters of central European food. I have never seen so much food on plates. Even the appetizers are colossal. A bratwurst platter ($7), for instance, consisted of a stack of wonderful sweet and smears of mustard and ketchup to swipe them through, along with a tangle of sauerkraut, a heap of pepperoncini, coins of dill pickle, and a wealth of other pickled vegetables. There was easily enough here for a table of four, especially since we’d earlier loaded up with abandon on the seductive, warm bread in its bottomless basket.
A bowl of split-pea soup ($5) was likewise almost a meal in itself, especially with the addition of bacon and dumplings. When bacon is mentioned as an accoutrement on a menu, you might expect a few bits or crumblings, for a hint of flavor and crunch and some decorative effect. Here the bacon appeared in the guise of nicely crisped slats — enough of them to amount to some real heft. And the bacon was the meaty English kind, not the fatty American stuff. Just to make sure no one would go away hungry, the kitchen tossed in some dumplings as well.
A word on the dumplings, which are ubiquitous. They are dotted with caraway seeds and resemble large slices of the crustless white bread the English use to make their tea-time cucumber sandwiches and are not (as I was expecting) spheres of boiled potato dough. The dumplings were impressively stacked beside several flaps of sauerbraten ($15), a vinegar-marinated pot roast that seemed slightly tough but was smoothed and softened by a broad lake of velvety brown gravy, and beside the roast duck ($15), rich as a winter night. Another small pile of sauerkraut helped balance some of the duck’s fattiness.
After such an avalanche of food (plenty of protein and fat and, thanks to the dumplings, nearly limitless starch), the very thought of dessert might leave you queasy. I can’t say that Café Prague’s version of apple strudel ($5) is a pastry version of Alka-Seltzer, but it is good, with more apples than pastry for a somewhat lower center of gravity. It almost looks like (dare I say?) a slice of deep-dish pizza, except for a chocolate-speckled egg of whipped cream on each side, for a little flourish of bohemian decadence.
Dinner: nightly, 5–10 p.m.
2140 Mission, SF
Beer and wine