Thursday, May 31, 2007

Crocodille Turkey Club Sandwich

"The secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake... but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one's own rules."

- Joan Didion, "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" (1968)

Who knew the midnight hunger for a sandwich could mean so much? After I read this, the world finally made sense.

Turkey clubs conquer continents. Munchies meet Manifest Destiny.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of sandwiches in Prague I'd cross the street for, much less a continent.

There is one company that makes sandwiches that are available on almost every corner, in almost every supermarket, and in almost every gas station. I've even seen them sold in bars.

We don't love them. We just can't get away from them. Yes, I'm talking about Crocodille sandwiches.

It has been well over a year since I'd had my last Crocodille. Then, hunger struck. Options were few. Time was short. I decided to bite the bullet and buy the sandwich.

I've tried a number of varieties, but the only one that has the slightest appeal is, of course, the Turkey Club. I picked one up for 38.50 CZK.

It wasn't all bad. There were some nice touches. They used cherry tomatoes that actually did have some flavor, instead of big, watery unripe slices. Also, there was whole grain mustard in there.

The inner workings, shown in the interests of food science

But there are lots of problems. It comes on a very dense nut and poppy seed bread that is quite hard when cold. The turkey is flavorless. There are a few wilted leaves of lettuce. The bacon is often difficult to chew.

Above all, the Turkey Club, like so many Crocodille sandwiches, is a mayonnaise bomb. They call it a "mustard dressing," but it really is mustard mixed with mayo. I love mayo, but it is too much for me.

All that mayo also leads me to look very carefully at the package whenever I buy one. At the bottom of the label, there is an expiration date. I will never buy one unless the expiration is at least two days away. There's nothing scientific about this, but let's just say I've felt unwell on several occasions after eating Crocodille sandwiches.

The company lists a number of their sandwiches on their website.

Crocodille also makes a Mexican chicken sandwich. I haven't had one in years, mainly because it has a large amount of a butter-like substance on it. They call it a "light cream" spread.

The tuna and egg sandwich does not appeal to me at all. I'm not a big tuna guy. They used to make a bacon and sliced egg sandwich that I liked, but it was discontinued for some reason.

There is also a baked tomato, cheese and cranberry sauce sandwich that I have not tried. The combination doesn't grab me.

They also make a number of baguette sandwiches, which I've never tried, so I won't go into.

Most of these sandwiches come from what the company calls a "state-of-the-art" food-processing plant in Žiželice nad Cidlinou. They say they are distributed to more than 2500 customers daily, and the EU certifies them for export.

Having just recently sampled gas station sandwiches across Europe, I'd say the Crocodille people still have some improvements to make before they can seriously think about conquering the continent.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Park Restaurant & Cafe

**UPDATE: The menu for this restaurant has changed significantly. There are fewer seafood options and it appears less international and more Czech oriented. The Internet version of the menu had not been updated to reflect his, last time I checked.

Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less, love more; and all good things are yours.

-Swedish proverb

A number of people say they won't tell me their favorite restaurant, fearing that they will be overwhelmed by the crowds who read this.

I usually think they need to relax.

However, I recently found a restaurant with a nice garden and some great food. Getting a table outside on a nice weekend day never seems to be a problem.

And, I have to admit, I asked myself: Do I tell everyone?

Well, yeah.

I first stumbled upon the Park Restaurant & Cafe one day on the Internet. The menu looked interesting, with steaks, seafood, and pasta.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is owned by the company that runs La Bodeguita Del Medio and La Casa Argentina, which have some great food.

I was happy to see it was actually not far from my neighborhood. Walking distance.

I was taken aback by the location. It's an unusual choice, given the style of the place and the obviously large investment that went into it.

The restaurant is in Vršovice, near the border with Nusle. It is very close to an Esso station and a Czech Railway overpass. I believe the 6, 7, and 24 trams stop nearby. It is on Vršovická, a major thoroughfare and sits at the back of a new housing complex that also hosts a Lidl economy supermarket.

Not so good.

But when you walk around to the back corner of the housing complex, things get a whole lot better. The trick to having a good first impression is to come in the back way, through Havlíčkovy Sady (Havlíček's Park). The opposite side of the park has an entrance in a leafy and wealthy section of Vinohrady.

As you walk in the park from that side you'll pass the Neo-Renaissance Villa Grébovka built in the late 19th century for industrialist Moritz Gröbe. There is a steep hill behind the villa that is part of a working vineyard.

There is also a beautiful wood gazebo that is now a wine bar and cafe. Then, at the bottom of the hill, there is an exit on the right side of the park that leads to a bridge to the Park Cafe and Restaurant.

V started out with the bruschetta with salmon tartar and mustard vinaigrette for 125 CZK.

The chopped, marinated salmon was fresh and tasted very nice. One can eat the salmon by itself or load it onto the slices of toasted baguette. They were slightly sweet and seemed to have soaked up some of the mustard vinaigrette.

There is ruccola on the side, along with half a lemon, and diced tomatoes dressed with basil and olive oil. We both liked this -- it will be a regular order.

I had marinated peppers with goat cheese with marinated peppers for 95 CZK. We are big goat cheese fans. It was very creamy and had small bits of red pepper mixed in. I'd spread it on some bread and then lay some of the sweet red and yellow peppers across the top. Nothing too exotic, but good enough to order again.

On another visit, I had the Caesar salad with marinated chicken for 132 CZK.

It has what is billed as an "anchovy dressing." It was pretty close to a classic Caesar dressing, but there was definitely an extra-strong anchovy kick there. The salad is punctuated with a few of the little swimmers on top. There is also a generous amount of shaved Parmesan cheese. I'm a big Parmesan fan.

The marinated chicken is something of weak point. It was tough to cut and dry and didn't really have a lot of flavor, given the promise of marination.

For a main course, V got the calamari with tomato sauce for 235 CZK. This was just excellent, perhaps the best squid we've had in Prague. It was lightly cooked and all the rings were extremely tender. It was grilled and had a strong smoky flavor.

The menu said it comes with baguettes and salad. She got the two, rather ordinary mini-baguettes. But no salad. We neglected to ask why. She had this dish the both times we went.

I had spaghetti with mozzarella, zucchini, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and ruccola pesto. Simple and delicious.

I only had to chop up the big pieces of dried tomato so they'd be more evenly distributed. The little melted pieces of mozzarella were a nice touch. I didn't see much in the way of zucchini, but didn't mind so much. A lot of different flavors in there, but all pretty subtle.

During a different visit, I went for the Uruguayan rib eye steak for 370 CZK. This was a fine piece of meat. I assume they must have some good South American beef connection via La Casa Argentina (apparently not - see comments).

It was very tender. I asked for it cooked to medium. Half of the steak was medium and half was rare.

It was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, but I felt it needed a lot more salt. It was a bit on the bland side. Surprisingly, it lacked much flavor from the grill. The calamari actually had a smokier flavor than the steak.

On the side, I ordered the port wine sauce for 25 CZK. This had great flavor and I really would have liked it, except that after the great flavor came something of a bitter aftertaste. I liked it enough that I'd try it again to see if the aftertaste was a one-time issue.

The steak doesn't come with any sides, so I ordered the French fries for 30 CZK. They are big, hot, and crispy. Very good. Only one minor issue -- they were over-salted.

I haven't tried it, but Park Restaurant & Cafe also serves breakfast until 11:00 am. The offerings are fairly basic: Ham and eggs (hemenex), croissants, cheese, and such.

There most involved effort is the English Breakfast: Ham and eggs, sausage with mustard, roasted mushrooms with tomatoes, bacon, fruit salad, toast, juice, and coffee for 280 CZK. The menu also says that the kitchen is "willing and able to make your breakfast any way you want."

The restaurant has a stylish and modern interior design. Their website says the dining room's furniture is by the design firm, de.fakto. It also says they have free Wi-Fi. There are a couple of flat-screen TVs on the walls, and during one visit, they were showing a football game. There's a full bar and they can produce all your favorite cocktails. There is also a gelato case. I didn't get to sample any, but they do look pretty good.

Park Restaurant & Cafe does not always achieve greatness, but I think it is the best place in the area. Of course, impressions are often formed by expectations.

Who'd expect to find such a restaurant in such an out-of-the-way spot, where both your stomach and your car's fuel tank can be filled in such close proximity?

Some of the Nusle crowd might find their way to Park Restaurant & Cafe. And perhaps some of the Vinohrady/Vršovice noveau riche. And maybe some intrepid, free-range expats. But I really do have to wonder whether ravenous hordes are going to descend on this rather desolate part of the city.

Now, if you are already a regular at Park Restaurant & Cafe and, after you read this, you can't get a seat any more, you might want to inflict grievous bodily harm upon my person.

All I can say is, relax. V will beat you to it.

Park Restaurant & Cafe
Vršovická 1525/1a
Prague 10

Tel. (+420) 267 310 999

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wenceslas Square Sausage Stands

It's rarely mentioned in any books, but St. Wenceslas is also known as the Sausage King. He is the patron saint of the klobása.

In his honor, every day and night, there is a sausage fest on Wenceslas Square. Top to bottom, on every corner, you will find crowds of people gathering around sausage stands and paying homage at these altars of indigestion.

I, myself, have made the pilgrimage many times. And I'd say some of the sausages are pretty good. That's not to say they are good for you. But, given the right circumstances, the right amount of hunger, and perhaps a little impaired judgment, they are a great, quick bite.

I much prefer the two stands at the very bottom of the square, the one on the corner Vodičkova or the one on the corner of Štěpánská. This is mainly because they are a relatively new design, with stainless steel exteriors, the larges variety of sausages, and easily viewable work and grilling areas.

One stand has a sign on it that says "Euro Food," but other than that, they don't really have names or identifying signs. They are apparently all run by a company called DMJ. It has a small website with a limited look at the menus and some pictures of the stands.

There's just one small table nearby, where you can stand while you eat, if you don't want to take it on the run. You'll probably have to share it with a hoard of hungry tourists during the day.

For a long time, I favored the German sausages in a bun (Německé klobásky v housce) for 40 CZK. They put five of these little links in the bread. I get it with mustard (hořčice) and fried onion (cibule).

Not long ago, this item cost 30 CZK. Talk about inflation.

I was pretty disappointed with these sausages after a recent visit. They had been sitting on the grill for far too long, and a lot of the fat in them had been cooked off. They were dried out and almost hard.

This is the one of the problems with these places. They don't pay much attention to the cooking. The sausages might be overcooked. Or they might be undercooked. It partly depends on the ebb and flow of customers. The people who cook and serve the stuff don't seem to watch the grill too carefully.So, on another visit, I decided to be different and get the Prague sausage (Pražská klobása). This special one is a little pricer than the rest and goes for 50 CZK.

It is redder in color than any of the others and has a bit of a spicy kick.

It has a thick casing and a nice snap when you bite it.

After I took my first bite, I thought I saw big chunks of fat. But when I looked more carefully, I saw what appeared to be pieces of garlic in it. I didn't really get much garlic flavor from them, but I was happy it wasn't fat.

I'd say this was my favorite sausage of all, and I'll probably get it again.

I also liked the Bavarian sausage on a roll (Bavorská klobása v rohlíku) for 40 CZK. I got it with mustard and asked for sauerkraut. There is a jar of cold kraut next to where you order. The first time I asked for it, the lady put it on for me. The second time, a different lady just handed me some tongs.

It was well cooked, not too fatty, and had a nice pork flavor.

One problem with all these sausages is the bread. First of all, they are not of great quality to begin with. But the main problem is that the keep them all in a warming tray, I suppose, to keep them from going stale. However, they end up turning into rubbery, chewy things instead.

For the final experiment upon my stomach, I tried Wenceslas's sausage on a roll (Václavská klobása v rohlíku) for 40 CZK. This was my least favorite, mainly because it was the most greasy and fatty. It was big, but tasted more like a hot dog than a sausage.

I did not get a chance to eat the Moravian sausage. And I must confess I have not tried any of their other offerings, such as the fried chicken cutlet (smažený kuřecí řízek) or the fried cheese (smažený sýr).

I know people who swear by the fried cheese as the perfect stomach-lining snack when you are on a bender. That may be. It's just not my thing.

One more thing -- a couple of people on Prague discussion boards complained about being short-changed. It's never happened to me at one of these places, but it does seem there has been something of a short-change epidemic in the country. It's happened to me three times this year at places like gas stations and Christmas markets. Always count your change.

I leave you with the words of Good King Wenceslas -- who, unlike me, really loved all sausages equally and enjoyed nothing more than sharing a big spicy one with his queen:

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither

The Sausage Queen

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Slavonice, Southern Bohemia

I've lived in Prague for years, and I still love it for many reasons. But sometimes, you just need to get out of town. Change the scenery. Leave it all behind.

But where?

Round up the usual suspects: Český Krumlov, Telč, Mikulov, Lednice-Valtice, Rožmberk nad Vltavou, Český ráj, Šumava.

All these destinations have their charms. But, at this point, they all have multiple entries on the been-there-done-that list.

We were looking for something new and different. Some friends came up with a name I hadn't heard before:

Slavonice -- a small, renaissance town just one kilometer from the Austrian border. It is about 200 kilometers from Prague, and took us about two-and-half hours in the car.

Our friends wanted to check out the town and, especially, stay at Hotel Besídka. The hotel still has its historic facade. But its interior was completely redone.

Its award-winning, modern art makeover was designed by architect Roman Koucký. My friends had booked it weeks earlier.

There are just a few rooms in the hotel. Until June 1st, a double costs 1290 CZK -- a good, hot breakfast included. After that, the rooms are 1490 CZK. Dogs are allowed for an extra 200 CZK, which was good news for L and Big M.

I only saw one room -- where Big D and H stayed. It is quite different than most hotels and fairly spartan.

The spiral staircase that leads to all the rooms is wild. It is not for the faint of heart. And dogs don't seem to love it so much.

There are plenty of other pictures of different rooms on the hotel's website.

V and I tried to book the Besídka at the last minute, but they were full, so we ended up at Apartmány pod věží (Apartments Under the Tower), just across the street.

This place was reconstructed only four years ago, but the building is about 500 years old.

There is antique furniture, a great, old stone staircase, along with a modern, but small bathroom.

We loved it.

It also had a bargain of a mini bar -- a half-liter bottle of Pilsner Urquell for 30 CZK. Who needs TV?

Anyway, let's talk about food.

As we drove through the darkness of southern Bohemia at 10:30 pm on Friday night, avoiding small deer and large hare, a call came through with some good news.

H and Big D had landed in Slavonice ahead of us. The Besídka Restaurant's kitchen was open until midnight. We were only 30 minutes away, and I was hungry.

I was also very pleasantly surprised when I saw the menu. This would not be a weekend of only schnitzels, potato pancakes, sausage, and cabbage (although there was some of that). There was a nice list of pizzas, pastas, steaks, fish, and salad.

And there was another happy surprise -- low, low prices.

I could not resist going for my usual -- steak tartare with fried bread (topinky). It was one of the more expensive items on the menu at 210 CZK. But it was a serious amount of meat, maybe even too much.

The minced beef is topped with an egg yolk and surrounded by the following items: chopped onions, salt, black pepper, sweet paprika, mustard, ketchup, and cloves of garlic to rub on the bread.

The meat was fresh, but it had been ground so finely that it had a very creamy, almost non-meat-like texture. I didn't really like this, but V said this was how she was used to having it many years ago and did like it.

It came with a large amount of fried bread. V didn't like it so much. She said it tasted like French fries -- she thought they might have tossed it in the fryer instead of cooked in fresh oil in a pan. I liked it.

It just goes to show how widely opinions can vary on the same dish. Or that we disagree a lot.

Big D got the spaghetti with pesto and pine nuts for 80 CZK. It looked really good, but I didn't get a picture of it. Most of the pastas are less than 100 CZK and they offer a wide variety of sauces and other items to go with them.

A few in the group chose the pizzas, with also have a fair number of toppings to choose from.

You can get a pizza with prosciutto, salami, fresh tomatoes, artichokes, peppers, and more. The crusts are very thin and slightly charred, which I like.

No ketchup pizzas here.

V has a trout for 110 CZK, which she said was not the freshest and was heavily fried.

On another night, I tried the beef carpaccio (120 CZK). I've been eating a lot of raw meat lately.

It comes with lots of lemon slices, lots of sharp, shaved Parmesan cheese, and lots of black olives. The meat itself is sliced fairly thick, almost roast beef style, and had streaks of fat through it. Not bad, but nothing too special.

The first night, a small musical group played in the non-smoking room. They sang everything from traditional Czech folk tunes to "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

A friend who didn't make the trip with us said that Slavonice is known as something of an outpost for the Prague artistic community. A guy in a car with Prague plates did stop us in the street and asked us for directions.

If you want to make your own art, Besídka also has a store where you can paint, glaze, and fire your own ceramics like coffee mugs and plates. The website shows kids having fun with it.

But Besídka is not just for kids and artists. A newsreader from Czech television sat across from us. The town attracts its fair share of bicycle and motorcycle riders passing through. There was also a small group of American tourists. We drove around a little on the Austrian side of the border, but there was not much to see there.

The Besídka restaurant is not big or too fancy, but it is probably one of the more stylish places you'll find in the whole region.

Yes, that's Jan Amos Komenský's bust next to the subwoofer. On the lower shelves of the bar, they had busts that looked like Charles de Gaulle and Adolphe Menjou.

To me, at least.

And don't let this picture of the restaurant's tables, taken in the morning, fool you. The restaurant gets very full at night. Every table was taken, and we were lucky that one opened up for us at 9 pm on Saturday night.

We felt sorry for the two waitresses there, who worked every meal -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- all weekend.

For breakfast on Saturday, I had smaženka, which is basically bread soaked in egg, fried like an omelet, and then covered with mustard and onions.

I'd say it was a bit too heavy after a night of drinking. It goes for 55 CZK.

A number of people opted for the "hemenex" for 38 CZK. You'll see this word on many Czech breakfast menus.

If you are not from around here and don't know what this word means, try saying it very slowly and looking at the picture on the left.

On the menu, this is also called the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's Last Breakfast."

The menu has a number of creative names for their offerings. There is also a breakfast called "Komandante is dead." For 149 CZK, you get a shot of Baccardi rum, a cigar, and temporary possession of a photo of Fidel Castro.

V is not a big breakfast person. But when she does show up, she can be pretty creative, herself. She had a latte and a glass of sekt with a strawberry. C'est tout.

Restaurant guests get their own special breakfast menu. Non-guests are welcome for breakfast and can pay for the guest menu or order à la carte.

The weather when we were in Slavonice was terrific. After breakfast, we all went for a long walk through the bright yellow canola fields outside of town. We passed an old church, inspected some sadly unused concrete defense bunkers from 1937, and followed some logging trails.

Aside from a few stinging nettles, the whole weekend was a pure pleasure. The weather certainly helped.

If you are looking for something a little different, Slavonice is a great idea.

Besídka Hotel and Restaurant
Horní náměstí 522
378 81 Slavonice, Czech Republic
Tel: (+420) 384 493 293

Slavonice in the distance

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Waikiki Restaurant & Music Bar

"Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States that is an island that is right here."

-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle speaking in Hawaii, 1989

To put it kindly, Prague restaurants can have their own special kind of quirky eccentricity. Sort of like Dan Quayle.

Restaurant owners here can and still do follow their hearts over their heads. The results usually fall somewhere between strange, intriguing, and amusing.

A case in point is a restaurant in the Vršovice neighborhood of Prague. This place specializes in two distinctly different cuisines: Mexican and Italian. It's not a fusion, mind you. They are separate offerings with separate menus.

Given the eclecticism already on display here, the name for this establishment makes just that much more sense:

Waikiki Restaurant & Music Bar

There is no Hawaiian cuisine. No loco moco, no mahi-mahi, and certainly no poi. Not even a Hawaiian pizza. Curiosity got the better of me, and I actually found out why this is so. I'll come back to that story later.

The restaurant itself is in an odd location, underneath an ugly old building on a side street at the edge of Vršovické náměstí. It's just up the road from the Bohemians football stadium. A stop for the 4, 22, and 23 trams is not far away.

Despite the somewhat dreary surroundings, when you walk down he steps, there is a nice, covered outside dining area. The roof does not retract, so it is not a place where you can get too much sun.

Inside, there is very modern looking interior that was built a few years back. There are lights hanging from the ceiling and a DJ booth.
But we were there for the food. And meals here start off with a small, complimentary basket of chips and salsa. They are basic chips from the store and a simple salsa, not too spicy.

I start with one of my regular favorites, the beef carpaccio for 135 CZK. The beef is good quality, topped with a few capers. I'd much prefer freshly shaved Parmesan cheese instead of the finely grated variety. But still, I liked it.

V got the chili relleno -- a deep-fried, whole, pickled jalapeno peppers filled with cheese for 85 CZK. The peppers were pretty hot and sour. The melting cheese had a smoky flavor that I appreciated. V couldn't eat them all, so I was happy to help.

For a main course on one visit, I got the beef chimichanga for 149 CZK. Or at least I think I did. That's what I ordered. On the receipt, it is listed as a burrito. It may have been a burrito because I didn't detect much in the way of deep-frying. It was hard to tell because the whole thing is covered with melted cheese and sour cream.

If you like refried beans, this is the way to go. I'd guess that this tortilla is filled with at least an entire can of the stuff. I like refried beans a lot, and it was even too much for me. Mixed in with the refritos are chunks of some decent beef. I didn't taste or see anything else in there.

Watch out if it should fall off the table. The thing is a brick. It will break your foot.

For a main course on one visit, I ordered the nachos topped with sliced steak for 209 CZK. Not good.

The biggest problem: The strips of beef were so dried out, it was close to beef jerky. They weren't even very warm. There was decent guacamole and average salsa on the side, along with sour cream. Underneath, there was a little melted cheese. The thick corn chips underneath were cold. They stayed hard and crunchy and did not absorb any of the toppings.

It just didn't work. Especially for the price. I was hoping for something more along the lines of one of my favorite snacks -- the chili con carne nachos at La Casa Blů. Those are killer. And much cheaper.

V got the Biftec Naranja (orange beef) for 219 CZK. This wasn't so good either. It came out on an iron skillet. The cut appeared to be a fillet, but the toughness and taste was more like a roštěná -- not a high-quality cut. There was some unremarkable orange sauce in the pan along with a slice of orange. Wouldn't get that again.

On the drinks side, a half-liter of Pilsner Urquell is 35 CZK. A .25 liter glass of Müller-Thurgau is 40 CZK. There is also an extensive drinks menu, with reasonably priced cocktails. At least compared with the cocktail prices in the center.

In spite of a number of disappointments, I'll probably go back again. There are a few other dishes I'd like to try. And there were a few things I liked -- the carpaccio and the jalapenos. The fact that it is walking distance from my home makes it a little harder to write off.

It was pretty busy the night we went. The bartenders were getting a workout behind the bar. The outside tables fill up fast in warm weather. The restaurant inside is split into two levels. There was a big birthday party there.

There was also a special promotion for Jägermeister while we were there. There were a bunch of orange and black decorations and flashing lights. And there was even a special appearance by the Jägerettes -- a collection of orange-haired temptresses.

Not tonight.

At a certain point during tour dinner, curiosity got the better of me. I asked our waiter why the restaurant is called Waikiki.

"I don't know," he said. He looked a little embarrassed. "I'll go find out."

A short time later, he returned with the answer. The waiter pointed out a young-looking man behind the bar as the owner. He said "Waikiki" is the owner's nickname. He got it because he used to spend a lot of time on the beach. The man liked the name so much, he bestowed it upon his Italian-Mexican restaurant.

So, now you know.

The whole concept for Waikiki is certainly odd, yet strangely amusing to me. I don't know the owner -- I never worked with him, and we're not friends, but I will say this:

He's no Dan Quayle.

Waikiki Restaurant & Music Bar
Vršovické náměstí 2
Prague 10

Tel. (+420) 271 741 082
Open every day, 'til 2 am on weekends

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