The Nine Dragons And A Sheep might look like a standard Prague neighborhood corner beer pub from the outside, but it is not.
Certainly not standard inside at all.
The main reason is the owner – the wellspring of the enterprise, Radoslav Radek.
Everyone calls him “Rado.” And sometimes “Rad-Rad, the Rowdy.”
He also is not standard.
The pub had been in his family for a long time – run by his uncle and aunt –
employing nephews and nieces and various in-laws as staff.
There was nothing exceptional about The Dragons in those days – beer, limited food service. Just marginally successful as a business.
Nobody really knew the origin of the name The Nine Dragons and a Sheep.
There were many versions. Uncle Petr declared that all the stories were true,
and if you didn’t believe what you heard, you should make up a story of your own.
While he was in university, Rado took his turn working there – as a general flunky – cleaning up, washing dishes, mopping floors, and filling in for absent staff.
Bored with university and bored with The Dragons, he went backpacker-traveling
with friends. England first. And, for Rado, England, last and only – his friends moved on, but Rado stayed. His Czech pub experience made it easy for him to get work in local English pubs in small towns. He felt at home there. He stayed for three years, learning English, and growing ideas and plans in his mental garden.
Rado liked the ambience of English country pubs – they were more like a village clubhouse than a place just to drink. He enjoyed meeting the regulars every day – they knew his name and he knew theirs. These pubs were the center of the community. The focus was on relationships and conversation. If people wanted canned music and television and Wi-Fi, they could go to the trendy sports bars.
He learned to play darts, and learned English folk songs from the occasional evenings when locals brought fiddles and guitars to play for singing and dancing.
In time Rado learned to play a small accordion and joined in the music-making.
And some Saturday evenings he had the pub crowd dancing to Czech polkas.
Easy – because Rado had that rare kind of vital charm that serves as a catalyst for fun. Simple – he liked people. People liked him.
When his old aunt died, his uncle wanted to retire. He offered The Dragons to anyone in his family who would take over. Nobody was interested.
And Rado had a plan.
Based on his feeling that what The Dragons lacked was personality and imagination. And it lacked the English clubhouse touch. Furthermore, he wanted to share his ownership with a sense of ownership on the part of his neighborhood patrons. He wanted them to think of The Dragon as much theirs as much as his.
Rado came back to Prague.
Financed by his uncle and the rest of the family, he remodeled and revised and enlarged The Dragons. As chance would have it, the bakery next door went out of business the week before Rado returned. He took a long-term lease on the space, and now The Dragons had an annex, a room that still smelled like fresh baked bread. Combining the two spaces was a risk, and remodeling was expensive, but Rado kept it all simple. The result was not something contemporary and upscale.
It was a spacious pub with a theme simply focused on history and people.
“I like the past,” said Rado, “and I want to keep the past present.”
* * * *
This is the plan Rado brought back from England:
First and foremost: Take advantage of what exists – the pub has been there for a long time – it has a certain credibility. A unique name. It’s corner location in the middle of an extensive Prague neighborhood of large apartment buildings couldn’t be better. And, it already has an outside patio in back, and a deck in front.
1. Clean it up and restore it to a timeless feeling of old Prague – but nothing cute.
Get rid of all the tacky advertising and neon signs and visual clutter inside.
2. Serve the best beer and wine and spirits, and the best simple pub food. Have beer and food tastings in the beginning to see what the patrons liked to drink and eat. Ask people what they want. Serve that.
3. Have a full-service espresso menu – the best coffee – Viennese style.
4. Make it more of a community social center than just a place to drink beer.
A neighborhood living room – a home away from home. A place people want
come to and be part of – often. A place that’s civil and sane – a sanctuary.
A place where conversation was possible, welcome, and primary.
The only sign in the pub would say,
“There Are No Strangers Here – Only Friends You Have Not Met Yet.”
5. A list of things not to have:
No canned, recorded music.
No Wi-Fi, and no cell phone use.
No children and no pets.
No smoking except in the far back patio or on the front deck.
6. Staff it like casting a play – the pub as theater.
Hire some older waiters and waitresses – mature – warm, good humored.
Mix in younger staff from the world of entertainment – actors, dancers, singers. Not weird, but talented, creative, imaginative. No visible tattoos or piercings or eccentric dress – maybe even standard uniforms?
The focus should be on the presence of the patrons, not the weirdness of the staff.
7. Seek unexpected, irregular entertainment – Friday, Saturday, but sometimes mid-week, as spontaneous opportunities arose. Not as a stage performance, but entertainers who would mix in with the patrons. Seek surprise.
A magician specializing in close-up card and coin tricks –
A juggler –
An accordion or guitar player –
A ventriloquist –
A flamenco dancer –
A fortune teller – palm reader – a foot reader – Uncle Petr could do that.
Try special fortune cookies – fortune dumplings, maybe – sweet or salty.
Encourage holiday costumes.
Encourage personal celebrations – birthdays, anniversaries.
8. Other possibilities
Maybe personal beer steins for regular customers.
Have a piano – one in good working order.
Know names and birthdays and wedding anniversaries of regular patrons –
Be open to any good ideas from patrons and staff to make all this work.
* * * *
That was the plan Rado worked out and brought home from England.
He had also been inspired by watching re-runs of the successful American
television series, called “Cheers”.
The place where “Where everybody knows your name.”
Rado knew that all of his ideas would not work out – some would falter.
Rado knew he was taking a big risk, and might fail.
But Rado believed in Rado, and he would give it his all.
And Rado, the Rowdy, had the infectious enthusiasm that inspired patrons to believe in his plans.
As Uncle Petr said, “Rado could sell used elephants.”
If you had seen him the day he walked into The Dragons to take over, you would not have bet on his chances for success.
He looked worried and unsure of himself.
A small, young, ordinary, young man – distinguished only by his unruly red hair.
But when he laughed he lit up his surroundings – and when he played his accordion, people danced.
And when he began a sentence with “I’ve got an idea,” people listened.
Rado printed his plans and placed copies on all the tables and at the bar.
The last line on the page said,
“Please help me make this happen.”
And the patrons did.
His plan was so retro and so innocently naive and so impractical that it should not have worked out at all.
But his patrons wanted it to work – and they bought into Rado’s dream.
From time to time they would even bring in old family portraits and hang them on the wall – as a way of laying claim to belonging to The Dragon.
And so, in three short years The Dragons became a neighborhood institution.
The place where everybody wanted to be.
The place where everybody knew your name, sooner or later.
The regulars referred to themselves as The Dragons.
Uncle Petr would have said it was because Rado and The Dragons had answered
his basic question – Who the hell do you think you are?
Rado knew who he was.
And his patrons knew who they were, as well – Dragons, all.