Any visitor to Prague should know a few key important dates in the city’s history. For instance, on January 19, 1787, Mozart’s Prague Symphony had its premiere. On September 6, 1791, Leopold II was coronated King of Bohemia. In 1883 the National Ballet was founded and in 1901 the Francis Bridge was built. On May 8, 1945, the Germany army left Prague and on January 5, 1968, events were set in motion for the Prague Spring.
But none of these moments in time can hold a candle to the glory which was April 8, 1843. For this was the day that Pilsner lager was first sold! And remarkably, this monumental turning point in history isn’t the biggest claim to fame at the pub which started it all, U Pinkasu. The building’s proprietor, a Mr. Jakub Pinkas, wasn’t even in the hospitality and brewing business when he first heard about a new-fangled method of producing beer. He was actually a tailor – and not just any tailor. He was in the business of providing vestments and alterations for Franciscan monks! It’s not exactly the kind of profession you’d expect of a would-be beer-prenure but Prague isn’t your ordinary city. Convinced that Pilsner lager would be a hit, Pinkas surveyed his loved ones and – worryingly – the carriage taxi drivers at a nearby public square to see if they shared his opinion. Before long, the monks were sent packing to find a new tailor and U Pinkasu -at Pinkas’ place – was born.
For decades, U Pinkasu enjoyed tremendous popularity thanks to its prime location in the city center and its pioneering Pilsner spirit. The Pinkas family expanded, buying the house adjacent to the pub and making use of its seemingly endless Gothic cellars to store their wares – and possibly other items, depending on the veracity you put into the smuggling rumors. And it proved to be the ideal cover for many of the fathers of Czech independence, seeking their own national identity separate from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In the 1930s, everyone who was anyone in Prague knew that it was the place to see and be seen, with the country’s most famous artists, actors, directors, and writers haunting its halls. And their attendance is certainly not the thing of rumors – there are signed guest books to prove it!
By 1882, ownership of U Pinkasu was transferred to the Brabec family but their chance to create their own legacy was interrupted by Soviet occupation and business nationalization post World War II. Family descendants successfully put in a claim for restitution in 1989 and reopened U Pinkasu in 1991, when it once again became a hangout for the country’s intelligentsia and rising political stars.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a place with as many legends as U Pinkasu be overrun with tourists but in truth, it hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s an included stop a few Prague pub tours but it remains true to its roots as a neighborhood watering hole. All told, it has everything I adore in a pub – history, intrigue, mystery, serious folklore, and lots of locals. There was just one minor, incidental problem. I don’t like beer! Drinking Pilsner at the site of its inaugural pour? No thanks!
Luckily, if you share my indifference for beer, lovely Czech wine is on the menu, as well as a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks. And you don’t need a pint in front of you to be encouraged to linger for hours. U Pinkasu’s menu of old fashioned Czech home-cooking will do that for you. And as I am nothing but dedicated to the craft of investigative travel writing, I took it upon myself to sample as many goodies as possible. It was a difficult burden to bear but somehow I managed!
A savory whipped beer cheese with fried bread allowed me to brag that I really did try beer in Prague’s most storied pub. My next plate, a pickled Camembert cheese, was a curious twist on a French favorite. I liked trying it but I liked the beer cheese more! Roasted pork with cabbage and dumplings felt like something a Czech granny might make and chicken with grilled apple and a side of mashed potatoes with parsley was a winning combination for a tricky, jet-lagged stomach in need of some comfort food. But my love of all things potato and cheese placed second compared to sweet cinnamon pancakes with apple-pear puree and whipped cream. It was like breakfast and dessert at the same time! I learned that pancakes with jam and cream are a popular pub treat – all the more reason to explore Prague’s historic pubs like U Pinkasu.
In a world of fast moving travel trends, you’ll occasionally hear that Prague suffers from too many tourists, or that it had its best days a decade ago before it became so popular with bachelor parties and bus tours. U Pinkasu proves the naysayers wrong. Some of the city’s best spots remain relatively undiscovered and a world of history, Pilsner, and pancakes beg to be discovered.