In 2009, a new player stepped into the Czech cuisine game – a new player, but with old roots. Since then, Lokal has opened 6 more restaurants in Prague, Pilsen and Brno, and has become a favorite among both locals and foreign visitors. This most traditional member of the Ambiente restaurant group is a must-visit on your trip to Prague – and we sat down with Jana Křívanková and Šárka Hamanová from the Lokal central office to find out how they’ve come this far.
For anyone who doesn’t know, what does Lokal offer to its guests?
Jana: Great beer – and freshly cooked food. It comes out of old Czech traditions, and that purity is in everything we do. It’s in the beer, in the food.
Šárka: Lokal is supposed to evoke the feeling of a pub from the 1970s, but not the communist times when some things were bad, but rather a village pub where they cook everything fresh, like it’s from a home kitchen, without substitutions, without anything bad, just like they cook at home.
So nostalgia plays a role in Lokal’s popularity?
Šárka: Of course.
Why do you think Lokal is so popular among both foreigners and Czechs?
Jana: Well, Lokal was really founded for the locals – when we opened we didn’t even have an English menu. It was a real challenge for our servers that first 6 months, because when tourists came, the servers had to translate everything and be able to explain everything. All of the Lokals are meant for the local guests – tourists are of course warmly welcome, but the concept was originally intended for local guests.
Šárka: It’s really all about the neighborhood the pub is in. We want the Lokals to fit in with their neighborhoods. Even though it’s a connected network of restaurants, each one has its own local touches. So, for example, at the one in Brno, we have menu items listed as they would call them in Brno, with local food, and in Pilsen they have potato pancakes or Pilsen goulash.
So you didn’t expect that you’d be so popular among foreigners?
Jana: When you open a restaurant, you don’t think about how popular it will be, you just try to do the best that you possibly can. We don’t want to come across as a touristy restaurant. People might rate us highly as a tourist restaurant, but we are really here for the Czechs.
Šárka: For example, each Lokal has the Štamgast table, for the most loyal guest. He’s a man who keeps coming back, so he always has a reserved table, and no one else can sit in his table.
Is this a Czech tradition?
Jana: Yes, definitely, in the village pubs – for the men who come there every day to play cards.
Šárka: It’s a relationship between the guest and the bartender. The bartender decides who can sit there and who can’t. There are some people who come and go who the bartender doesn’t know, but then there’s the Štamgast who comes there every day, and the bartender knows him.
Jana: Even if it’s a full restaurant and there are people who want to sit at that table, the bartender will turn them away, because he has to guard it for the people who come there regularly.
It’s really impressive that Lokal manages to be so local while at the same time being part of such a sizable chain.
Jana: It’s been tough work, keeping that local flavor.
Can you say something about the whole Ambiente group as well?
Šárka: The most important man is Tomás Karpíšek, the chef who had the idea, gathered all the money he had, opened up his first restaurant in 1995, got great people to work with him, and then started opening up more and more restaurants. Tomás is the visionary, he has the ideas, and then other people put them into practice. And at every restaurant that Ambiente opens, the people who work there have gone through the group, so they have the experience, values, and standards, and that’s what it’s built on.
That’s really clear, because all the Ambiente restaurants seem to have a similar level of quality.
Jana: Well that’s the main pillar, isn’t it? The restaurants are all different, they have different menus, different price categories, but they have to have the same basis and the same quality. It comes from love, it’s fresh, it’s the best, and in that they’re all the same.
We run a food tour, so Czech cuisine is really important to us – what do you think about Czech cuisine in general, or Czech cuisine in Prague? Why should people try it when they come to Prague? Why is this an important part of the trip?
Jana: I think that Czech cuisine is complicated to prepare, but it’s fantastic, it’s a little like French cuisine. There are a lot of sauces, we have specific side dishes, and people should try things like knedlíky [a type of dumplings] because they may not find them anywhere else in the world. They’re something typically Czech, something different, and Lokal makes them with love, from quality ingredients.
Šárka: I’d say that thanks to communism, Czech cuisine was kind of isolated from the world trends, and it didn’t change. So the food is somehow conserved – Lokal holds onto that Czech tradition, like people cook at home. It’s not modern Czech food – it’s how your mom and your grandmother would cook.
Jana: And it’s like how people used to cook in the past.
And do you like working here?
Jana: Yes, a lot. What I like about it is that I always wanted to do something that would produce a result that would make people happy, and here I really have the feeling that I’m fulfilling that wish. I really enjoy it because I can go to work in the morning with a smile on my face.