Bohemia House - The West Hampstead Club Where Czechs And Slovaks Meet Over A Pilsner

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 20 months ago

Last Updated 02 October 2022

Bohemia House - The West Hampstead Club Where Czechs And Slovaks Meet Over A Pilsner
a posh dining room with red chairs, busts and paintings
The poshest room in the building, complete with a portrait of Elizabeth II. Image: Bohemia House.

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.

A london bus drives past bohemia house and a  Pilsner Urquell sign
Never drive past a Pilsner Urquell sign. Image: Bohemia House.

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.

Czech soldiers and airmen look in the window of a tobacconist's shop at a display of cigarettes and tobacco, somewhere in London in 1940. They are joined by a few British civilians.
Czech soldiers and airmen look in the window of a tobacconist's shop at a display of cigarettes and tobacco in London in 1940. They're joined by a few British civilians. Image: public domain

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 memorial board containing the names of Czechoslovak airmen that fell in RAF services
The memorial board containing the names of Czechoslovak airmen who fell in RAF services. Image: Bohemia House

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.

a function room with foosball and pool tables
One of the function rooms that'll be packed come the next national ice hockey game. Image: Bohemia House

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.

A plate of goulash and dumplings
Goulash actually hails from Hungary, but it's a Czech favourite, and excellently done here — complete with dumplings. Image: Roast Dinners in London

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.

a czech version of camembert, soaked in oil, heaped with pickled
Hermelin — in our humble opinion the finest bar snack ever to grace a bar. Image: Bohemia House

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.

This is not, as we first thought, Sigmund Freud, who lived around the corner. It's Tomáš Masaryk, founder and first president of independent Czechoslovakia. Image: Roast Dinners in London

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.

A delicious glass of pilsner urquell is poured
Oh boy. Image: Bohemia House

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.

A bar area with pilsner urquell bar mats
Pilsner Urquell did not pay us to write this article. Image: Bohemia House

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...

a squiffy plastic chef holding a board of specials including wild boar, duck, carp and trout
Image: M@/Londonist

Bohemia House, 74 West End Lane, Hampstead.