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Pot Liquor Love: The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Soon, there will be no more “dumplings and kraut today at Bohemian Cafe” as the venerable Omaha eatery’s familiar jingle went. As you probably know by now, this throwback ethnic restaurant that’s served up authentic Czech, German and Polish cuisine for most of its nine decades is closing September 24. It truly has been a landmark and anchor on South 13th Street for its immersive ethnic experience – from the exterior’s decorative tile and signage’s Old World style lettering to the folk attire of the wait staff to the specialty meat dishes with their rich, sopping-good gravies and sauces. It truly has been a destination place for residents and visitors alike who want something distinctly different.

It may not serve the most refined fare, but the Bohemian Cafe made its reputation specializing in some of the most delicious, satisfying, stick-to-the-ribs meals found in the metro. After 92 years the family-owned restaurant is bowing out of the hyper competitive dining scene knowing its departure is making lots of loyal customers sad. During its long goodbye, lines have been out the door as proof it’s made a lot of folks happy.

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Pot Liquor Love:

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-German-Polish specialties was expected, but sibling co-owners Terry Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz never expected the deluge would start almost immediately. And not let up.

“We made the announcement on a Tuesday (one of two days during the week the cafe’s closed), and that Wednesday we served 500 dinners, where we normally served maybe 225 on a weekday,” said Kapoun. The numbers kept growing. “Thursday we served 600, Friday we served 700, Saturday 800 and then Sunday it dropped back to 650-675. We expected this maybe the end of August, the beginning of September, not the next day,” And certainly not every day since.

“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.

The droves coming for roasted meat in rich gravy, hearty bread dumplings, sweet-sour cabbage, kolaches, strudel and a Pilsner pint, combined with reduced hours, means long lines at the 1406 S. 13th Street eatery. The wait allows time to admire the facade’s decorative tiling whose folk art displays continue inside.

Queues of hungry diners have meant doubling the batches of dumplings and kolaches normally made. The same for the roasted beef, chicken, pork loin and duck. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Cafe ran out of duck one evening.

Head chef Ron Kapoun, another sibling, learned the unwritten recipes from Laddie Svoboda. The slow-cooked meats with special seasonings and pan drippings, cream-laced gravies infuse dishes with deep flavors arrived at by practice and instinct.

Families used to commemorating special occasions and holidays there are returning to relive powerful sense memories. Sentiments get shared with Bogatz and Terry Kapoun’s wife, Steph, who split greeter duties. The Bohemian’s Facebook page is filled with reminiscences and farewells.

Terry Kapoun said several ex-pat Nebraskans have returned just for another meal.

Bogatz said the family’s “seeing customers we haven’t seen for quite a few years.” First-timers are also among the throng and they’re getting turned onto unfamiliar items like svickova, jaeger schnitzel, Czech goulash and liver dumpling soup.

“We’ve had a lot of new people in. They heard about us and they wanted to at least experience it once, and they’ve just loved it. They wish they would have been here before.”

After 92 years in business, 69 in the same family, the Bohemian will be no more unless a new owner steps forward and the younger set of the four-generation clan that’s run it since 1947 decides to continue the tradition. Terry Kapoun’s parents purchased the cafe from his grandparents in 1966 and he and his siblings later took it over. It’s the only job Kapoun and Bogatz have ever had. Their children and grandchildren have all worked there, The full-time wait staff, some on the job 30, 40 years, are regarded as family.

 

 

Bohemian Cafe: 1: liver dumpling soup 2: egg drop soup 3: jäger schnitzel 4: hasenpfeffer

Bohemian Cafe: Get the goulash!

 

Its end follows other beloved stand-alone dining spots now gone: Mr. C’s, French Cafe, Vivace’s, Venice Inn, Piccolo’s, M’s Pub. Only a few remain with such pedigree: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, Gorat’s, Joe Tess Place. Petrow’s, Dundee Dell, Howard’s Charro Cafe.

Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.

“There were so many great restaurants just in this little area (Little Italy-Little Bohemia), and they were all family-owned.” With each loss, he said, Omaha “loses a little bit of its personality and character.”

Each had its own niche. The Bohemian stood out with Czech folk figures flanking the huge neon sign over the entrance, a wait staff attired in traditional garb and that Old World menu.

“To so many people, this is Czechoslovakia in Omaha,” Kapoun said.. “Customers who’ve gone to the Czech Republic tell us when they eat at cafes in Prague it’s just like eating at the Bohemian Cafe. We take pride in giving Czechs and non-Czechs an authentic cuisine experience.”

The owners say that where today’s entrepreneurial indies are apt to move on when the going gets tough, family-owned spots persevere. Kapoun said, “I don’t think there’s been a family restaurant where at times they didn’t pay salaries or had to hold them awhile when things were sluggish. Only in a family restaurant would things carry on this long or the same head chef still be there since 1979.” Ron Kapoun’s been rising at 2:30 a.m. to start cooking at 4 nearly every day for 37 years.

As Marsha Bogatz said, “You sacrifice for the restaurant.”

Even with advancing age and decades of long hours taking their toll, the 64-year-old Kapoun said, “I really thought I’d be working until I was 80 with the kids. It just didn’t work out that way.”

The Cafe’s evocation of homey nostalgia makes folks feel a part of it, which is why Kapoun regards himself the steward of a communal treasure.

“It was always that type of a feel. I’ve never felt like an owner.”

Open Wednesday through Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m. Visit http://www.bohemiancafe.net.

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.

 

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