Local Heroes

Pork, politicos and Pilsner for the pecunious.

U Hrocha
Thunovská 10, P1

Malostranská Pivnice
Cihelna 3, P1

Dig if you will the picture: You ankle into a bar on a weekday afternoon in Washington, D.C. only to see a gaggle of U.S. senators getting so blind drunk they can hardly sit straight. Believe it or not, this scene is repeated with startling regularity, except that the city is Prague and the senators are Czech.

Where do the nation’s lawmakers go when jonesing for a tipple? To U Hrocha, a small and smoky drinkery that is perhaps the best-hidden — and by far the grungiest — pub in Malá Strana.

Situated on a diminutive back street between the Senate and the British Embassy, it is also one of the frightfully few pubs that Malá Strana residents can call their own. U Hrocha (At the Hippopotamus) is all business: just four wooden tables, precious little on the walls and a chain-smoking “beertender” pouring 24 Kč Pilsner Urquells. A smaller two-table annex situated across the hall is an even less desirable place to sit, and the bare-bones menu featuring utopenci and stinky cheese is strictly meant as beer ballast. Sure, Žižkov is full of places like this hole-in-the-wall, but here on the Upper West Side, it’s a unique gem.

Although U Hrocha is secreted from the prying eyes of unsuspecting tourists, the brave few who do venture in usually turn swiftly on their heels as soon as they shoulder through the door. But you, friend, shouldn’t be so shy. Ignore the “reserved” signs on each table and snuggle on to a bench beside a genuine back-bencher who, repeated experience proves, will be all too happy to talk about the merits of Czech politicians, women and beer, though not necessarily in that order.

U Hrocha is a great place to know about when you’re dying of thirst on the Left Bank, but it’s not the kind of joint to which you’d make a special trip. For that, head to Malostranská Pivnice, a yearling that has quickly become one of the very best pubs anywhere. Situated across from Hergertova Cihelna between the Charles and Mánes bridges, this sprawling space encompasses several rooms on two levels, plus a heated outdoor beer garden that, in season, becomes some of the most coveted real estate on the Little Side.

The Pilsner Urquell served here costs just 22.80 Kč and comes not from kegs but from giant stainless-steel tanks that are refilled by fire-truck-like vehicles with hoses. Meals from the lengthy and well-priced Czech-heavy menu are excellent too, though there’s nothing you haven’t seen before — i.e., pork in a zillion guises, cabbage in two colors and dumplings galore. Malostranská Pivnice is one of the only places in the quarter where neighbors actually hang out with each other, and its opening has single-handedly changed the sociability of the neighborhood.

Of course, students from the nearby Palffy Palác conservatory, as well bridge-and-tunnelers who’ve gotten the word, are also increasingly in evidence. There have been few sightings of senators, however. Perhaps it’s just a little too far from their headquarters on Valdštejnské náměstí to stumble back for a vote.

Dan Levine is the editor in chief of Avant-Guide travel books. He can be reached at [email protected]

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