You used to be greeted by a squiffy-looking plastic chef chained out on the pavement — holding up a board of specials like goose, wild boar and carp.
He’s gone now, as is the name ‘Czechoslovak Restaurant’. But little else about this West Hampstead gem has changed lately.
Bohemia House — it was rebranded, following a social media poll in 2020 — resides inside Czechoslovak National House on West End Lane. Look out for the green glow of a Pilsner Urquell sign, oozing through the trees and beckoning you inside.
If you didn’t know what this grandish house — tucked away behind a leafy garden — was, you might mistake it for a B&B or private club. Actually, Czechoslovak National House itself is a club; founded in 1946.
During Europe’s darkest hour in 1940, around 900 Czechoslovakian airmen were stationed in Britain and joined the RAF — despite the fact Neville Chamberlain had recently referenced Czechoslovakia as “a far-away country…of whom we know nothing” (sounds like the kind of daft thing our current PM would say).
The Czech Club was originally in Bedford Place, central London — somewhere for men to catch up in their native tongue over national dishes between postings. Following the war, communism soon reared its head in Czechoslovakia, and the London club remained an important venue for those fleeing from persecution — having moved here to Hampstead a year after the war ended.
In today’s Bohemia House, a resin memorial board hangs in one of the dining areas — it’s a copy of an original brass board now in Prague, displaying the names of Czechoslovakian airmen who fell in battle. Wreaths are still laid here in their memory.
The front room, with its chintzy fireplace and portrait of Elizabeth II, is redolent of Fawlty Towers for all the right reasons, while the other bar and dining areas (there are many) are less formal, sparse spaces, fitted out with pool, foosball, maps of the homeland and heroes from Czechoslovakia (which became the separate countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993).
The club’s ranks swelled following the Soviet Union’s military invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (many of the immigrants from this time still visit Bohemia House) and unsurprisingly, you’ll find tributes to Václav Havel, who became a hugely popular president of Czechoslovakia following the Soviet Union’s fall — and was a talented playwright to boot.
History’s everywhere you look; on the staircase hangs a painting of Tomáš Masaryk, chief founder and first president of independent Czechoslovakia, who worked on preparations of this from his London exile in 1914-1918 (we’d always assumed it was a painting of Sigmund Freud, who used to live down the road, which goes to show how much we know).
It wasn’t till 1997 that this venue opened to the wider public, at which point Londoners were introduced to the uncomplicated delights of Czech and Slovak cuisine.
The bestseller, says Zdenek Kudr, licensee at Bohemia House, is chicken schnitzel with mashed potatoes, followed by beef goulash with bread dumplings (these stodgy discs could soak up an oil spill), and fried cheese with chips and tartare sauce.
Other dishes on the (incredibly good value) menu include gnocchi style Slovak potato dumplings with onion, bacon and sheep cheese (called halusky), braised beef with spicy vegetable creamy sauce and bread dumplings (svickova) and pork schnitzel with boiled potatoes. Roast duck and pork knuckle is especially popular during the weekend — and makes an excellent alternative to the usual roast dinner.
For our money, the hermelin (a sort of Czech camembert steeped in oil and heaped in pickles) is the ultimate bar snack, and is exactly what you’d get dished up in most Czech pubs. All gut-busting fare, and just the stuff for icy winter afternoons (although in London, it rarely reaches minus 20, as it does over there).
The term ‘authentic’ is bandied around plenty, but Bohemia House is the real deal. More or less all of the staff here are from the Czech Republic or Slovakia, and will likely take your order with a dobrý den, or dobrý večer. 20-30% of customers on any given day are Czech or Slovak, coming here to shoot pool, watch ice hockey games, take in a cello recital or take part in goulash-making competitions in the garden during the summer.
The prices can’t quite claim authenticity; Czechs are used to paying around 35Kč (just over a quid) for a Pilsner Urquell back home, and might wince at the £5.50 price tag in Bohemia House. Still in London, that’s not bad going — especially for a beer this tasty.
And now really is the time to address that Pilsner Urquell. The Czechs take their pilsner very seriously — they invented the stuff after all. In Prague, tankers of of Pilsner arrive outside the city’s ‘tankovy’ pubs first thing in the morning, sticking a nozzle into the cellar, and filling it up with gallons of the stuff, which’ll largely be gone come last orders.
Here, the famous pilsner is served in the correct chunky glassware branded with the Pilsner Urquell logo, it’s got a marvellously bitter twang, thanks to the saaz hops — and is the freshest tasting we’ve had in London. It is deceptively drinkable, and tends to make new customers for life. So be warned, that once you come here, you’ll be back for seconds.
Now, we wonder how many Pilsners that drunk old plastic chef had sunk before this photo was taken…
Bohemia House, 74 West End Lane, Hampstead.