The Ambiente Empire

Tomáš Karpíšek waves his magic noodle.

The opening of Ambiente on Mánesova in 1995 was a revelation. Begun with a single dining room seating 40 and a couple of billiard tables in back, this Vinohrady cellar was the first wholly Czech-owned post-revolution restaurant to consciously try to do something unique. Until then, all too many Czech ventures were exercises in mediocrity, opened by wannabe entrepreneurs who toed the commie hotel-school line: non-décor, indifferent service, pork-and-knedliky menus so similar you’d swear they all came from a single communal kitchen. Not that Ambiente’s kitchen was, or is, particularly ambitious; to this day the menu has not veered far from standard American favorites like ribs, wings, steaks and pasta. But the quality of the food is higher than a kid on acid, and service is positively smiley-faced.

Ambiente was begun by Tomáš Karpíšek, a Liberec native who trained as a chef in Austria before opening the place with his then-girlfriend, Katerina Veselá, and her brother Petr. The secret of their success has been a perfect price-quality ratio and an inclusive philosophy that welcomes all budgets. Now encompassing seven restaurants, Ambiente is expanding its brands by way of franchising, all the while keeping management tight-knit and in the fold.

Interestingly, the only other restaurant chain in Prague with a similar philosophy (and growth curve) is Potrefena Husa, the spic-and-span set of pubs owned by Staropramen. What most people don’t know is that when the brewery decided to open its string of showplaces, it hired Karpíšek to set the restaurants up and sell them his know-how.

Not that everything he has touched has turned golden. His second venture, on Americká, is now defunct, and another, in Ústí nad Labem, has also been relegated to the dustbin of history. But triumphs have far outweighed failures. Ambiente Pasta Fresca, which opened in late 1997, remains one of Old Town’s toughest lunch reservations. True to its name, homemade pasta is the meal of choice here, paired with well-priced Italian wines. Back in Vinohrady, Rudý Baron is the group’s first foray into Continental cooking, featuring meals like duck breast and foie gras, paired with a pan-European wine list—all at prices non-aristocrats can comfortably afford. And on a recent trip to Brazil, Karpíšek got the idea for an authentic churrasco place, which opened to raves just months ago, complete with an imported oven and wait staff.

The newest chapter in the Ambiente story is being written this week with the opening of its latest venture, Prague’s second Lamborghini Pastacaffé, situated beside the Spanish Synagogue in Old Town. Although it’s most famous for fast cars, Lamborghini has had its hands in everything from golf bags to coffee, and when it wanted to open a Prague showplace, the Italian company turned to Karpíšek. Open daily at 8 am for eggs, croissants and a variety of panini, this restaurant is destined to do for breakfast what others in the Ambiente portfolio have been doing for the rest of the day’s meals.

Ambiente
Mánesova 59, P2
Tel. 222 727 851

Rudý Baron
Korunní 23, P2
Tel. 222 511 348

Tonino Lamborghini Pastacaffé
Vodickova 8, P1
Tel. 222 231 869
Vezenská 1, P1
Tel. 224 813 257

Ambiente Pasta Fresca
Celetná 11, P1
Tel. 224 230 244

Ambiente Restaurante Brasilerio
U Radnice 8, P1
Tel. 224 234 474

Dan Levine is the editor-in-chief of Avant-Guide travel books. He can be reached at letters@pill.cz

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