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Czech customs concerning eating in restaurants or going to pubs may (and do) differ from what you might expect based on your experience from other countries. Here are some tips on how it works with ordering, eating, tipping or smoking so that you're not surprised when dining here.
Unfortunately and unlike most of the civilized world, smoking is still possible in bars, pubs or restaurants and it is only up to the keeper if the venue is non-smoking, partially smoking or totally smoking. According to the law, it must be clearly marked on the entrance door. If the venue is partially smoking, it means that there are separated (with a wall, not just with a sign) areas for smokers and non-smokers, however the separation is often insufficient. It is becoming more common that better restaurants are non-smoking but it is not a rule. Pubs are smoking in a vast majority. In some restaurants, smoking may be banned only during lunchtime (approx. 11AM to 2PM).
There are of course several kinds of food/drink-serving facilities. The most common are these:
Hospoda [hoss-pod-ah] – pub; serves alcohol (mainly beer), often without kitchen, so it may not serve much food. However, specialities to go with beer (pickled sausage or pickled cheese) are usually “on the menu”.
Restaurace [ress-tau-rah-tze]– restaurant; serves meals, drinks (incl. alcoholic). Restaurants differ greatly in price as well as quality and “level” of food and service.
Bar [bahrr] – bar; serves drinks (mainly alcoholic) but usually no food (or just crisps or so).
Hostinec [hoss-tji-netz]- inn; usually (but not always) a lower class restaurant resembling more a pub where meals are served.
Kavárna [kah-vaar-nah] – café
Cukrárna [tzoo-kraar-nah] – confectionery
Of course, this list cannot be taken as a rule, there are always many cross-over facilities or facilities with a bit misleading names (such as Café imperial in Prague which is not only a café but also a high-class restaurant).
Pubs are the places where locals go for a drink (mostly beer). You find one in virtually every village, no matter how small it is (well, there are exceptions but not many). To order in a pub, you don’t go to the bar (as e.g. in Britain) but just sit down. The waiter (often the only staff present) comes to you to take the order. If you want a beer, you just say “pivo prosím” (beer please) and a large beer (0.5l) will be brought to you. If you want a small beer (0.3l), you say “malé pivo”. Locals often just show a finger to the waiter across the room signalizing how many beers they want. No talking necessary. In some pubs it may happen that you get a new beer upon finishing the first one without even asking for it. If you don’t want another, just tell the waiter when he brings it (he’ll sure find someone else who is willing to drink it). You’ll often get a slip of paper on the table where your consumption and orders are recorded (sometimes only the prices are written there). Do not lose it. A line means a large beer and a cross means a small beer. For more information on beers in pubs, have a look in the beer article. When you want to pay, just tell the waiter. He will either bring a printed bill from the cash register or just calculate your bill at the table. High tipping in pubs is not very common (service is included in the price by law) so you should just round the bill up to the nearest CZK 10. You can of course give more if the service was exceptional. Tip is considered a reward for the waiter, not your obligation. Do not expect card payment in pubs where no food it served, it is very uncommon, particularly out of big cities. Prices differ but generally they are much lower than in the Western Europe. A large beer costs somewhere between CZK 18 and 40 (EUR 0.7-1.6). In the centre of Prague, you may get it for as much as CZK 60 or 80 which is a total rip-off and a tourist trap (unless it is a high-class restaurant), so avoid such pubs.
Restaurants vary greatly in price and quality as anywhere else in the world. A Czech restaurant may as well be more a pub-like facility as well as a fancy and extremely expensive venue. In a pub-like restaurant, you just go and sit anywhere you like. However, if you see a “reserve” sign on the table, it means that the table is booked for someone and you should not sit there. In better restaurants, you are often shown your seat by the waiter. You may often be asked to order a drink immediately after you sit down. If you want to read through the menu first to find out, just tell the waiter to wait a moment (he’s a waiter, anyway).
If you are used to order a jug of tap water (as it is usual e.g. in France), do not expect this here. Restaurants (and even the best) gain a lot of money from selling overpriced bottled water so they may refuse to serve you with tap water no matter how expensive food or wine you order. They may tell you some tales about hygienic norms or so but be sure that no such exist. Tap water is suitable for drinking and it is just upon their will if they get it for you or not. So be aware that if you just order water, you will sure get a bottle (usually 0.33l) and pay for it. If you want to try your luck, ask for tap water specifically. Some more forward-looking restaurants will have no problem with it but it is good to be aware that this is not a custom here and most people do not expect it.
When going for a multiple-course lunch/dinner, the usual way the food is brought to you is the following:
1. Starter/soup (předkrm/polévka)
2. Main course (hlavní jídlo) (vegetable salad goes here as well)
3. Dessert (desert)
Your drinks will be brought first. In some restaurants you may get some pastry with flavoured butter or so before the starter comes. Be aware that you will be charged for that (look for couvert on the bill). The soup is generally considered a starter so it will probably come with the starters. It’s not common to have a soup and a starter as well. Those that do not order a starter will have to wait for the main course and won’t get it earlier (probably the same habit as in the rest of Europe). Then the main course will come. If you order a vegetable salad, it will come with the main course as it is usually eaten as a side-dish. In a majority of low-middle level restaurants, you get a vegetable garnish with your meal. As it is often the same for all meals on the menu, it may not suite well to the food you order. If you don’t like it, just let it be. This is a relic from the socialistic cooking habits and better restaurants are beginning to realize that a universal garnish is not what people want to eat and refrain from using it. If you order a dessert and a coffee, you’ll get it together (unlike e.g. France where the waiter waits for you to finish your coffee before he/she brings the dessert). Payment and tipping differs according to the quality of the restaurant. In a pub-like low-class venue you can follow the rules for a pub. In a better restaurant, you will often be able to pay by card. As for tipping, the better the restaurant, the higher the tips should be. The rule says that the tip should be 10% but such high tips are common only in the very best restaurants. In a casual venue, you’ll do fine with CZK 10-50 tip. Again, be aware that service is already included in the prices by law (anything else written on the menu or bill is a lie) and any tip is a reward for the staff. If you were not satisfied, cut the tips. When paying by a credit card, you may be offered to enter the tip into the payment terminal to be added to your payment however if you want to appreciate your waiter personally it is often a better idea to leave some cash on the table upon leaving.
The rest of above mentioned facilities may differ in the way they work so writing some general information would be useless. Try for yourself and see.