Building a Czech House

Fast Lane

How Hilton Breathed New Life Into Its Signature Restaurant

The making of CzecHouse Grill & Rotisserie has been in evolution mode since 1991, and with a recent interior update, award-winning chef, and the name of Hilton Hotels behind it, the progression seems to have come to a very tasty stop.

The Hilton’s fine dining restaurant was born Steakhouse Praha. Dark interiors, reminiscent of the old American west defined its look. As the years went on, the space changed concepts twice more; first as “We Like to Cook,” a restaurant which also offered cooking classes and then to Citrus, offering a mainly Mediterranean menu. Hilton decided to revert to its roots, going back to the CzecHouse concept, with a twist.

“Our menu is based on ‘Tradition Today,” says Markata Sebkova, Marketing and PR Manager for Hilton Prague. “We offer traditional Czech food, updated for today.”

Sebkova said the concept took off. “Czech classics” are a rarity in fine dining, locally or anywhere else. But don’t expect your typical pork and dumplings.

“It’s a blend of contemporary European cuisine and traditional Czech specialties,” says Sebkova. “We present it as a fusion of European cuisine.”

The CzecHouse’s award-winning chef, Roman Paulus enjoys balancing the food and hotel concepts into an unforgettable menu.

“Hilton is famous for rooms and conferences, not restaurants,” he says. “We can’t do totally Czech, so we do Euro-Czech.”

Euro-Czech means taking the best of typical Czech foods and combining them with unique ingredients from the rest of the continent. Trout, beef goulash, roasted pork knuckle and duck can be found on many a Czech menu, but Paulus strives to make them lighter, fresher and with a different twist.

“(Typical Czech) side dishes used to be potatoes and dumplings,” he explains. “We have that, but serve different kinds as well as bring in foods from different regions, like perhaps a ham from Austria or cheeses from France.”

No matter where the food originates though, it’s quality that matters.

“Most important is using the best ingredients,” stresses Paulus. “If you have good ingredients, even the simplest dish can be wonderful.”

To go along with the lighter, but traditional menu, CzecHouse updated its interior at the end of last year. The original entry way was closed and the room was divided into smaller sections with booths. Dark wood overwhelmed the space. The architects decided to open the space up, lighten the furnishings and add touches of warm colors to avoid any austere feelings. Soft recessed lighting complements shaded lamps hanging over the tables.

“The architects took inspiration from older Czech architecture,” says Sebkova. “It’s modern but has links to the past.”

Special touches of the old interior were kept. Photographs of well-known athletes, politicians and cultural people from contemporary Czech history used to hang around the restaurant. The designers, Philip Rodgers Design, complied them into a photo montage that adorns the wall to the right as you enter. The layout is long and narrow, so different design concepts line the entire right side of the restaurant, drawing your attention to a variety of restaurant activities.

“There’s the open kitchen, showcasing the grills and rotisserie,” explains SebkovA. “That’s followed by the bar, with an old beer keg and our fine wine cabinet. At the back of the restaurant is a separate room, complete with a fireplace.”

The new interior is a relaxing, enjoyable space for guests, but gets the thumbs up from the staff as well.

“It’s a dream come true kitchen,” says Paulus. “The design is just wonderful; the architects designed it with the menu concept in mind.”

Typically, people don’t head for hotels for a fine-dining experience. Hotel restaurants are usually targeted to guests, and have a reputation for being ho-hum.

“People are slowly starting to realize that hotel restaurants are improving their quality,” Paulus says. “They (the hotels) are hiring better chefs and have cross-exposure possibilities that increase the experience for the guest.”

CzecHouse is striving to cultivate that opinion, offering a memorable experience to both tourists and locals alike.

“What makes us attractive to the hotel guests is exactly the opposite of what makes us attractive to the locals,” Paulus says.

Sebkova explains. “Our hotel guests usually eat here in the evenings, because they are out sightseeing all day,” she says. “Locals however look to us for business lunches and we are trying to reach out to them.”

After its re-opening in at the end of December 2005, CzecHouse opened for lunch. They offer set price menus that can have you out the door in 45 minutes.

“We want all our guests to feel very welcome in this place,” says Paulus. “The quality has to be there, excellent service, food and special touches.”

One of those special touches plays heavily on Paulus’ menu and that’s their emphasis on organic U.S. beef. Paulus believes CzecHouse is one of the only places in Prague where you can consistently get U.S. beef ala carte on the menu. Prime beef tenderloin, sirloin or rib eye can all be yours, but be careful when ordering any main course Paulus warns.

“The one complaint I get is that the portions are too big,” Paulus laughs. “It’s a challenge though to serve traditional Czech food, light and in a small portion. We train our staff to instruct people to share a main course.”

So with a newly combined interior and menu that both reflect contemporary elegance as well as Czech history, CzecHouse’s evolution may nearly be complete.

“We concentrate on producing good quality,” says Paulus. “If you were happy today, you’ll be happy the next time as well.”