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6/6/2004

Restaurant gets new look, familiar faces

By Paula Aven Gladych
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Former patrons of the Old Prague Inn should prepare their palates.

The original owners of the landmark Central European restaurant are back in business, turning the inn — which closed in January — into the Praha Restaurant & Bar.

The Smetana family bought back the restaurant they sold in 1992 in January. Since the previous owners took the Old Prague Inn name with them, the Smetanas renamed it Praha, which means Prague in Czech.

Located at the corner of Ute Highway and 75th Street, the red brick building with brown wood trim has a freshly painted sign hanging from a post outside and brimming flower boxes outside the windows.

Inside, the family sunk thousands of dollars into a new look.

Newly painted walls, lighter wood trim and crisp new table linens in two shades of pink lighten up a once-dark interior. A new kitchen gleams shiny and clean.

The cuisine has evolved too.

Monica Smetana-Hertrich, the executive chef at the restaurant, said that along with many of the old favorites she used to prepare for the Old Prague Inn, she has added lighter dishes to attract a distinctly non-Eastern European crowd — vegetarians.

Smetana-Hertrich studied cooking in Salzburg, Austria, at the Salzburg Culinary Institute. As the executive chef at a number of five-star restaurants in Austria, she learned about fine wines, exquisite pastries and food she calls “art on a plate.”

The family is “being more innovative” with its cuisine, she said.

“The cuisine in Europe has changed as well. It is different than it was 20 years ago,” she said. “It is not as heavy as it was. We’re gearing away from that, so it will still be tasty and good, but not huge and heavy.”

Praha will have a smaller standard menu with a host of weekly specials, including more fish and vegetarian dishes, Smetana-Hertrich said.

But diehard Prague fans can still find roast duck, Czech dumplings and sauerbraten on the menu.

“Our cuisine is so different than what you can get anywhere else. It’s not your typical Bennigan’s or Chili’s. It is all made here,” she said.

Smetana-Hertrich will cook the food; her mother, Jitka Smetana, will bake the pastries and desserts; and her sister, Judy Smetana, will handle the wine list and bookkeeping for the restaurant.

“I’m excited and scared,” Smetana-Hertrich said.

The trio hopes to attract fans of their original restaurant and also continue to pull in passersby on their way to Estes Park.

“We are fine dining, but it’s a casual and comfortable atmosphere,” Smetana-Hertrich said. “We don’t want people to think it’s black tie.”

Jitka — who started the original restaurant with her husband, Vladimir, in 1977 — said it wasn’t a hard decision to come out of retirement.

As a family, the three ladies sat down to talk about whether they should sell the building or reopen the restaurant after it closed earlier in the year.

“Monica said she would like to have it: ‘Please help me,’” Jitka said.

The Smetanas escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1957. On a cruise vacation to Italy, the couple stepped off the ship in Venice and never returned. They spent two years in a refugee camp before getting a U.S. visa.

The family spent two years in New York City before moving to Berkeley and then San Diego.

In Southern California, the couple bought a coffee shop, which they operated for four and a half years. After falling in love with Colorado on a vacation, they moved to Longmont in 1974.

When the old schoolhouse at the corner of 75th Street and Ute Highway came up for sale, the couple decided to buy it and turn it into a Central European-style restaurant, Jitka said.

The family sold the business in 1992 when Smetana-Hertrich was offered a teaching job at the Culinary Institute in Salzburg. Jitka’s husband passed away in 1996.

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 211, or by e-mail at pavengladych@times-call.com.