A dark, ominous hallway leads to a door. Silence. Not a sound. I open the door to find a series of steep wooden stairs spiraling downward. Is this a trap? My mind starts to wander.
As I make my way down, my heart beats a little faster and I start second-guessing the decision. Finally, I reach the bottom and am confronted by a bright red velvet curtain. Do I open it? Of course.
I pull open the curtain, feeling like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and step into Zlý Časy (“Hard Times”).
Welcome to Czech beer heaven. Within a 15-minute tram ride of the center of Prague, this small brick room is packed with local Czechs, wooden tables and a long bar that runs along the left side. I take a seat, clueless to any of the local beers on tap. There’s not the regular Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen that most pubs serve. This gem of a bar doesn't serve up the large conglomerate beers like many of the pubs in Prague – it specializes in small, local breweries.
After a few moments of mindless staring and feeling discombobulated by the list of beers written in Czech, a local guy named Stanislav chimes in to help. He recommends a locally brewed pilsner, one that's brewed by a father and son on some local farm outside of Prague.
The beer is fantastic. This is not your run of the mill, piss-tasting pilsner that dad and grandpa drink on the back porch – this is top-quality Czech pilsner.
But the people that fill this brick cellar bar are even better. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I chat with Stanislav about everything from beer, culture, politics, hockey, soccer, food and life in a pre/post–Communist era. We’re also joined by another man named Petro, a local window washer who works on the outskirts of Prague. He speaks not a lick of English, but is eager to take part, so Stan acts as our translator. The English/Czech language is no barrier whatsoever. When Stan is unable to translate, smiles and a thumbs up become our communication. (A smile and a thumbs up are universal, after all.)
We sit and chat for a couple more hours before it's time to say goodbye to Zlý Časy. It would be easy to stay longer. A couple of regulars have reserved our bar seats, though, so we're uprooted a bit early.
Just when I think my night's coming to an end, an invitation from Stanislav and Petro is presented: they ask me to join them at one of the local brew houses in the area. Stan says that it's just a few blocks away, and is one of their favorite places in all of Prague, so I decide to join them.
How can I refuse? It's the unexpected, the unplanned, and the world away from time schedules, maps and typical tourist destinations that make traveling so special. Although we're just a few miles from tourist sites like Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge, it's easy to feel much farther removed.
We make the short walk up Sezimova – a dark, quiet street lined with stone brick and beautiful old buildings. We turn right, and arrive at Pivovar Basta. The outside is dark, has a small door with a couple of windows, and appears to be nearly empty.
Upon entering, I'm greeted by the incredible smell of fermenting yeast, hops and brewing beer. It's a beautiful room. The floors are covered in light wood, dark stools and a number of large copper brew tanks. The place is packed.
Fortunately, we secure a seat, where we're later joined by Barbara – a friend of Stan's. She talks about attending nursing school and Czech culture, while Stan talks politics and Petro raves about his passion for AC Sparta, the soccer club based in Prague. We share stories (still being translated for Petro), some laughs and a bond that makes me feel like we've been friends much longer than a few hours. The warmth and hospitality these three show make the night truly special.
I can't help but wish there were more nights like this. Nights filled with great people, conversation and local treasures. As the evening comes to an end, it’s hugs, not handshakes. Gifts, not goodbyes.
Zlý Časy is a place I had read about – a place I sought out because of the reputation for their local brew. But as great as the beer was (some of the best in Prague), it's the three amazing Czech people I met who will remain the lasting memory.