One of my most favorite restaurants in my travels over the years has been the Bohemian Cafe in Omaha. My brother-in-law turned me on to the place nearly 30 years ago as it was a favorite Sunday lunch place for his family to go to years ago. Earlier this year, the owners announced that they would be closing the Bohemian Cafe due to a couple factors - the head chef and much of the staff were approaching retirement age, and there has been a declining number of diners over the past few years due to stiff competition in the Omaha restaurant marketplace. It doesn't appear anyone is stepping up to buy the venerable restaurant, so it will be closing later this evening for good. (Photo courtesy Omaha World-Herald)
I've written about the Bohemian Cafe twice on my blog (click here and here, but they were both during the early stages of Road Tips where I was still developing a format and a voice for the blog). As I said, my brother-in-law was the one who told me I needed to go to the Bohemian Cafe when I first started to travel to Omaha for work just over 30 years ago. He grew up 30 miles east of Omaha and it was a Sunday ritual for he and his mom and dad to make the trek down U.S. Highway 6 to Council Bluffs, then crossing over the Missouri River to Omaha on the old Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge. They would then drive to 13th St., take a left and head south about a mile to the Bohemian Cafe on the right hand side. (see map) When he was making the trip in the 50's, the Bohemian Cafe was already over 30 years old.
There were a large number of Czechoslovakian immigrants that settled in Omaha in the late 1800's. Many of the immigrants were from the Bohemia or Moravia regions and by the late 1880's it was the largest ethnic population in Omaha. Many of the immigrants were found south of the downtown Omaha district in an area known as "Little Bohemia". It was an area for commerce, entertainment and faith for the growing Czech population in the area.
In 1924, Louie Macala started selling sandwiches and dinners in a Czech hotel along S. 13th Street. Along with his wife, Rose, they moved to another location in the early 30's a little over a block north of the present day restaurant location and renamed their place Louie Macala Cafe. In 1935, he changed the name to the Bohemian Cafe.
In 1947, Macala sold the Bohemian Cafe to Josef Libor and Ann Kapoun Libor. Macala stayed on for a number of years as the restaurant's chef. In 1959, the Libor's moved the restaurant to its present day space in what was originally a bank, but was a grocery store up to 1959. Ann Libor was responsible for the old world decor inside and the trademark exterior work including the brightly colored tile.
Josef and Ann continued to run the restaurant up to July of 1966 handing over the reins to Mert and Robert Kapoun, Ann's son. The Kapoun family consisted of the parents and four children - Ron, Terry, Bob and Marsha. While the parents worked in the kitchen, the children bussed tables and worked as servers. In 1979, Ron Kapoun became the head chef in the kitchen. Robert and Mert retired a number of years ago with Robert passing away in 2007. The four Kapoun children became co-owners of the Bohemian Cafe and Mert is said to visit the restaurant every day, even into her late 80's.
A number of longtime restaurants in the immediate area - Piccolo Pete's, Caniglia's Venice Inn, and Mr. C's - began to close in recent years, victims of many of the same problems that are causing the Bohemian Cafe to close. Terry Kapoun was the one who broke the news to the staff on May 10 of this year that the restaurant would close toward the end of the September. Some of the staff had been working in the restaurants since the 60's and 70's.
Initially, it was business as usual for the restaurant. But with staff leaving to find other jobs, the Kapoun's were forced to close on Monday's and Tuesday's earlier this summer and they no longer have lunch service through the week, opening at 3:30 Wednesday through Friday. The family was hoping they would be able to sell the restaurant intact and as is to someone, but it appears that didn't happen. The Bohemian Cafe - in business for 92 years - will close later today.
I was in Omaha earlier this summer and I had heard back in May that it was going to be closing. I knew I had to have one last meal in the place. I figured that I'd be able to get right in after getting into Omaha around 6:30 one evening. After all, I never had to wait for a table in all the years I'd been coming to the Bohemian Cafe.
That wasn't the case this evening. The parking lot on the side of the building and directly behind the building were full. The larger overflow parking across S. 13th St. from the restaurant was also full. I ended up finding street parking on William St. just around the corner from the Bohemian Cafe.
When I went inside, there was a line that stretched nearly out the door of people waiting to get a table. The lady who took my name told me that it's been like this since they announced they were closing in May. She said it would be about a 25 to 30 minute wait.
I decided to wait in the bar - the Bohemian Girl - while I waited for my table. I took a seat at the bar and got a mug of Pilsner Urquell. As I sat there for a moment, I thought about the times I came here with my late friend Dave Arnold. We would sit in one of the side dining rooms and eat great, stick-to-your-ribs food, and down many large mugs of Pilsner Urquell. I hoisted one in Dave's honor and memory as I sat at the bar.
I checked with the hostess after about 30 minutes to make sure that I was still on the list. The line was just as long as it was when I first came in. When I checked with her, she said that I could have a small booth near the front of the main dining room. The place was packed, I didn't know if it would be able to get a seat until later on. I decided to take the small booth. I'm not a small guy and it was all I could do to fit comfortably in the booth. And it wasn't that comfortable.
Actually, I would have rather been in the smaller of the two dining rooms. (There's also a dining room for overflow and private events toward the back of the restaurants.) This was the room I ate in many times over the years. The booths were always comfortable and the room was cozy.
The menu at the Bohemian Cafe hasn't changed much - if any - in all the years I've been going there. They have roast turkey, roast duck, chicken fried steak, Polish sausage, breaded chicken cutlets, Czech goulash, roasted or breaded pork loin, and one of my favorites - Svickova, a Czech-style sauerbraten.
That evening, I was torn between two of my other favorites - the burgundy roast beef (in a burgundy gravy sauce), and the always unique boiled beef in dill gravy. It is much better in taste than what it sounds like on the menu. Since I can usually find other places that serve beef in a burgundy sauce, I decided to go with the boiled beef in dill gravy.
Traditionally before the main entree is served at the Bohemian Cafe, you get a basket of bread - it always seems like the bread is a day or two too old - and a choice of salad or liver dumpling soup. I don't like liver, but there's something about the Bohemian Cafe's liver dumpling soup. The broth is light and slightly salty. Dipping the somewhat hard rye bread into the broth is a taste treat beyond compare. The liver dumpling in the broth also has this great beef taste to it. The liver dumpling soup was always a great treat for me.
Along with the boiled beef with the dill gravy I got dumplings and the sweet and sour cabbage. They ladled a healthy amount of the dill gravy on the dumplings. The beef was tender and pulled apart with the cut of a fork. The dill gravy just helped add to overall the taste sensation. The sweet and sour cabbage was excellent, as were the dumplings in the dill gravy. This was a lot of food on the plate. I couldn't finish it all. I felt bad leaving the food that I had left on the plate.
Interestingly, there was an equally long line of people who were in line to pay their bill at the register. I was talking with a gentleman who was there with his family who said they had been dining at the Bohemian Cafe weekly since the Kapoun family announced they were closing. I told him that I hoped that this wouldn't be a repeat of the Berghoff in Chicago when they closed a number of years ago causing large crowds - and long lines - to come to their restaurant one last time, only to reopen less than three months later. That sort of pissed me off, considering we stood in line for over two hours one day to have one last meal at the Berghoff.
It's sort of funny - while my brother-in-law have loved the Bohemian Cafe over the years, our spouse's didn't care for it. My brother-in-law and sister went there a few years ago after her husband had raved about the Bohemian Cafe for years. She didn't see what was so special about the food or the place. I took my wife to the Bohemian Cafe during a trip to Omaha a number of years ago and she, too, couldn't figure out why I loved the place so much. I relayed that story to the gentleman I was standing in line with to pay and he said, "I guess this place is usually a love or hate kind of place with most people."
Well, put me and my brother-in-law on the side of those who loved the Bohemian Cafe. That would also put us in the vast majority of those who visited the restaurant over the years. I know the closing is much more sentimental for my brother-in-law who experienced countless Sunday dinners with his parents as he was growing up. But I'll certainly miss the great food, the large mugs of Pilsner Urquell, and the wonderful liver dumpling soup with the somewhat stale rye bread that I dipped into the broth. It's a shame that no one in the Kapoun family was willing to step forward to continue the family tradition, nor anyone was willing to buy the restaurant as is. The Bohemian Cafe will continue to be one of my all-time favorite restaurants long after it closes its door later today.