Rediscovering gem of a Czech city
FOR people who haven't travelled to Prague recently, the capital of the Czech Republic might seem like a known quantity: a city with a thousand years of architecture, cheap beer and often boring restaurants where the most unusual ingredients are the doughy dumplings.
But Prague is developing so quickly that many locals still haven't heard of all the next big things: flashy new art galleries, dynamically developing old neighbourhoods, great bars - beyond and including beer - and new restaurants with flavourful offerings from classic steaks and chops to Asian spice.
Buildings - and residents - in Old Town have cleaned up nicely of late. In the once-decrepit Palac Dlouha, an Art Deco landmark, the new ground-floor shopping arcade includes Sisters, an airy bistro with gourmet open-faced sandwiches (25 to 49 koruna, or S$1.60 to S$3) that make perfect late-afternoon snacks.
A block away, two-year-old Eterno Moderno offers vintage and new fashions, mostly for women, some made out of recycled fabric; across the street, Kuraz stocks clothing and accessories from a variety of young Czech designers, like knee-high stockings printed with insects, revolvers and other unusual patterns.
Like many European cities, Prague has gone crazy for fancy hamburgers, and there's nothing quite like the "oligarch burger" at the eight-month-old George Prime Steak: a juicy patty of imported aged American wagyu with foie gras, black truffle aioli, Brillat-Savarin cheese and ribbons of 24-carat gold, creating a juicy, smoky explosion of savoury flavours that is safely served only in the bar (990 koruna).
A few of the movers and (literal) shakers in London's cocktail scene are Czech bar owners and bartenders, several of whom have recently returned to mix up concoctions in Prague.
The best newcomer is Bonvivant's, a small speakeasy in Old Town that opened this past winter, serving drinks prepared with their own house-made flavourings, including rose-hip-and-hibiscus bitters (cocktails, around 150 koruna).
After a highball, wander the cobblestone streets until you stumble across the two-year-old Anonymous Bar, which takes its design inspiration from the movie V For Vendetta and offers similarly theatrical drinks, like the St Marry's Virus cocktail (175 koruna), served from a giant syringe.
PAIR THEE WELL
Yes, Prague is a beer town, but quality wine is more and more common, especially at meals.
The vanguard of the city's wine culture is Vinograf, a year-old wine bar and restaurant at Senovazne Namesti, which serves well-selected Czech wines, mostly from the sunny regions of South Moravia, alongside imports from Austria, France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere.
The grungy Zizkov district has developed its colourful cultural life even more in recent years, with a handful of new art galleries north of Skroupovo Namesti.
Fashion in Zizkov and Vinohrady usually means street wear and retro style. During the week, you can sift through Bohemian Retro's impressive collection of men's and women's vintage clothing, mostly from the former Czechoslovakia; the shop is generally closed on weekends, so call to check.
A decent alternative on a Saturday afternoon: Prague Thrift Store, a less-curated collection of leather trench coats, blazers and even second-hand books.
For ladies' street wear from Czech designers, try Pour Pour, which stocks decorated acrylic bracelets (390 koruna) and leather backpacks (2,500 koruna), as well as tutu-inspired skirts and dresses.
Many interesting new developments in the city's northern districts of Holesovice and Bubenec fly under the radar. Start out at the excellent two-year-old Kavarna Liberal, an old-school coffee house with high ceilings, refreshing spirits and free Wi-Fi, where you can ask the friendly locals for tips.
Down the street, check out the four-month-old Galerie Zari, an unusual exhibition space; the neighbouring Galerie Petr Novotny should be open on Saturdays later this spring.
Even the formerly rundown 28 Rijna Street has blossomed, welcoming several new shops, including a branch of Harmont & Blaine, an Italian producer of upscale casual wear.
The stunner, however, is a new outpost of Julius Meinl, the delicatessen in Vienna that opened its three-storey food emporium and restaurant here last winter. Even if you don't feel like buying a whole Mediterranean octopus or one of the 450 kinds of cheese, the renovated Secessionist building is a must-see.
Afterwards, recover two doors down with a bowl of contemporary comfort food: hearty tonkotsu ramen (240 koruna), filled with pork, seaweed and soft-boiled eggs, at the two-month-old Kitchen Ramen Bar. You can have dumplings some other time.