Restaurants that are as much institutions as eating places

Throughout the pandemic, reporting assignments meant I traveled more than most people. And when I was on the road, pandemic restriction...

Throughout the pandemic, reporting assignments meant I traveled more than most people. And when I was on the road, pandemic restrictions and simple common sense meant my meals were, by definition, take-out.

While the pandemic is ongoing, I have resumed eating carefully in restaurants. And, in particular, I started looking again for restaurants that are as much local institutions as places to grab a bite to eat.

Most of them, perhaps all of them, will never attract the attention of Michelin Guide critics. Their decor is generally modest, as are their prices. But all found a magical combination of distinctive food, great service and a friendly atmosphere that gave them longevity in a business notorious for its short lifespan.

A few years ago, I wrote about a defining example: the Hoito, in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

[Read: Finnish Pancakes With a Side of Canada’s Labor History]

At the end of last year, however, a fire razed the finnish labor temple, which housed it. Reenactment is now underway.

I am currently in Edmonton, on my second trip here in just a few weeks. This is a city that – before the pandemic, at least – I reported on fairly regularly. So I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until I came to cover Pope Francis’ visit late last month that I discovered one of his local institutions: Bistro Praha. This is doubly inconvenient as the Bistro Praha is close to the two hotels I usually stay at in town.

Its most recently opened location, just off Jasper Avenue, doesn’t bode well. It’s on the bottom floor of an office building, wedged between a pizzeria, a transit station entrance, and a vacant storefront that housed a Starbucks before the pandemic.

The the menu could best be described as average european, with dishes like escalope, smoked pork shoulder and roast duck. Sauerkraut and dumplings also feature prominently. In the three times I’ve been there, many of the customers seem to be regulars who know each other. It was always busy.

At the end of a long wait at the tables on Thursday evening, Milan Svajgr, who now owns Bistro Praha with Alena Bacorsky, his partner in life and business, sat down with me to discuss his story.

Founder Frantisek Cikanek had no real restaurant experience when he started Bistro Praha in 1977. But he was dismayed that he couldn’t find in Edmonton the kind of cafe he had frequented in his native Czechoslovakia ( as it was called then). he opened one. Within a few years it grew to a full restaurant, with much the same menu it has today.

Mr. Cikanek was involved in the city’s music scene and from the beginning Bistro Praha was a meeting place for musicians, actors and artists. For most of its early years, it stayed open until 2 a.m. to accommodate their late hours. Mr. Svajgr said that once, as he was locking the door, he was surprised to see Joni Mitchell running for the door; it was unlocked and the restaurant remained open until 5 am

This connection to celebrity has led to a curious practice at the restaurant: beginning with Kirk Douglas many years ago, celebrities from the arts and sports worlds began autographing the undersides of his bentwood chairs. Mrs. Mitchell sat by the front window the other night.

After Mr. Cikanek died, Mr. Svajgr and his sister, Sharka, who both started working at the bistro after emigrating from Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, purchased the restaurant from his estate.

There have been setbacks. Ms Svajgr died in 2019, aged 53. Thirteen years ago, a fire in another business above the bistro’s original location forced it to close for two years before moving to its current location. However, Mr. Svajgr was able to recover the furniture, including the autographed chairs. And a customer donated a second copy of the huge photographic mural of a mountain scene that dominated both locations. (That’s in Switzerland, not Central Europe.)

Like many restaurateurs, Mr. Svajgr has exhausted his savings keeping the restaurant open during the pandemic. But he told me he never considered quitting.

“It’s a lifestyle to be able to run this place,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really interesting, I like it a lot. Catering in general is not going to make you rich. You have to like it.

Does your community have a restaurant that is a local institution? I would love to hear about it both for my own travel planning and for a future newsletter. Please let me know by email and include your full name and location so I can credit you correctly, should we mention your favorite location.

Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Restaurants that are as much institutions as eating places
Restaurants that are as much institutions as eating places
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