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Requiem for the Bohemian Cafe


Requiem for the Bohemian Cafe

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

News that the Bohemian Cafe will close in September leaves me with mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place and all its high-caloric staple dishes, faux motherland decor, kitsch Czech knickknacks, waitresses from another era, and old-line customers who waddle in and out in the haze of an oncoming food coma, I am one of those customers. I was introduced to the place when I was a child. It was a go-to venue for extended family celebrations on my Polish side, which is the Biga side. Like many of you, I grew up hearing its radio ad jingle on KFAB, “Dumplings and kraut today, at Bohemian Café, draft beer that’s sparkling, plenty of parking, see you at lunch, okay?” and I am certain I will never be able to get it out of my head.

The other side of me is Italian (Pietramale) and of course Omaha’s Little Bohemia enclave is only a dumpling’s throw away from the Little Italy district.

More than once a gathering of Bigas occupied the party room at the Bohemian Cafe when I was growing up. It always seemed like a culturally excotic immersion experience. As the years passed, I continued going. It was one of my late parents’ favorite places to dine at. When they finally moved from North Omaha to South 9th Street right across from Grace University, I actually ended up eating more than ever before at the Bohemian. Usually with both of them or one of them. My brothers long since moved away to Colorado and as far as they were concerned the Bohemian was a must stop.

 

 

The owner of the cafe had it right when he told the World-Herald that a restaurant like his is more than just about the food, it is an emotional experience. Emotions easily rule out reasoning. There’s nothing wrong with the food there. For what it is, it is very good indeed. Unique among eateries here, too. But let’s just say it’s highly doubtful more than, say. 10 percent of its menu items are anywhere in the vicinity of heart healthy and maybe 10 percent of its ingredients are fresh, locally sourced, organic. It’s not the kind of place, I dare say, that has relationships with area small famers and purveyors. That’s just not what it does. That’s just not part of its DNA or character. It is all about doing things the same way. That’s both good and bad, of course.

The local restaurant scene has a few old independent holdovers left around who also remain unchanged. I expect they will all soon be gone, too. Not necessarily because the mass of us are choosing or demanding healthier, fresher options, though more and more of us clearly are, but in fact because there are so many more good restaurants to choose from today than 5, 10, 15 years ago, and each with its own indvidual take on cuisine. The options are staggering. And they simply do things at a higher level. Their food may not always taste as good as the Bohemian’s but it’s comfort good done at a fine dining or gourment level. For about the same price.

The Cafe’s owner acknowledged he and his staff are out of touch with the times, including the need for 24/7 social media branding. If I could make it happen, i would choose to keep the Bohemian going, but with some updates and other changes, while keeping the integrity of what sets it apart. The owner has said he would embrace someone taking it over, It’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t see that occurring. I will miss it. You can be sure i will enjoy at least one more authentic Czech meal there, probably one of its veal dishes, soaking up the delectable richness of that pot liqoured gravy, and happily stagger out in the midst of a diabetic onset episode. if you come upon me in the throes of that delirium, please don’t interfere – it is all part of the experience. And so, South 13th and environs loses another anchor amenity (I miss you Marino’s and St. Wenceslaus and Angies and all the rest). But we do have new amenities in the House of Loom and the Blue Barn. We have reactivated amenities in the Burlington Station becoming the home to KETV. Change happens. You lose things, you get new things.

I just don’t know what I’m going to do to feed my kolache fix come this fall. Oh, I know I can find kolaches elsewhere, but the point is they will never be the same. Same with the sweet and sour cabbage and the bread dumplings. Now, kindly join me in a tribute, nostalgic singalong of “Dumplings and kraut today…” while we knock back a cold dark stout.

 

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe

May 11, 2016 7 comments

For years Omaha’s most famous purveyor of soul food was the Fair Deal Cafe. Its proprietor, the late Charles Hall, served up some righteous fare at his North 24th Street place that was also known as Omaha’s Black City Hall for being a popular spot where community leaders and concerned citizens gathered to discuss civil rights and politics. Mr. Hall and the Fair Deal are gone and sadly the building has been razed. But at least a new development on the site will be taking part of the name as a homage to the history made there and the good times had there. On my blog you can find another story I did that used the Fair Deal as the backdrop for an examination of what makes soul food, soul food. I gathered together some old school black folks to share their wisdom and passion about this cuisine. I called that piece, A Soul Food Summit.

 

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons and The Reader

 

As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.

Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.

Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.

The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.

Fair Deal Cafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.

The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.

In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.

Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”

 

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