Bar Notes: Tretter’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
Tretter’s styles itself as a classic New York bar from the early 1930s and it succeeds at evoking that vibe: Mosaic tile bar counter, vintage cash registers, and an antique mirror running the entire length of the backbar. Bartenders wear white smocks, accenting the fact that Tretter’s also runs a bartending academy of which all bartenders must graduate.

Taking our seats at the long bar, we dove into the cocktail menu: a small bound book, extensive with more than 100 drinks, and featuring classic cocktails as well as Tretter’s originals. My first drink was a Crescit Sour (Genever, Chartreuse, lime, honey water, lemon bitters, egg white), which Mrs. Wonk and I both agreed was delicious. Mrs. Wonk enjoyed her Aperol Cherry Julep (Aperol, lemon, black cherry, elderflower tonic, mint leaves).

Along the bar counter, within easy reach (yes, I did restrain myself) is a large collection of various dry ingredients. Lots of dried fruits and leaves, as well as more unusual ingredients like marzipan and caraway seeds. Scanning through the cocktail menu I could tell these ingredients weren’t just for show. For round two, I had a Provocateur (inexplicably I didn’t record the ingredients, other than the aforementioned marzipan), while Mrs. Wonk had an expertly executed Green Park (gin, lemon, basil leaves, egg white, simple syrup, celery bitters).

Mrs. Wonk, with her great eye for detail, noted a few things in the space needed attention, such as mosaic tiles missing from the bar counter and some threadbare carpet on the stairs leading down to the rest rooms.  Rather than evoke a vintage feel, the space leaned more toward shopworn and in need of some updating, however superficial. Bar staff was mostly warm and welcoming, as were all of those we spoke to in Prague, but not the most effusive of our visit.

Both Tretter’s and nearby Bugsy’s strive to emulate a New York bar experience from the early 20th century, albeit decades apart. Both put out excellently crafted cocktails, but I give the nod to Bugsy’s for their overall execution of the theme as well as focus on the little details.

Bar Notes: BONVIVANT’S Cocktail Tapas Café (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This bar was recommended to us by a bartender in Prague, and we visited on a walk around the city on a bitter cold winter day.  As darkness fell and cold descended, the warm space was a nice respite from the outside weather. BONVIVANT’S is a relatively small establishment, with only room for five or six customers to sit at the bar counter. An adjoining, slightly elevated room provides booth and table seating. There’s a surprising amount of open floor space, sans tables – perhaps it’s packed with people standing in the evenings. The shiny tin ceiling seems out of place with the black/white checkerboard floors. Like elsewhere in Prague, the bartender wears a uniform, in this case a white lab coat.

The cocktail menu is divided into classics and original sections. Classics include a Hurricane, Brandy Crusta, Martinez, Cosmopolitan, and Last Word. The originals on offer were three or four ingredient affairs, sticking for the most part to standard ingredients rather than house made.
I started with the “classic” whiskey-based Penicillin. The ingredients were listed in Czech, so I have to assume the rest of the ingredients were as expected. Mrs. Wonk had the Provence (G-Vine gin, green Chartreuse, lavender syrup, with a flaming lavender garnish presented tableside). My second drink was the house Old Fashioned variation (Grand Marnier, calvados, Boker’s Bitters). All were competently executed but not enough to give a higher rating.

Disclaimer: We visited during the day and some folks were camped out at the tiny bar, so we took seats at the nearest table which was still fairly far away, and we weren’t able to interact with the bartender. That said, we made single-serving friends for the afternoon with a lovely couple traveling from Los Angeles—we commiserated about travel woes, bitter cold, and the positive attributes of bar tourism. They seemed to very much enjoy their several rounds of Last Words, before heading off to Vienna. Reviews I’ve read say that the food is good, so if you’re nearby and looking for a decent cocktail and reasonable food, I’d give BONVIVANT’s a try. However, I wouldn’t make a special trip across town just for this bar.

Bar Notes: Public Interest (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This relatively new bar came highly recommended to us by the guide on our food tour. Although not on my list of bars to visit, it was close enough to our hotel to make it easy to drop in.
In contrast to some of the elaborately done-up and thematic bars in Prague (Bugsy’s, Tretter’s), Public Interest is very minimalist. Painted concrete (?) walls hold a few mirrors and movie posters. Lighting is minimal, except for a few artfully placed Edison bulbs (Mrs. Wonk says:  Good to know that Eastern Europe has not escaped the scourge of the exposed filament bulb…long may it burn.) I’m all for a dark bar, but I struggled to read the menu without using light from my iPhone screen.
The typewriter-font menu on a clipboard is moderately short and not overly ambitious compared to other bars in Prague. Drinks are divided by base spirit with at most two per spirit.
I started with the Medicine (rye, ginger, lemon, fig puree, honey), which was competent but not exceptional. Mrs. Wonk’s Lavender Gimlet (gin, lavender syrup, lemon, lime cordial) was way too sweet for either of our tastes.  (Mrs. Wonk readily admits that her eyes glazed over at the word “cordial”—or she might have anticipated the resulting sugar bomb.) I closed out our visit with the Teqroni (tequila, rum, Campari, vermouth) which tasted about what you’d expect a Negroni to taste like if you swapped the gin for tequila.  Drinks were invariably garnished with a wheel of dehydrated citrus—which we weren’t sure was a cultural norm or a new trend.  (One of the bartenders we later chatted with voted for trend.)
All told, Public Interest seems like a reasonable place to get a decent drink, but I wasn’t wowed by it the way I was by other bars in Prague. In fairness to them, they were packed with loud, boisterous drinkers (who seemed to like to bonk Mrs. Wonk in the back of the head with various elbows and body parts) when we visited, so there was no opportunity to chat with the bartenders and go beyond the standard menu. That said, it is a modern, pretty room with a modern, pretty crowd—which seems to be on the upswing in the Prague market.  It was nice not to see a room try to look like 1937 New York but rather like 2014 Prague by way of London or San Francisco.  Nonetheless, putting aside “busy bar” syndrome, I wasn’t compelled to make a return visit at a quieter time.  And keep an eye out for the lime cordial.

Bar Notes: Hemingway Bar (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5/10
Of all the bars I was looking forward to in Prague, Hemingway Bar was the most eagerly anticipated. It hits a trifecta of attributes I enjoy in bar: innovative cocktails, great ambience, and a focus on rums. It’s no surprise that it comes in at Number 24 on the 2014 “World’s 50 Best Bars” list.
We were the first through the door when it opened and secured a prime seat at the L-shaped bar just inside the door. Our early arrival was fortunate as we didn’t have reservations, and within a few minutes the rest of the space had filled up with couples and groups with reservations. It’s a relatively large establishment, but since it spans multiple levels broken up into low-ceilinged rooms, it maintains a cozy feeling.  The space is dimly lit with candles scattered about.

The overall vibe is from the 1930s. Lots of wood everywhere (including a gorgeous bar counter), leather sofas and chairs, vintage bar tools, and, of course, framed photos of Ernest Hemingway. The bartenders, nattily dressed in dress shirts and vests, were knowledgeable and confident as they worked, no doubt in part because the bar’s business includes bartender training and consultancy. Our bartender Tomáš was very friendly and suggested a few other bars for us to visit while in town.

The originality found within their spiral-bound cocktail menu is superb, exactly what I was looking for. I started with a Hemingway’s Paparazzi (Havana Club 7 rum, Becherovka, apricot brandy, simple syrup, apricot and chocolate tea, lime, and mint). While it tasted great, what put it over the top was the serving vessel: An insulated cup constructed to look like a camera lens (see the photos below). Round two was the Smoked Passion (mezcal, lemon, simple syrup, passion fruit puree, egg white, garnished with a speared spicy Dorito chip). The Dorito chip was a bit odd but whimsical, and the drink was quite enjoyable.
The only slight misfire of the night was the m&m’s cocktail (butter-infused Becherovka, peanut butter syrup, lemon, pear juice, egg white, topped with crushed m&m’s and cacao powder).  If nothing more than for curiosity’s sake, ordering this drink was a requirement.  While not offensive in any way, the crazy combination of ingredients didn’t create something better than their component parts, unfortunately.
It’s well-known that Hemingway favored rum, and the Hemingway Bar’s requisite list is stellar. I capped off my evening with a pour of Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Anejo, a 20-year aged Cuban rum. It was everything I hoped it would be and a bargain at $17. As I sipped it I snapped photos of the rum list to tease my rummy friends back home. So many bottles that aren’t available in the US!  (Yet.)
 The menu offers a variety of appetizers, always a good idea when you’re working your way through a cocktail menu like we were. A large plate of prosciutto and almonds was bargain priced and kept us going.
Like most bars in Prague, Hemingway Bar allows smoking, and at times the cloud was a bit much for me. However, there is a non-smoking bar area upstairs, a fact we didn’t realize until it was too late.
Hemingway Bar is a must-visit when you find yourself in Prague. Clear out time in your calendar, make a reservation, and prepare to go back in time to a much more elegant era while enjoying the benefits of imaginative, expertly executed, modern craft cocktails.

Cuban rums

Bar Notes: Anonymous Bar (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5/10

The Anonymous Bar was easily among the top experiences we had in the 20-plus bars we visited during our mini-European tour. It’s a theme bar, based on the Anonymous group and their Guy Fawkes mask-wearing members. Mrs. Wonk found the themey-ness just a bit much, but I found it amusing.

Finding Anonymous Bar was a challenge on the cold, dark December night we visited. A heavy, unmarked wooden door left ajar lead to a very dark courtyard. Eventually we pieced together that a door in an unlighted corner provided access to the bar. Upon entering, the space is a long rectangular room, mostly table seating with a raised section at the back, and a small bar counter as you enter. A flat screen over the entrance way silently loops the “V for Vendetta” movie for an added dose of theme.

We took our seats and the somewhat formally dressed bartender handed us DVD cases with a menu inside. The drinks names quite expectedly play along with the Anonymous theme. Strangely, there are two pages in the menu that are blank except for a heading: “OperationS 2015.” I won’t divulge the details here, but will say that a trip to Anonymous Bar isn’t complete without discovering the secret of the blank pages. Unless you’re extraordinarily well-equipped with gadgets, you may need some assistance from the bartender.

My first drink was a Blue Blazer. I felt a bit guilty ordering it as I know they take a while to prepare, but seeing as how nearly every bar we visited in Prague had one on the menu, I figured it wasn’t too big an imposition. The bartender donned a Guy Fawkes mask (from a stack on the back bar), the lights dimmed, and for a good 60 seconds, long blue strands of flaming Navy Proof rum poured back and forth between mugs.

Mrs. Wonk started the evening with a Scarlet Rose, a Ramos Gin Fizz variation, topped with a rose petal, and which she proclaimed the best Ramos Gin Fizz she’d ever had and ultimately one of the best drinks for her of the entire trip.

Subsequent drinks included the India Project (a rum-punch variation) and the 100% Leather Manhattan, aged in a leather wine skin. (The leather tones, while present, didn’t overwhelm.) The undisputed highlight of our visit was Mrs. Wonk’s drink (called the OP: Singapore) that arrived with cocktail glass nestled in a volleyball. A bit unwieldy to drink from, but definitely a conversation starter.

We enjoyed every moment of our time at Anonymous Bar. The cocktails are imaginative and superbly executed. We were barely able to tear ourselves away to head to our next stop. If you ever find yourself in Prague, consider it your wonky duty to check out Anonymous Bar.  And don’t make plans for a later stop—you won’t want to give up your seat at the bar.

Bar Notes: Bugsy’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
The first thing you notice as you descend the stairs into Bugsy’s is its visual style, best described as mid-century New York glam, a throwback to an earlier, post-Prohibition era. It’s pristine, with nothing out of place. Curved ceilings, glass countertops, and extensive under-lighting, which dramatically highlights bottles on the back bar. Black leather booths line the wall opposite the long bar counter. White shirted, black bow-tied bartenders quickly and efficiently mix your drinks. You’ll definitely want to sit at the bar here.

The cocktail menu alone makes a trip to Bugsy’s worthwhile. Literally a bound book, illustrated with cleverly ironic cartoons, dividing the drinks into categories; my favorite– Batman overlooking Gotham City, martini glass in hand. Each drink, of which there are many, has an intriguing paragraph about the recipe, often referencing the drink’s history. It took me a thoroughly enjoyable ten minutes just to select my first drink, the Dam: Laphroaig 10-year Scotch, limoncello, and Dubonnet Rouge.

While mixing your drinks, the bartenders work at mixing station with yet more under-lighting, focusing attention on the beakers and glasses in play. The drinks are precisely executed and visually appealing. Bugsy’s has an impressive rum collection of roughly 100 bottles.
Bugsy’s has an additional focus on Champagne with a dedicated display case. A section of their menu is dedicated to drinks that include Champagne – the Old Cuban being a good example. The Champagne-based drinks are priced substantially higher than the non-champagne drinks, which is surprising; I’ve not seen this price disparity in other bars.  (Though Mrs. Wonk notes that it was pricey, brand-name Champagne marketed to a very style-conscious crowd—the price premium may be something of a status marker.)
Bugsy’s is definitely worth a visit. You’ll want to dress up a bit and savor the style and glamour not often found outside of high-end hotel bars.

Bar Notes: Black Angel’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8.5/10

Black Angel’s has three great things going for it: A clever menu, fairly well executed cocktails, and fabulous atmosphere! Easily in the top 10 percent of the coolest bar spaces I have visited. It’s actually a hotel bar, although with its subterranean stone cellar vibe, it doesn’t feel like it.
To get to Black Angel’s, enter the Hotel U Prince in the Old Town Square and descend two flights of solid wooden stairs. (Note the decades of wear on those suckers—and watch your step.) Within the hotel’s stone foundation you’ll find several rooms on multiple levels, dimly lit with lots of candles, giving the overall feel of a medieval castle. Although not obvious at first, there are two bars – the first one you see at the foot of the stairs is the service bar; the main seating bar is in the room to the right.
The hard-bound cocktail menu offers a fairly large set of options and divides the drinks into categories, with lots of house originals in addition to the expected classics. Best section: The “No Comment… :)” – See the photos.  (Though Mrs. Wonk in particular was dismayed to note the inclusion of the Negroni on the “no comment” list, alongside offerings like Sex on the Beach or a Tequila Sunrise.  Since when is a Negroni an embarrassing thing to order?) I noticed a few house made ingredients but not the same cornucopia as other bars.
Drink execution was precise; bartenders sported white dress shirts and ties. I particularly enjoyed the Becher Mai-Tai (Becherovka, Cuban rums, amaretto, lemon juice and maracuja, aka passion fruit syrup). Mrs. Wonk was enamored with the Black Angel’s Old Fashioned (Saffron and Beefeater 24 gins, simple syrup, Rhubarb and Peychaud’s bitters), with the highlight being the many-faceted and perfectly clear “jewel” ice cube, presented alongside the drink on a silver tray.  It attracted the attention of other drinkers, for sure.

The bar is steps from the Old Town Square and a totally fun experience, especially on a cold Christmas night after a four hour train ride from Vienna. Recommended.

Bar Notes: Prague Overview

Black Angel’s, Prague
As part of a three-country spin though Europe in the waning days of 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I thoroughly enjoyed four (chilly) nights in Prague. Although the London cocktail bars were the big game on this trip, I’d deduced beforehand that Prague has a handful of cocktails bars that looked like good candidates to investigate. Through careful planning we made it to all of them plus one more that came highly recommended. All told, we visited these bars (click individual links for my notes on each bar):
Prague has been infested by the “Bros on holiday” ethos. You’ll find any number of signs for strip clubs (200 models a night!), cheap beer bars, and nightclubs serving (I’m sure) only the finest quality vodka drinks. Do not despair! Good craft cocktail bars exist.

Prague is undoubtedly a beer town, and seriously, a decent beer can cost less than bottled water. There are quite a few microbreweries that have popped up in restaurants, and we visited several. Despite my focus on cocktails, I still managed to consume more beer in four days there than I did the entire rest of the year.

Coming from Seattle where I don’t blink at a $12 cocktail, I found Prague insanely inexpensive. Several times Mrs. Wonk and I tabbed out and giggled at the total. Typically drinks at high-end bars are around 160 Czech Koruna, or $6.75 US, roughly half what I’m used to, and the drinks were every bit as good.
The best known Czech native spirit is Becherovka, an herbal bitter liqueur similar to Jägermeister and Zwack. It’s readily available here in the US, and I’ve written favorably about it previously, so it was nice to see it featured in several cocktails including a Mai Tai at Black Angel’s.
All types and brands of spirits were readily available in Prague, a marked contrast to some other world-class cities we’ve visited, such as Buenos Aires. Several establishments had extensive back bars in the 300+ bottle range. As a rum aficionado, I know rum often gets short shrift in many bars – a couple of bottles of Bacardi and some Captain Morgan perhaps? However, in Prague rum seems to have an enthusiastic following, and I noted many bottles that would only be familiar to someone with a passion for rum. I took full advantage of the opportunity to consume good Cuban rum whenever possible.  (With the recent changes in US-Cuban relations, the prospect of drinking Cuban rum on our home soil is getting closer, but not quite here.  That said, it remains a novelty when overseas.)
One interesting thing we noticed was the profusion of Blue Blazer-type cocktails. The Blue Blazer is a labor-intensive cocktail from the 1860s, famous for its preparation that involves repeatedly pouring flaming high proof spirits in long, blue-tinged arcs between metal cups. Nearly every bar we visited in Prague has one on the menu—and they were ordered at each place and crafted enthusiastically. Most of the bars took to the theatrical aspect and dimmed the lights to show off the pyrotechnics.  Which of course meant a new round of orders, and more blue flames.
Central Prague is very walkable. All of the bars we visited were all within a ten minute walk of the Old Town square, making it easy to pop between them without worrying about transportation.

Some bars allow smoking. However, in most of the bars we visited, the ventilation did a respectable job of keeping the smoke to a tolerable level. Your mileage may vary.
Prague is a fantastic city, rich in history and visually stunning – highly recommended. You can’t walk ten feet without tripping over something older than the Mayflower. After a long day of touring, enjoying great cocktails at bargain prices is a perfect way to unwind.

Regrettably, we did not make it to this fine establishment.