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.

Continue reading “Bar Notes: Anonymous Bar (Prague)”

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.