Monday, April 23, 2007

Letenský zámeček

"Summertime and the livin' is easy."
- George Gershwin (1935)

It was only early spring, but it sure felt like summertime in Prague last weekend. And the return of warm weather means the long-awaited return of dining alfresco.

One of the most popular spots in the city for eating and drinking outdoors is Letenský zámeček (Letna’s manor house or mansion). You’ll find me, my friends, and hundreds of others there on a regular basis during the season.

It is the kind of place that offers something for almost everyone. There’s the fancy and expensive Restaurant Belcredi in the zámeček. There are often wedding and corporate parties there. I've never tried it myself.

Just a few meters away, there’s a window where people line up to get half liters of Gambrinus beer for 25 CZK in a plastic cup.Hundreds of people go for this economical option. There is plenty of grass to lie out on nearby during the day.

And day or night, mostly young people fill free tables and benches under the trees. You may smell grass of a different sort in this area. And it is the cheap seats that have one of the best views of the city of Prague, lying below the Letna Plain. And that is also free.

On the ground level of the zámeček, there is Restaurant Ullmann. It also has a few tables outside in front. It has a reasonably wide menu with main courses like chicken with tomatoes mozzarella, and pesto for 200 CZK, turkey breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, veal steak with Marsala for 345 CZK, or deer steak with wine sauce for 370 CZK.

Right next to the outdoor tables of Restaurant Ullmann is the option my friends and I prefer. According the website, this is called the Garden Restaurant.

I call it my summer home.

It is for people who want to sit outside, drink, eat simple food like pizza and grilled meat, and don’t want to spend a relative fortune. You’ll see a cool, young crowd here, a lot of upwardly mobile Czechs, and you’ll also hear plenty of English coming from the teak tables.

This area is almost always full in good weather, but we’ve rarely had to wait more than a few minutes for a table to open up.

I counted up the chairs on my last visit. It came to at least 200, so there’s usually a table opening up if you look around.

V and I took a blanket to park (Letenské sady) and lay around for a while reading and drinking those beers from the plastic cups.

The beer line can be long, but it moves pretty quickly, and we usually got to the window in between five and 10 minutes. In summer, they often serve beer from another tap set up on the opposite side of the zámeček.

Around dinnertime, we wandered over to the garden restaurant and found a table. Usually, when I’m with my friends, I almost always order the quattro stagioni pizza with mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and ham. This year it costs 145 CZK for a 30 centimeter pie. It goes well with the beer.

The quality varies from year to year. Last year’s pizzas were pretty good, but no one liked them much the year before. It is also worth pointing out that the online menu appears to be from last year. A number of items are out of dates and/or have been changed.

They now offer a new picante pizza with pepperoni and spicy peppers for 130 CZK. Last year, the quattro stagioni pizza was 135 CZK. A lot of the prices are about 10 CZK higher than stated online. Either way, at peak times, you could wait up to an hour for a pizza.

On this first visit of the year, I decided to try one of the new grilled items: beef and pork tenderloin skewer with red onion, green pepper, and spicy red chili.

There were some grilled vegetables on the side. It is one of the most expensive items on the menu at 220 CZK.

I’d have to say it was only OK and not really worth the money. The meat had hardly any grilled flavor and needed salt. I won't get it again.

The beef was on the dry side. The pork was a bit better, but only because it was wrapped in bacon. The grilled vegetables, zucchini, onion, and green pepper were probably the best part.

I also ordered a side of grilled potatoes for 35 CZK. They were on the dry side, but nice and hot. Not bad, and better than last year's potatoes.

Be aware that if you want extra ketchup, they bring it in packets and charge something like 15 CZK each for them.

V got the spicy grilled chicken thighs, which is a better option at 120 CZK. I thought they tasted pretty good, especially compared with what I ordered. Thighs are often better than breasts at retaining flavor and not drying out.

V said it was OK, but she thought the portion was a bit small. She got a full side order of grilled vegetables on the side for 65 CZK. We both like that.

The service was really good on this night. We had a very friendly and efficient waiter. But it is still early in the season. In the past, service has bounced between surly and nonexistant. I have to say, though, that we had a nagging suspicion that we were overcharged. The handwritten bill was illegible. On such a nice evening, we didn't feel like going back through it with the guy so we let it go.

There are a few other things on the menu like salmon with lime for 190 CZK, chicken breast for 130 CZK, chili for 135 CZK, a burrito for 125 CZK (it didn’t look too good last year), and a Balkan cheese salad for 130 CZK.

As for the beer, they charge 26 CZK for a half liter of Gambrinus. If you order the stronger Pilsner Urquell, it comes only in a .4 liter glass and costs 30 CZK. A .2 liter glass of Müller-Thurgau is 56 CZK. A lot of wines they sell are only 210 CZK for full bottles.

There are a few simple desserts like tiramisu or honey cake (medovnik) for 65 CZK. I’m a big medovnik fan. It’s worth a try if you haven’t had it. There is also apple strudel for 55 CZK.

Letna is a huge park, so Letenský zámeček is not exactly the easiest place to find if you don’t know where it is. It is not near any metro station and a 10-minute walk from the nearest tram stop.

Maybe the easiest way to explain it is that is it across the street from the National Technical Museum (Národní technické museum), which is closed for reconstruction. That address is Kostelní 42.

See you there.

Restaurace Letenský zámeček
Letenské sady 341
Prague 7
Tel. (+420) 233 378 200


Anonymous said...

Some pizza intel: Was at the Novy Smichov food court last week and saw a sign that said one of the restaurants had permanently closed and that a "Zbarro" would be opening in its place in May.

Looks like a misspelling of "Sbarro" - and it's already been announced that a Sbarro will be opening in the mall at Flora. So looks like two Sbarros are on the horizon.

Anonymous said...

About Letna .. please don't tell any stag party guys about this place. The thing that is so refreshing about Letna -- or at least has been -- is that there are very few tour buses, almost no large groups of Germans and Italians, and (so far at least) few stags ... it's a respite from all that.

Brewsta said...

I hope that doesn't happen either.

Pivní Filosof said...

Same here. Would hate to see a lovely place like that ruined by the umbrella following groups or by the stag morons. Hopefully, we are safe for the time being, after all, there aren't any gift shops near by where the sheep can be fleeced, and the stag groups are so off their face all the time, that they would get lost trying to find it.
Now about pivni zahrady, although it lacks the spectacular views of Letna, I like the one in Riegrovy Sady better. To me, it's got a nicer atmosphere, they play nice music (Radio 1 or Radio Beat), there are concerts, and it's the best place to go see sports events. The tables and seats are also better kept and, though both have Gambrinus (not by any means the best beer in the country), I think it is better in RS. The reason is, i believe, that in RS the kegs are stored better than in Letna, away from the heat of summer. Ah! And in RS there is also a restaurant, not so nice looking as in Letna, but, at least in the one time I was there, the food was quite ok and reasonably priced too.
What about other beer gardens? I know there is one somewhere in Zizkov, on Vitkov Hill maybe, but I have never been there.

Anonymous said...

I hope you wouldnt mind Irish Gurls, with their beau goin there that view in the photos is magnificent

Anonymous said...

I was up at Letenský zámeček on Friday night. I won't get into what we had to eat. The food was OK. The atmosphere perfect. The service, however, as you point out, can be glacially slow. It took forever to get a bottle of wine. And once that was delivered, it took another forever to get our waiter to take our order. I finally grabbed a menu and tracked him down at the waiter's station and dictated my order to him.

And, in the end, I, too, had a sneaking suspicion I had been overcharged. I was given a printed bill, but nothing was itemized. It only contained the final charge. I asked the waiter to tally it up for me, and found out that he had added a 100 kc service charge to the total. OK, fine. I paid him exactly what the bill said.

Then I thought about it some more, grabbed a menu, and looked at what we had ordered, what he had charged us, and what the menu said. He had cleverly added 20 kc to one dish, 30 kc to another dish. I called him over and read him his bill and compared it to what the menu said. He mumbled something about being sorry and gave me my 50 kc back.

It's a delightful spot, but beware of being ripped off. And don't go if you're really hungry or in a hurry.

Brewsta said...

Aha! I knew something fishy was going on.

Too bad -- overcharging there wasn't a problem in recent years.

And this service charge is something new, too. Of course, it can be removed from the bill, too, but they count on the fact that people don't want to make a scene over it.